Chef spotlight: Local culinary wizards give back to needy farm - PHOTOS
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • October 29, 2012 @ 1:10pm
It’s easy to separate the farm-to-table process, especially as Americans. We may sit down at a Buffalo restaurant, chatting about Hurricane Sandy while noshing on a pork chop sandwich and a side salad, comfortably oblivious to the origin of what we’re eating.
Fortunately for eight Western New York chefs representative of the farm-to-table movement that’s caught on in many areas of the U.S., the local relationships between chefs and farmers not only result in higher-quality, incomparably-fresh dishes at restaurants, but support the livelihood of diligent farmers on the fringes of Western New York.
At last week’s A Big Fuss at Artisan Kitchens and Baths, a Feed Your Soul event intended to raise money for an anonymous farm in need, I had the privilege of speaking to seven notable chefs on their interpretations of local food sourcing, approaches to finding a suitable farm and the value of their relationships with local farmers.
Ross Warhol (photo below), the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua Institution.
Dish: Painted Meadows rabbit sausage with fig and Amablu St. Pete’s bleu. Served with fennel slaw, green apple mustard and spiced pumpkin fries.
Explanation: In one of the most coveted opportunities for any American chef, Warhol was the featured chef in the James Beard Foundation dinner as “the Empire State Rising Star” on Oct. 19. Crafting a “sous vide Painted Meadows Farms rabbit saddle,” for one of the Beard dinner choices, Warhol had a considerable amount of Painted Meadow rabbit legs remaining that he refused to waste. Adding a little T-Meadow Farms pork belly to the sausage mixture, Warhol boasted a Big Fuss dish that combined moderately spicy, tender sausage with crunchy slaw and sweet green apple mustard. The taste wasn’t gamey at all, and it had an airy quality—not dense whatsoever. The spicy pumpkin fries added a vicious kick to complement the rabbit sausage.
Comment on local farms: At the Athenaeum, Warhol tries to include an ingredient that’s locally sourced in his daily menu. The chef admitted that he’s an aspiring farmer himself, having farmed his own 70’ x 70’ plot of land and produced 400 pounds of heirloom tomatoes as well as strawberries, blueberries, cauliflower and broccoli.
“I’d love to retire are 45 and start my own farm,” Warhol said while rapidly putting together several rabbit sausages. “I want to return the favor that farmers have shown me by producing quality ingredients myself. I want my culinary work to come full circle.”
Chris Dorsaneo (photo below, far right), Lloyd Taco Truck:
Dish: Arepa, a Colombian corn cake, Spar’s Sausage, seared Schneider’s shrimp and jicama slaw.
Explanation: Arepa—a good opportunity to roll your “r"s—is traditional Colombian street food that heaps a number of different ingredients on top of a dense corn cake. A relative of El Salvador’s papusas, the arepa was a mildly spicy “sizzling meat on warm bread” dish—a quick to create option that was joined by a Schneider’s shrimp—still with its head attached.
Comment on local food producers: Lloyd is quite picky when it comes to seafood, and their fish tacos—wildly popular during Lent—are easily my favorite choice from the taco truck. Asked why he trusts Spar’s, Schneider’s and T-Meadow Farms over other local producers, Dorsaneo mentioned that this trio could keep pace with the volume of Lloyd’s business—which, given the popularity of mobile food in Buffalo—is quite the achievement.
Bruce Wieszala, chef at Carmelo’s in Lewiston
Dish: Banh mi with T-Meadow Farm pork belly and tete de cochon.
Explanation: Pork belly seems to be the hip meat of the present time, as it’s becoming preferable to bacon in some circles (gasp!). The fattiness of pork belly is its greatest allure, in my mind at least, and paired with a crunchy baguette and head cheese—yes, that’s essentially what tete de cochon means in French—the result is a delectable take on the Vietnamese sandwich.
“You can’t find good banh mi in Buffalo,” Wieszala said longingly. “I like to introduce people to new things, lesser familiar things.”
Comment on local farms: My chat with Wieszala was a little more in-depth than the others, as we discussed how some restaurants boast they’re buying from local distributors like Tarantino Foods that acquire produce and meat from outside New York. Last year, Wieszala made waves by hollowing out a whole T-Meadow Farms pig. While banh mi is more tame, the Lewiston chef couldn’t help but sing the praises of T-Meadow.
“I use the stuff exclusively,” Wieszala admitted. “I haven’t found anything that compares to the quality there—I don’t know if it’s the land or how the pigs are treated. I’ve been there three or four times the past year.”
Adam Goetz from Sample Restaurant.
