Thursday, July 19, 2012

How To Interview The Best Homegrown Chefs for the Cookbook

The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook is the publisher’s most successful pre-order to date and with the book’s retail launch just a month ago, I took stock of the process and life journey to reflect upon the experiences that got the book to this exciting extraordinary publication milestone.
This post is about the first Long Island interviews with the Chefs and the growers who most inspire them.  I bonded with them from the start.  This is how I could write about these artists with respect and love.  I am thrilled that “Newsday” described the book thus: 

“The just-published “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” by Leeann Lavin is a full-color love letter to Long Island restaurants and farms. Lavin profiles 27 of LI's top chefs, each of them paired with a local grower who supplies them with food. The chefs all contributed three recipes….”

Book Reflections:

Dragonflies were dancing in the air, the sun was rising languidly - like it was heavy with a hangover or too full - and I was on the first ferry out of the Garden State’s Atlantic Highlands marina. 
From my smartphone, I pecked out an email to the executive chef at Nick & Toni’s restaurant, Chef Joe Realmuto, and his farmers, Balsam Farms’ Alex Balsam and Ian Calder-Piedmont, along with The Peconic Land Trust’s Scott Chaskey – the farmer who first worked the garden at the restaurant.
“Good morning, lads.  I’m on the first leg of my adventure.” I reconfirmed our interview appointment for the book later that week.

It was July 2009, the last week employees of the Botanic Garden could take the required furlough, er, week without pay (it was the start of much budget-cutting maneuvers). 
I planned to put my week off to good use and scheduled a few days on the East End to conduct the interviews needed for the book. 
I began the adventure with the ferry to town (Manhattan) to catch the Hamptons jitney to journey to the East End. 
It was a splendid start and filled with anticipation.

Upon advice from local friends, I booked my stay at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor. 
The staff and patrons were just like old friends – from day one. 
That’s also when I saw Billy Joel stop in for lunch.  He was right there – on the porch.
The hotel is all wood and creaky in the right spots: a magazine ad for Ralph Lauren came to mind. Except this is real.  

My editors had asked me to add in some chefs from the Hamptons for what was then the first book in the series, the Master Chefs and their Gardens of New York – as in City.
So this East End adventure was to interview the chefs who passed the screening and scrutiny from my extensive research, indicating they were true homegrown culinary artists. 
Chef Anna Pump agreed to a phone interview, as did chefs Gerry Hayden and Claudia Fleming from The North Fork Table & Inn.

The Hamptons Bicycle Travel Tour

To this day I don’t regret doing the region via a bicycle.  
It's been said, "The best thing about a biking holiday is how you experience a place differently and get a feel for its way of life." I couldn't agree more.

I rented a bike across the street from the American Hotel and rode from Sag Harbor to my East Hampton and North Fork interviews.

Altogether, it was some 40-plus miles on the bike.  It sounds a bit more romantic than it was – the highway between the villages being just an open road. 

Biking around Sag Harbor and across Shelter Island to the North Fork was lovely.
It was pure enchantment to glide onto the ferryboats to and from Shelter Island to get to the opposite tines of the Two Forks – and to watch the land slip away on one side and emerge on the other. 
In between: a nice time to dream.  With seagulls circling overhead in the clear blue sky.  Passing pleasure and fishing boats. Looking forward to the chefs and farmers I was to talk to; it was a grand interlude.

I got turned ‘round a bit on my trip to interview Chef Michael Rozzi in the East Hampton restaurant Della Femina.  (now the East Hampton Grill).
The bike shop said go to the end of 27 and take a left.  I must’ve turned too soon at what seemed like the end and well, I “ended” up circling around wooded hills, of all things, (overall, it’s rather flat there) dotted by some pretty big homes.  This being mid-week, there really were no cars on the road, which was nice. But not so good when it came to asking somebody for directions. 

Finally, my pride set aside, I stopped and called chef Michael to let him know of the situation as I was now going to be late for the interview.
Well, it was nothing short of a fairy tale miracle. 
Chef and his wife were “right around the corner” or what passes for a corner in that wooded area. 
In no more time than it takes to say East Hampton – they found me and my Little Red Riding Hood dilemma, whisking the bike and me to the restaurant.

Chef Michael Rozzi
There is an innate ease about Chef Michael, and he was a good interview. He is a natural storyteller. We talked at length about the early days of the Hamptons: Baymen, farm stands and fishermen, his culinary school education, restaurant training and garden ingredient inspirations. 
Chef Michael drove me back to Sag Harbor, too.  After all, I had to change and get ready for dinner. He invited me to be a guest of the restaurant! I enjoyed fresh, Long Island oysters – my favorite, bass, local Long Island wine, homemade catsup – using the bruised tomatoes from Balsam Farms, homemade Long Island potato chips and fresh berry homemade ice cream.  Good think I wasn’t riding my back to the hotel after this delicious meal!  

