Wilde Beest: Uptown Kingston’s latest culinary safari

Wilde Beest executive chef Chris Turgeon at work in the kitchen.

Although the main page of his website boasts “serious food/serious drinks/no serious people,” Chris Turgeon, executive chef of Wilde Beest on Wall Street in Kingston, is seriously earnest about what goes on in the kitchen and what comes out of it. Turgeon teamed up with business partner and sous chef Russell Prickett, along with Eric Donaldson, Oshan Jarow and Greg Ryan, to “fabricate a unique and food-driven restaurant experience unlike anything in the region.” The doors opened last June, and so far, so good, he reports.

“Reviews have been great, and I think people have enjoyed the food for the most part. There’s been a dichotomy for us between a winter crowd and a summer crowd – not just in terms of population, but also demographic. Setting out with a first restaurant, there’s a profound desire to speak with my own voice for the first time and do the food I’m passionate about making. Right out of the gate, we talked about access and not needing people to travel far to eat here. We wanted to make it a fun place to hang out, and keep it laid-back.”

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A self-proclaimed Army brat who doesn’t really have a home, Turgeon has spent the past ten years traveling and cooking. “I’m here by way of Chicago, Austin, Miami. Chicago was sort of formative for me with food,” he says. “I’ve been in this area two years now. It took us about a year to get settled and for me to put my feelers out to look for spaces.”

The décor of Wilde Beest is bright, calm and spare – “We painted ourselves,” says Turgeon – with stuffed pheasants flying off one wall and John James Audubon prints of creatures that hearken back to the 19th-century on another. It fits the historic Stockade District, employing an overall tone of culinary adventure, if not an all-out North American safari.

Referencing how people cooked 100 years ago, Turgeon emphasizes being in close partnership with local providers – particularly with Amy Hepworth of Hepworth Farms, a 400-acre farm in Milton that has been in her family since 1818. Part of this concept is to preserve foods by canning and pickling: “laying up,” as it’s called, for the long cold winter.

In regard to naming what Wilde Beest offers that’s distinct from everyone else Uptown, Turgeon points to the basic differences among chefs. “The way I cook, my experiences as a chef, are all so fundamentally different than anyone else… I spent two years doing Michelin star molecular gastronomy, a very obtuse sciencey angle. I spent other years doing artisan, hand-mixed, wood-fired pizza. So I’ve gone through everything from the most scientific to the most primal; the most basic to the most sophisticated.”

Divided into small plates, large plates and desserts, the omnivorous offerings shift regularly. “We don’t have a set menu. We cook jazz; it changes almost daily.” This month it may be smoked trout with goat cheese mousse; chilled peas with mint, basil, lime, celery, pine nuts, eggplant crème and chili; or grilled pig belly. Next month expect something equally delectable and entirely different. Turgeon says that, beginning in April, the changes will be color-coded and will take place every two months to reflect availability.

“There was always a question about coming here and doing the kind of food that we’re doing, and how it would be received. It’s fine dining, but we’re pulling all the pretention out of it. If anything, it’s just a little bit too highbrow: the lexicon of the menu, the vocabulary and my passion for interesting, new and different things, both in technique and ingredients. It doesn’t really read like anything else around here.

“And with portion sizes, mainly because we frequently purchase things that are prohibitively expensive. For the sake of getting people to try those awesome things – some of them are really amazing – and that being in balance with a threshold on price, we’re always trying to keep it from going over the top. So you end up with small portions.

“It’s hard to strike that balance, because things are not transparent. It’s not always [easy] for the public to understand how much it costs to get some of that stuff to the table. Also, it’s not a pan of mac-and-cheese. I’m not making 120 orders at once and throwing it into a walk-in. Almost everything in our menu has been worked on and made in-house by hand. We’re making our own Worcestershire sauce, our own soy sauce. When you get into those layers of cooking, it’s hard to see how much work is going onto the plate. To me it’s like, wow, there isn’t an entrée on the menu over $30.

“You do know to a certain degree who’s going to walk through your doors. You can look around Kingston at the people you see on the street and the cars they drive. You can have a sense of who they are and what they’re looking for. There’s a large crowd of Brooklyn expats who make up our demographic. It’s that mix of playing to the town and pulling a little bit from the City, and also expressing ourselves. I’m not doing this for the money; believe that.”

When asked if he felt it risky to dive into a new thing in a new place, Turgeon says, “I think [success] is always up to you. There’s always a way to make it work. You learn things. We went through it for six months, and certainly some lessons were learned. Some things we needed to think about: how everybody’s going to approach how they use the restaurant and how we want it to be used and to serve people. There’s always a compromise between the art and craft and the business.”

Compromise with the quality of ingredients, however, is not an option. On that you can count.

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