Jennifer Brizzi explores the explosion of local food products
In these times most chefs worth their mettle know that the focus must be local. Startup restaurants have to announce publicly that they source as much as possible from local purveyors. Restaurateurs keep it about community rather than corporate, reduce their carbon footprint by not shipping long distances, encourage sustainable and humane methods of raising or growing foodstuffs, and boast of the flavor that local food that’s been freshly harvested gives to the items on the menu.
Local products are making names for themselves. Hudson Valley foie gras may have jumpstarted the trend, as did our wines. New York City folks have long been supping from the spoils of their marketbasket to the north (us). But now we’re getting a reputation for our grass-fed meats, and for our specialty beverages — from cider made from heritage apples to distilleries now dotting the countryside. Our cheeses win national awards; our charcuterie rivals the best of Europe. Our chocolatiers make imaginative high-end creations, often fair trade and/or flavored with local ingredients. The variety of fruits and vegetables that grow well here is expanding every year.
Besides having a finger on the pulse of today’s food world, and seeing “local” everywhere, how do chefs figure out how to make it work? How do they manage to keep it local as they source and create tempting menu items? Can this skill be taught, like reading, writing, ’rithmetic and knife skills, or is it innate?
Although he was schooled at SUNY Delhi, chef Rob Handel of the Bees Knees Café on Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow credits his frugal grandmother. “While I did have some formal training,” he explains, “my earliest culinary education came from my grandmother. She was an excellent home cook who happened to become a professional cook by circumstance. She spent her life running both her home kitchen and the resort kitchen on a small budget, and as such developed a keen skill for utilizing what she had available to her.”
Handel’s grandmother would forage for foods, knowing what to look for and how to find it. Her farmer friends gave her good deals on surplus foods, and she would make the best use of the bounty. This influenced Handel’s own approach.
“Maximizing the potential of the foods that you have available locally is at the heart of successful local cuisine,” he says. “My best dishes are always the ones that develop organically through taking stock of what produce and other local foods there are and then working backwards from there. This isn’t a method that I learned during my formal education, but one that I learned through helping my grandmother.”
Heather Ridge is committed to local foods for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its high quality. “Commercially grown produce has traveled such a distance by the time that it reaches my kitchen that it really suffers in quality,” he says. “There is also no guarantee as to the farming practices behind its production. As much of our produce as possible comes from local farms that we have a direct relationship with. I know the farmers, their employees, and also how they grow their produce, and I trust them to do a good job.”
At the intimate supper club and with the breakfast and lunch offerings as well, Handel blends this philosophy with a creative spirit. A recent menu featured a steak tartare of hand-cut grass-fed steak with farm-brined nasturtium capers, fermented rye berries and egg yolk, served in a tuille made with Toma Celena (a cheese from Cooperstown Cheese Company). There was a deconstructed pasta carbonara of handmade pasta filled with caramelized onions and ricotta cheese made on the farm, in rich cured pork broth and topped with salt-cured egg yolk.
Handel says he’s excited about new projects at the farm that will give him even more to work with. Like more poultry. “Up until now we’ve raised chicken and turkey each year,” he says, “but this year we’re adding duck, goose, and guinea fowl to the roster.”
There will also be some home-grown hard-to-find produce varieties. “This includes varieties of peppers that I use in my moles,” he says, “plus heirloom beans and polenta, rare Asian greens and uncommon herbs. I’m also looking forward to the warm weather bringing on an assortment of wild mushrooms to work with.”
At Maybelle in Catskill, chef Matthew Smallwood trained at the Culinary Institute of America and got his chops at Blue Hill/Stone Barns in Tarrytown, Swoon Kitchen Bar in Hudson and Another Fork in the Road in Milan. Inspired by the local as well, Smallwood was CIA-trained. His “Comfort Food. Redefined.” menu includes local buttermilk and bacon, pairs fennel and black radish, and currently features a house-made chicken and ramp sausage with foraged ramps, fiddleheads and nettles, plus a duck leg en confit with arugula, flageolet beans and fiddleheads.
The CIA seems to be as committed to local as anyone, and although other than a few specialty gardens they don’t farm on-site. The CIA spends nearly a million dollars a year on local products, according to communications manager Jeff Levine.
“We strongly support Hudson Valley farmers,” he has told me. Fruit and vegetables, mushrooms, dairy, eggs, honey, syrup and meat come from about two dozen farmers and producers who are for the most part within 35 miles of campus. The local food is used in dishes in the on-campus restaurants and as part of the culinary training as well.
CIA associate dean in culinary fundamentals chef Cynthia Keller explained, “Knowing our sources, considering our effects on land and community, and looking at ways to be sustainable: it’s a movement we’re very active in.” The students are learning how local products can enhance what they cook, learning to cook local as they’re learning to cook.
Learning to cook local, whether from culinary school or one’s grandmother, is about more than how far away the food comes. It’s about seasonality as well, a worthy ideal as our growing season starts to gather steam.
“I think that cooking with local ingredients lends a quality to the meal outside of flavor,” says chef Handel of the Bees Knees Cafe. “Dishes prepared in season with local foods just feel ‘right’ at the time that they’re prepared. They not only have a sense of place, but a sense of time within that place.”