The Next Day
However, bike riding back to East Hampton for the Chef Joe Realmuto and farmer interviews at Nick & Toni’s the following day, I had no real experience to gauge the travel time -- having been “lost” and then driven back.
When I arrived at the fabled restaurant a tad late, the very tall Chef Joe – made all the more imposing because he was standing on the stone wall of the restaurant’s garden - gazed down upon me and asked, “You rode your bike here?  From Sag Harbor?”
I felt a tad awkward.
“Yes.” I had to confess, while dismounting.   “Is that weird?” I countered, hoping to get to the root of the issue.
“Well, kinda,” he replied, looking a bit askance. Or was it curious approval?

And that was my introduction…
I enjoyed a very interesting interview in the beautiful, art-filled Nick & Toni’s restaurant with Chef Joe and the three farmers. 
They all appeared cautious, yet I could sense there existed incredible authenticity among these working professionals and that is readily apparent from their stories.  There was genuineness in describing their work, seemingly confounded that anyone would write a book about their daily challenges. To them it was just a matter of “this is what we do.”

Scott Chaskey, poet, farmer and author, had written a very successful and seminal book:  This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm and he was spot-on in his responses to my questions about growing and eating local food.  Bear in mind that in 2009, locavore and eating local food had not yet blossomed onto the main stage yet. 
Chaskey was already an organic farming expert and not surprisingly, that is why Jeff Salaway, the husband partner with his wife Toni Ross, selected Chaskey to advise on making the kitchen garden at the restaurant.
And if I knew last fall that Scott was so friendly with Christie Brinkley, I would’ve tapped him for an introduction to ask Ms. Brinkley for a book comment or “blurb.”  
(Hate that moniker: book blurb… sounds crass but that is the publishing terminology.)

But I digress… 

Below, at the end of this post, is the initial full-length edited profile for Chef Joe and his farmers where you can read in detail about this team’s pioneering leadership and passion for fresh-from-the-garden ingredients long before it became fashionable anywhere – even in the tony Hamptons.
That is why I sought these chefs and their growers. They have been at the vanguard – nay the ramparts - of creating culinary art using only the best local ingredients. 
Farmer's Market Fridays @ Nick & Toni's

Chef Joe Realmuto, Nick & Toni's Photo Shoot for the book
Farmers Ian and Scott (R)

Chef Joe Realmuto in the Nick & Toni's Kitchen Garden video

I returned to Sag Harbor via the bicycle, thank you very much. 

Day 3
And the next day I luxuriated in the bike trip from Sag Harbor, across Shelter Island, to the North Fork’s Satur Farms. The rolling scenery was exquisite. I fell in love with the farmland and sandy beaches on this patch of historic island and retreat. 

The vast farmland area here seemed endless, stretching to the horizon. I arrived in bucolic Cutchogue to be met here again with Chef and now farmer Eberhard Muller, exclaiming about my bike transportation. 
“Jesus Christ! You rode your bike here!” was chef  Eberhard’s incredulous first “hello.” 
Too funny.

In no time at all, I was in the cab of Chef Eberhard’s truck that looked like something straight out of the “Grapes of Wrath.”
We were soon driving at what I thought was a bit of a breakneck speed through the fields of their extensive farm: nearly 200 acres of colorfully planted, pristine rows of vegetables, herbs and spices.  
Over bumps and around workers who he called out to, swerves to get round to give some direction on the picking and loading of the fresh produce on their Satur-branded trucks to distribute directly – that very same day -- to restaurants and food markets in town and the tri-state area.
I had my notepad, video and still camera, and recorder to balance while writing down chef’s answers to the questions. Over the din of the truck’s engine.  

I was earnestly trying to make the best use of chef’s time and get everything I needed and look professional. 
But in hindsight, it was all pretty comical. Balancing is a lost art…

Chef Eberhard possesses an amazing biography and his profile could be a book unto itself.  Along with his wife Paulette, who is the horticultural brains and talent behind their successful Satur Farms operation, I’m sure they can write one in the future. 
The couple turned their love and their love of fresh, homegrown produce into a very successful business, making up the rules, writing the business plan, and creating the infrastructure as they went along.  
Every chef in the New York metro area, along with loyal food store customers, are grateful for their commitment to growing real, fresh, flavorful food, and the pioneering leadership to build an operation that gets it to the rest of us.

Their home on the farm is rather Andrew Wyeth looking and perfect for entertaining their food-focused friends and family  -- and media, who often come calling.

I left Satur Farms impressed and proud.

