Monday, April 2, 2012

Did You Celebrate Women’s History Month with the “Girl of Sandwich” at The Grey Horse Tavern

It’s still not that easy to find a woman executive chef heading up the kitchen of a major restaurant.  A lot less easy is finding one who is helping to head up a Real-Food Movement.

But Chef Meredith Machemer is one talented lady. 

And the lucky-girl extra credit goes to her two female owners of the The Grey Horse Tavern: Linda Ringhouse and Irene Dougal.

The profile of Chef Meredith here is excerpted in part, from this reporters upcoming book, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook slated to hit the bookshelves in late May/early June.
To celebrate Women’s History Month and food culture, enjoy this unique food story:

Chef Meredith didn’t always know she wanted to be a chef, but always worked in restaurants during the summers near her home in Rockville Center, Long Island.  

A friend got her job working at Churchill’s restaurant as a pantry fry cook.  She’d never really cooked before but determinedly figured she could do it. 
Nothing gained, nothing lost.
“I wanted to try it out and it turned out to be an amazing experience,” she says delightedly in re-telling of her momentous cooking epiphany.
Like the good daughter she is, she remembers coming home and exclaiming to her mother, “Oh my God!  Look! I made a sandwich.” 
If it wasn’t refrigerator-posting material, it was nevertheless, a life altering experience for Meredith. 

She never attended culinary school; she learned on the job instead.
“It’s been an amazing privilege to work with people who loved their craft and loved to teach it,” she says with utmost sincerity. 

In a stroke of good fortune, she adds, “I never worked for a chef who was screaming.” 
Rather, she described the kitchen cum classroom where, over the course of her career, she asked questions, and they’d show her how it was done.  “I know it sounds unusual, but I’ve only worked in family-like kitchen environments.”

One has to ask if that’s perhaps because she’s a woman, she sought that kind of environment.

“Not at all,” she replies.  In fact, her first professional cooking job was in a corporate position at Legal Seafood, the seafood chain that since it was founded in 1950, prides itself as being a “fish company in the restaurant business.”  But she does say it was the first time the kitchen staff worked alongside a woman.  The vendors were a tough group who would always opt to seek out one of the men first -- not her -- when doing business; an anachronism that persists to this day that still surprises her. 
When they learn she is the executive chef, they somewhat sheepishly remark, “Wow, a girl chef!”
Unaffected, she doesn’t let things like that bother her.
“I had to work a little harder in the beginning,” is the extent of that discussion.
“Now, my kitchen crew is all guys. And there’s never any problem.”

She worked at Legal Seafood for almost five years, defending their attention to not only their “pier to plate” philosophy but also their work with garden-fresh purveyors.  
She claims they only worked with seasonal, sustainable fish to turn out consistent quality meals.  
Here she worked with farm to table pioneer, chef Stephen Cardello for four years. 
When Chef Stephen discovered the Grey Horse Tavern’s 65-seat restaurant and showed Meredith the farm-inspired menu, she remembers she was jealous of what she saw was the creativity and freedom of food expression.  She was feeling stuck in the corporate food world.  She soon joined executive chef Stephen at the Grey Horse Tavern as his sous chef. When Chef Stephen left for Lincoln Center’s Arpeggio restaurant a year later, Chef Meredith took over the reins as the executive chef.

Linda and Irene were visionaries, she thought, seeing how they posted their mission statement to the menu, promising to serve local farm fresh food, including eggs. They only served humanely raised meat, supported local farmers, and artisans. 
They listed all their farmers and fisherman and dairy names and locations on the menu. The restaurant was just opening, but the philosophy and the opportunities were too tempting to pass up. She “interviewed” with Stephen who was looking for a sous chef.

She signed on as the Grey Horse Tavern chef.

Today she uses Satur Farms as she did at Legal Seafood.  Now, Paulette Satur texts Chef Meredith’s smart phone all year; two to three times a week with notices of what’s just been picked, what’s coming in season and what’s new, replete with images.
Chef Meredith continues to maintain the relationships with local growers established from the early days when she first accompanied Chef Stephen.

Given her chance to be completely creative with her food ingredients and cooking, Chef Meredith expanded the restaurant’s sources, citing a roster that reads like a who’s who of the best farmers market: Catapano Farms goat yogurt, local honey dressing, goat cheese; scallops from Mastic, the Long Island fish market that is up the block; Braun’s Fish Market who delivers. Murry’s Ranch for chickens; Myers meat market in Farmingdale for ground beef for burgers; and D’Artagnan’s ranchers she says are determined to do the right thing, providing only grass fed beef. 

