Monday, March 19, 2012

Exploring the bond between Chefs and their Growers

When this time last year, my book, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook doubled in size, I felt more than determined to single out those chefs -- and the growers who inspire them – who are the thought leaders and “hustlers” for sustainability and local ingredients, to add to the outstanding roster I worked so painstakingly to realize  -- for what was soon to be the “first phase” of the book.

The challenge was finding those chefs and growers now in the less, how shall we say, less celebrated areas of Long Island. Unlike Manhattan – or other big, bright lights/big city locales, along with the Hamptons where, where there was more of the whisperings of the burgeoning food movement’s pursuit of locally-grown and made foodstuffs.

When I started the book concept in 2003, there were far too few of the master chefs who set their teeth on this farm and fine to table approach to the culinary arts. 
For that matter, there are still far too few…

Even in 2007 and ‘08 when I began the interviews, I needed to really hunt and dig and search for potential chef candidates.  Bear in mind there were no online foodie blogs to speak of, nor newsletters lauding the locavores.
Even in Food Heaven, aka New York City.
My list for Gotham began to grow with the chefs who worked quietly and passionately to build and expand the Greenmarkets and fish markets and coordinate resources and deliveries from upstate food sheds.
Michael Anthony: Gramercy Tavern, Peter Hoffman: Savoy and Back Forty, Marc Meyer:  Cookshop and Five Points; Mario Batali: Babbo and Del Posto and...); and Dan Barber, Blue Hill, were on the premiere list of New York City-based master chefs – and who will be featured in the-next in-the-queue Homegrown book.

At that time, very few, if any, chefs had public relations staff.  After researching and searching the internet and news stories and farmers markets, I called the chefs and restaurants straight away.  Sometimes I needed persistence, and other times I needed to cajole in order to convince the chefs of the importance of their leadership and culinary work.  In my experience, most of the Homegrown chefs are quite humble – usually not aware of their impact, as they are so busy crediting and nurturing the growers who inspire them, not to mention their kitchen and restaurant staffs.

I did the interviews live, in the restaurants, with the chefs, recording and writing madly in my notebook, altogether awed to in the presence of such talent and determined drive.
I was extremely honored to have been the first one to interview master chef Dan Barber the day after he was named the James Beard award winner for Best Chef in America.  I was scooting over from the apartment on Fifth Avenue and chef Dan was texting he’d be a bit late
No worries for me, I assured him. 
New York is like that.  Flex time on steroids.
We do so much, and schedules collide.
I got to Blue Hill restaurant and stepping down into the cool dimmed, dining room, noticed the abundant floral arrangements adorning the bar top like a special events tablescape.  It was like the Frank Sinatra ballad, “One for my baby and One for the Road in that the only folks in the place were me, the man cleaning the floor and the woman quietly making order of the phone and operations.   Not long after, she let me know that chef Dan would be arriving soon; he was on the way.  She somewhat conspiratorially shared that he was a tad late because of last night.  Hmmm.  “He won the James Beard award.”  What?? I picked up the NY Times Dining section that I had saved to savor later. (I learned my lesson – I read this Wednesday feature section first, and now I read on Twitter the night before!”)
Soon enough, Dan arrived for the interview.  And you know what, he was so humble; he never even brought up a word about the James Beard award! Why didn’t I?

This remarkable attitude and view toward what it is to be an executive chef and restaurant owner was an inspiring love-at-first-talk/old school manners and humility. 

The fact that these early leaders’ vision was new and filled a need for good locally grown and raised food, in fact, launched an era of inspired attention and passion surrounding food security, and quality and farmer and school children welfare and taste for real honest-to-goodness, homegrown food.

It felt like a tsunami of forces coalescing.
It was exhilarating. To be on the cusp of culinary discovery.
Suddenly it seemed, there were glamorous culinary benefits to raise monies for the greenmarkets, the farmers and the school gardens.
Camera crews were peeking out at the Greenmarket almost as much as the new green shoots were.
TV shows took Julia Child’s on-camera cooking t o new heights of more than cooking. 
Now, cooking shows sprouted up like, well, mushrooms.  Watching chefs cook and compete was a national pastime – not unlike sports.  Top Chef, Master Chefs, Celebrity Chefs – chefs were now rock stars.
There was a palpable thrill.  And I could not wait to showcase and help tell their stories.

It was after completing the nearly 20 NYC-based chef interviews, when I was asked by editor to add in the master chefs of the Hamptons, I thought,
“Why not?"

I soon found myself researching the best of the best on the East End of Long Island and was delighted to discover the half a dozen or so chefs I needed to complete the NYC book.
I learned the Hampton Jitney schedule and the hocus pocus of seeming to wait on otherwise unheralded Manhattan street corners, armed with only what appeared to me as a secret mob-inspired direction like: “Meet up at the corner of Lexington and 38th “ or Third and 47th 

It was a perfectly wonderful way to journey to the land of sea and farms and celebrities though.  And once in Sag Harbor, I landed right across the street from the most charming lodging, recommend to me by Peter Garnham, writer and farmer extraordinaire and my soon-to-be British-born sherpa of all things Hamptons – and a fellow oyster-lover to boot.
The American Hotel was someplace out of Central Casting and it was perfect for me.  The staff there made me feel like I was home from day one.
I’ve written before about how well appointed the place is – like something out of a Ralph Lauren ad.

After greetings and getting the lay of the land there, I quickly unpacked my things, loving the armoire and the big bed and desk – all too perfect for a writer I thought. 
I made my way back downstairs for a dining room lunch – with my Mac – in order to continue writing – and whom do I spot right off the bat?  Billy Joel.
Yes, this is going to my kind of place, I smiled.

I decided that to really appreciate the experience of being there, “in the Hamptons” I would rent a bike to get to my interview appointments, rather than drive around.  This way I could see the landscape, the gardens and the architecture.

I didn’t know until chef Joe Realmuto quizzically (or astoundingly) watched me disembark from the bike at East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s restaurant and farm out back, and hearing him say, “Did you ride your bike here from Sag Harbor?” that I had the surest feeling that this is not the norm.
“Yes,” I replied.  “Is that crazy?” I added for assurance.  “Well, kinda” he offered.

I was already a bit late, having mis-judged the travel time on bike (I had gotten a bit turned round the day before when chef Michael Rozzi fortuitously happened to be driving with his wife not too far away and he came and picked me up – bike in tow in the back of the SUV for our appointed interview at the Della Femina restaurant.

My next bike trip for the interviews was to the North Fork – via two ferries – to Satur Farms…

Next up:  the adventure trip to North Shore on the bicycle.

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