I rode my bike back to Sag Harbor with relished abandon – and purpose. I had to make it to the bike shop before it closed. I was to leave the quaint fishing village of Sag Harbor the next day and didn’t want to pay another day’s rental.

Like a movie script – the two ferries – one from the North Fork to Shelter Island and then Shelter Island to Sag Harbor – arrived in port just as I pedaled up to the docks where they tie up to welcome passengers – on foot, in-cars, or on bikes.   
I raced over the last bridge and glided into the bike shop just before they locked up.

Satisfied, I knew I was in for a well-deserved treat. 
I met The American Hotel garden designer and caretaker, baker and garden writer, Peter Garnham for martini’s and fresh local oysters at the well-appointed bar. 
We had a grand time. 
I met a lot of wonderful, helpful and friendly people there. Everybody seemed so accomplished too.

Edited, First Draft of Chef Joe Realmuto Profile from the first manuscript: (longer version!)
Chef Joe Realmuto

There is perhaps no better example of the nexus of kitchen, garden, and fine art than Nick & Toni’s restaurant in East Hampton, Long Island.
Launched more than twenty years ago as the love child of husband-and-wife team Jeff Salaway and Toni Ross, Nick & Toni’s has been a phenomenal success from the start. The two Manhattan restaurateurs were also acclaimed fine artists and avowed environmentalists with an unfailing commitment to local foods and the culinary arts. The dining rooms, terraces, and onsite garden at Nick & Toni’s are graced with fine art, and the menu illustrates their commitment to keeping local food on the plates.
It was a love of food and gardens that originally led Salaway and Ross to move to the Hamptons and grow food with a group of like-minded twenty-somethings in the area’s community of farms. They were influenced by their travels to Europe and the Old World way of thinking that “if you have a restaurant, you have a garden!” Four years after they launched the restaurant, they invited gardening instructor Scott Chaskey from Quail Hill Farm, a stewardship project of the Peconic Land Trust, and his team of farmers and horticulturalists to lend their expertise to the restaurant’s onsite kitchen garden. It took four years to carve out the garden, Chaskey recalls. Today, he and his team use cover crops of winter rye and field peas or bell beans (legumes), dunk all plants into a fish emulsion before planting, and religiously add four tons of compost every year. Delineating the edge of the garden are sculptures by Salaway, who died in a car accident in 2001. His artistic works serve as the perfect transition between the garden’s picturesque fruits and vegetables and the culinary art Chef Joe Realmuto creates in the kitchen. Having worked at Nick & Toni’s for nearly twenty years, Joe has grown up steeped in the owners’ farm-to-table credo and follows it in his menus.
Joe recognizes the ongoing influence he can exert on the local-food movement, given his position and the restaurant’s mission. Consequently, he invests his time and talents in a number of education-based outreach efforts, including one-on-one conversations with customers, staff training, in-school gardening and cooking programs for students and their teachers, and sponsorship of community events.
Joe works closely with Chaskey and his team to plan the a season’s succession of plantings in the restaurant’s garden. Introducing new and different varieties of foods adds interest to the growing season.
“We usually repeat a lot of things from one year to the next, but part of the joy of the garden is discovering these new things and figuring out what to do with them,” Joe says. He describes with relish the year he and his chefs were picking vegetables in the garden and spotted some knobby-looking items.
“They looked like orange zebra-striped heirloom tomatoes,” Joe says. The chefs had no idea what they were. Turns out they were Turkish heirloom eggplants. “Freaky but delicious!” he says.
Chaskey echoes the chef’s sentiment about finding new foods: “Farming is a lot of tractoring and hoeing. Part of our joy is discovering and growing new and exciting plant varieties.”
Joe cultivates not only his relationship with Chaskey and the restaurant garden, but also his one-on-one connections with local farmers, such as Ian Calder-Piedmonte and Alex Balsam, owners of Balsam Farms. A large part of the food Joe uses that isn’t harvested from the restaurant’s own garden comes from Balsam Farms, and the Nick & Toni’s chef helps decide what the farm plants. For example, in March, he’ll sit down with the farmers and their catalogs and select foods he knows he’ll want for the seasonal themes the restaurant has established.
“It’s nice to be able to work directly with Alex and Ian and tell them what we want. We need herbs and vegetables and fruit for our Italian recipes rather than some of the Asian greens they were growing—and they can do that for us,” Joe says.
For Alex and Ian’s part, “We love working with someone who appreciates the subtle differences and more obscure crops we grow,” Alex says. The farm couldn’t survive if it merely grew staples such as tomatoes and corn. Working directly with chefs in the area allows growers to explore and experiment with heirloom and unusual, new varieties. It also allows them bring their produce to a wider clientele. Local chefs like Joe encourage people to understand the provenance of the food they’re eating and why it’s important to know the sources of their food.