In particular, Chef Meredith cites the delicious Long Island clams tasting of their terroir, from the Peconic Bay.
She can especially rhapsodize because of Kevin Cusack from Little Neck, Long Island.
“He clams all year long, even in the winter, dropping off the fresh clams in the afternoon.  She refers to his catch as “Clamtastic!”

Chef Meredith prepares them simply.  For the raw bar? Just open up. 
Or she’ll sauté them with a little locally butchered bacon, fresh oregano and tomato and a just baked loaf of bread with homemade butter. 
To Chef Meredith’s point, it does sound simple.  Yet it also sounds simply, sinfully decadent.
The mix of salty, briny and sweetly acidic is perfect.  She intuitively knows what goes together with the right blend of fresh ingredients.

Chef Meredith and the owners consistently seek out quality, local food sources.
 “On Thursday’s, Irene and I go out to the Organics Today Farm in Islip to get the melons, eggplants and heirloom tomatoes, for example, she explains. 
“In the spring I volunteered at the Farm to help plant,” she beams; unwittingly characterizing the essence of the grower, chef and garden relationship!  
Can’t get much closer to the food source than that.

The only thing they don’t make is the pastry.  All the baking is masterfully done by “Just Amy” in Greenpoint. Her creations hit the right note to pair up with The Grey Horse’s sophisticated but decidedly comfort-food menu items. The cookies, beignets, chocolate ganache and fresh raspberry preserves are favorites with the customers and the restaurant’s employees.   

Chef Meredith likes cooking in every season. 
“There’s always a different aspect that makes it interesting and challenging.” 
She comes at cooking in order to have fun with food and make things that everyone understands. 
“I love slow cooking -- bringing out all the different, unexplored flavors.”
In winter it’s soups, beans, and broth: hearty fare. 
She says she also loves to make tacos and corn tortillas using meats she’s braised for a couple of hours.
She doesn’t mind winter -- with all the complex, slow cooked foods and pickling, but then she can’t wait for spring to come.  “I look forward to the sugar snap peas, and fingerling potatoes.”
She also notes how she loves the contrast of hot to cold such as hot salads with cold chicken or shrimp.

Hands down though, her favorite season to cook is summer. “Summer is so light and easy and simple. 
“I love being outside, using fresh vegetables & fruits -- making a peach and beefsteak tomato salad or local sea scallops.” 
Her favorite thing to cook is smoking BBQ.  “It’s simple and delicious.” 

Chef Meredith comes up with menu ideas when she sees what’s available and fresh at the markets. 
She says it’s an interesting process She professes to have a conversation in her head.
“I refer to the interesting recipes profiles I save in my books.  I research cookbooks.”  She follows that by a lot of talking back and forth with others.
“I might sees things at the market or in the garden and that I can’t wait to use.” 
“Most times I’m working with flavors rather than trying to follow from a written recipe.” 

In what she describes as a visual learning experience  -- perhaps not unlike her start – Chef Meredith goes over things with the cooks. 
They go through a testing process. “The more I make it and work on it, the more I might change it.”
When I know what I want, I’ll get in the ingredients and then, maybe a couple of days later, it will go on the menu,” she explains.

Because of the restaurant’s tavern style and the fact they offer live music, many of the restaurant’s guests come to The Grey Horse Tavern several times a week. 
They come for the food and then stay for the music and art vibe, according to co-owner, Linda.
That can only be a good thing, right?
While most restaurants would envy that kind of customer loyalty, few would disagree it poses another curious challenge of keeping the menu consistently basic but different. 
You can’t bore your customers nor alienate them with things they don’t know or think they won’t like.

Chef Meredith acknowledges there is no turning back though.  She knows The Grey Horse Tavern may be ahead of the curve but they will continue to work hard to do the right thing.   For those who don’t readily “get it,” she admits, they are committed to persuading customers to enjoy the seasonal menu with -- outstanding taste!

Chef Meredith continues to be inspired by so many things.  “I am obsessed with Thomas Keller.
It seems I’m always online checking out Alice Waters.”  I adore Claudia Fleming, North Fork Table & Inn.  I love her cookbook from Gramercy Tavern.  
Also, she says she’s inspired every day that she gets to work with such great people. 
“The owners are amazing, the support and server staff who love the food keep her excited.  And not surprisingly, customers that smile.  She says it’s so great.
“It’s the little things like that that truly make it a pleasure to come to work every day.”

She respects the ingredients.  And keeping the food simple.
“When I’m working in the kitchen and need to eat, I love putting something wonderfully delicious on two pieces of bread.”  
She still marvels at the magic of making something.  “I can make a very cool sandwich!  And that’s something.”  
She can never get over where a simple sandwich took Chef Meredith.

To pre-order my book "The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook" at B&N, Amazon:

The Grey Horse Tavern is located at:
291 Bayport Avenue
Bayport, NY

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