Dish: Allentown sunchoke, mint and housemade ricotta ravioli with lemon butternut vinaigrette and spicy vanilla bacon powder.
Explanation: Since I was utterly clueless what a sunchoke was, Goetz explained that the root is often dubbed the “Jerusalem artichoke.” Mildly sweet and nutty in flavor, the large bright yellow ravioli mixed creamy, minty and spicy as well—it was definitely a risk, one for the cultured palate.
Comment on local farms: Goetz didn’t turn to a Dan Oles or a Painted Meadows for his ingredients—he turned to a neighbor of his Allentown restaurant, a fellow named Matt who used to work for him. Matt’s sunchoke crop was bountiful, and Goetz was more than willing to capitalize on the surplus.
“You can’t do much more local than that,” Goetz said of his friend’s nearby garden, which also produced the mint in the dish. “It’s great to see guys like Steve (Gedra) take this local movement even farther than I imagined, though. It’s a whole new level than when I started. That’s the point of all this, right?”
Steve Gedra, Bistro Europa
Dish: Promised Land CSA (Dan Ole’s Farm) squash gnudi with amaretti cookies.
Explanation: “It’s like the filling of a squash ravioli without the shell,” Gedra explained to me as he rushed from serving table to the stove at a rather alarming rate. With the knowledge of the rabbit and pork belly that was employed elsewhere at A Big Fuss, Gedra wanted to introduce a rather simple vegetarian dish. The acorn squash was smooth and buttery, evened out by the crunch of the amaretti cookie flakes that were strewn along the sides. As S.J. would say, the dish “tasted like autumn.”
Comments on local farms: Gedra lavished praise on Dan Oles, who runs a produce farm on the Alden-Darien border and recently dealt with the loss of a barn and substantial equipment. From an outsider’s perspective, it was fascinating to see the degree of respect and gratefulness the chefs showed when they saw Oles make an appearance at A Big Fuss.
James Roberts, Park Country Club
Dish: “The Bunny Hop”—hot and cold confit rabbit terrine with stone fruit agrodolce.
Explanation: Probably the most complex dish of A Big Fuss in terms of preparation, “The Bunny Hop” took 20 hours to create. Like Warhol, Roberts was able to highlight the versatility of rabbit meat—an option not frequently seen in Buffalo. In particular, Roberts lauded the accents of the stone fruits (cherries, peaches, apricots, etc), which he described as bearing “dark and heavy fruit flavors with a touch of honey.” The fruit and rabbit mixture was daring and tasted better than I anticipated.
Comments on local farms: Roberts praised the work of Bonnie George, the owner of Painted Meadow Farms in Franklinville, who donated the rabbit for A Big Fuss.
“Bonnie raises the most beautiful, stress-free animals,” Roberts explained. “Goats, rabbits, geese, ducks and so forth—she’s committed to simplicity, and there’s no one more deserving of our support.”
When asked what he expected from a local farm that he’d source from, Roberts responded: “I want them to believe in what they’re doing. They should be excited about their farm as I am about my food. If we share the same enthusiasm, there’s an instant connection between us.”
Jim Guarino (photo below, on right), Shango Bistro
Dish: Smoked BRD Farm boar belly biscuits with pepper jelly and apple slaw.
Explanation: For me, Guarino’s dish stole the show. It’s flavor was really complex—I couldn’t articulate it, even after I went back for seconds—but Guarino explained it as “smoky, spicy, sweet and salty—it’s the prototypical Shango dish.” Although it was a little messy to eat—for me with a small mouth, at least—the boar belly was delightfully fatty and simply burst with flavor. The apple slaw was definitely muted, but it joined together with the pepper jelly for a confusing-yet-delicious sensation.
Comments on local farms: Guarino explained that Shango bought its pork at Blossom Hill Farm for years before it was sold to Dave Garrity, who inherited a boar that Guarino purchased. Armed with 200 pounds of boar, Guarino made the most of his acquisition—especially the belly, which, Guarino admits, was only $.79 per pound seven or eight years ago before skyrocketing in price.
While Lloyd stressed the pace of production and Wieszala touted the quality of the animals, Guarino emphasized the person-to-person relationship when deciding from whom he’d source. “‘Do I get along with the farmer?’ I ask myself that first,” Guarino said. “It’s a two-way street, the farmer has to trust that my product will be up to his standards, and I have to trust that his ingredients are right for my food.”
Finally, Feed Your Soul’s Christa Glennie Seychew announced that Mike A’s Steakhouse chef James Gehrke sent a donation for the farm in need as well.