The intensive staff training at Nick & Toni’s ensures that the front line is well informed about the in-season, fresh foods on the menu. Daily staff meetings include sampling the day’s menu additions. At the end of the session, everyone—from the busboy to the waiters—is expected to not only recite the menu, but also be able to explain where the foods originated.
The menu itself tells the story of the food. Printed daily, it includes descriptions of the recipes, a history of the farmer and the farm where the ingredients were grown, the reason Nick & Toni’s has chosen the food as part of the slow-food movement, and the reason the particular food is good for the community and the environment. Even the green hickory that’s used for the barbecue and the oak used in the restaurant’s signature wood-burning oven is from local sources.
When asked if he can taste the terroir of a garden fresh vegetable or fruit, Joe says, “I can taste the sweetness of the just-picked corn versus the day-or-more-old variety. I can taste the freshness.”
Joe came to cooking by way of his cultural heritage. Part of a happy Italian family that celebrated food, Joe and his siblings worked at the Villa Russo, a local Italian catering hall in Queens, where they grew up. His first job there was running food from the kitchen to the buffet table. Later, at age sixteen, he nabbed an opportunity to work in the kitchen. He worked every night after school, prepping for the weekend events, and then on Saturday and Sunday he worked doubles prepping for the catering-hall parties.
“A lot of my social life was built around my work,” he says. Consequently, he hung out with chefs, who, in turn, tempered his outlook about food and his career.
After graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1993, he worked briefly at the River Café in New York City. Called “the Harvard Business School of the culinary world” and “the restaurant that launched a thousand chefs,” the River Café was an ideal place to begin a career. It is also widely acknowledged as the first restaurant to seek out regional growers and artisanal food producers and to build relationships with them (as opposed to “dialing and buying” in bulk from wholesale suppliers). In this environment, Joe was introduced to a nascent and emerging approach to fresher food resources.
When Joe started at Nick & Toni’s in 1993, the prospects for local farmers were bleak. Many were suffering; far-away agribusinesses had gutted their ability to continue farming. They couldn’t afford to ignore the real estate bonanza being offered to them—the land values were too high. For many, there seemed no alternative to selling their farms.
But with the new millennium came the new farm-to-table and slow-food movements. Farms started to make a comeback, albeit in a different footprint. Today’s family farms are smaller—some are only an acre or half an acre—and grow a variety of foods. Selling wholesale to restaurants accounts for almost 80 percent of their volume. And with the support of their partner chefs, growers look to stretch their food-producing seasons with cold frames.
The products from these local sources fit right in with Joe’s “simple is better; simple is more” approach to cooking. His ideal simple-is-better meal: a delicious panzanella salad made with fresh-caught striped bass, just-picked basil, lettuce, and tomatoes, mixed with home-baked, now-stale bread croutons.
“That’s an incredible fresh meal with flavors that just burst!” he says. “To be able to go out to pick arugula from the garden so that it’s got bite and is peppery, and get tomatoes that are sweet, no starch in them—nothing can compare with that. I’ve always appreciated the product more than the technique. The biggest thing for me is freshness. It is the undeniable essence of flavor.”
As part of Nick & Toni’s fresh-from-the-garden paradigm and its support for local farmers and artisanal food makers, Jeff Salaway worked to provide Bridgehampton’s Hayground School with a state-of-the-art kitchen/classroom supported by a science lab, garden, and greenhouse. According Lukas Weinstein, the school’s administrative coordinator, “At Hayground, the three Rs can sometimes stand for recipe, roast, and roux, since one of our most innovative features is Jeff’s Kitchen.”
Says Toni Ross, “Jeff believed that the growing, preparation, and sharing of food is a primal human experience and the foundation of family and community.” To date, local celebrity chefs have donated nearly a million dollars for the completion of Jeff’s Kitchen.
Joe and the restaurant’s staff are also teaching children how to grow and cook their own food as part of Spring Seedlings, an edible-schoolyard project Joe and fellow chef Bryan Futerman of Foody’s restaurant established Springs, Long Island. Their efforts helped erect twenty-by-fifty-foot greenhouses at Springs Public School in East Hampton and hired food educators to work with the school’s teachers.
As Joe and his “family of farmers” think of the future, they look for ways to keep the farm-to-table movement going. The most important task now is helping local farmers fight the temptation to sell their farmland, which is worth so much more for development than it is for agriculture. Fortunately, local homeowners and the tourist industry recognize the importance of keeping Long Island farms alive.
“They [the community] want us to succeed,” says Ian Calder-Piedmonte of Balsam Farms.
And if Joe Realmuto has anything to do with it, they will. Together, chefs like Joe and farms like Balsam are connecting food and people in a meaningful and enduring way.

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