It was just over 10 years ago, when I first started writing about food, that I experienced a revelatory brush with how fresh restaurant fare could be. I had been assigned to profile Peter Seidman, chef/owner of Stoney Creek in Tivoli. When I arrived, Seidman took me on a tour of the restaurant’s backyard garden, just steps from the kitchen door, where a dozen varieties of herbs, and rows of summer vegetables and lettuces were growing. Twenty minutes later, I was eating a salad that was picked to order. There could be no confusion between this plate of greens and the salad bar at Sizzler. The greens I was served were lightly dressed and possessed a simple integrity. They tasted like what they were: arugula, tatsoi, and mustard.
BADGE OF HONOR
Most chefs have neither the space nor the time to grow their own produce. But sourcing as much of their menus as possible from local purveyors has become the norm for chefs in the Hudson Valley. “You’re not a serious restaurant unless you use local,” says Rich Reeve, chef and co-owner of Elephant, a Kingston wine and tapas bar. “It’s a badge of honor.” Reeve, who serves modern European tapas, often with a twist of fusion, uses corn, peas, green beans, and cherry tomatoes from Red Hook’s Montgomery Place Orchard for his summer vegetable salad, which is tossed with crème fraiche and topped with rare Ahi tuna.
Bruce Kazan, chef/owner of Main Course, a New Paltz restaurant and caterer, was an early adopter of local bounty in his eclectic, inventive cuisine—Pad Thai, peanut-crusted seitan, and pan-seared Hudson Valley duck breast are all on the menu. Kazan has bought local since he opened 15 years ago. This summer, he decided to ramp up his commitment to local. “Our new mantra is to try and create all of our daily specials based on food coming within 150 miles of our location—meat, everything,” says Kazan. One special served at Main Course in late August featured pan-roasted Long Island monkfish over corn puree, accompanied by purple potato croutons from Pine Island and oven-roasted Sun Gold tomatoes from Mountain View Farm in Gardiner.
The main reason chefs cite for creating dishes around local ingredients is the difference in food quality between what farmers sell them and what they buy from larger distributors who source their food from farms across the country. “The difference between a zucchini bought at the farmers’ market and a zucchini bought from Riveria [a produce distributor] is unmistakable,” says Gabriel Vasquez, chef/owner of Gabriel’s, a Kingston café. Vasquez, who can be seen most Saturdays mornings at the Kingston Farmers’ Market, wheeling a hand truck piled high with of crates of vegetables, cites the brighter flavors and firmer textures of farm-fresh produce, which makes for a tastier product.
All the chefs I spoke to for this article declared that their dedication to working with local farmers was not only rooted in how their dishes taste, but also in supporting local, small-scale sustainable agriculture (an integral aspect of the regional economy), and working to reduce their restaurant’s carbon footprint by not buying product trucked-in from out of state. (NB: According to a study by the Center for Sustainable Systems, the average American foodstuff travels an estimated 1,500 miles before being consumed.) Melissa Everett, executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, also notes that buying produce from local farms helps conserve open farmland from development, which is essential for the ecological health of the area. “When agriculture is done properly,” says Everett, “the soil is replenished, water is well managed, and biodiversity is maintained, so that the region as a whole operates as a healthy ecosystem.”
IT TAKES TWO (OR MORE) TO TANGO
For chefs, maintaining relationships with farmers is not as simple as buying in bulk from a large purveyor, however. It takes time and effort to visit farms or farmers’ markets. Chefs, like farmers, are often putting in superhuman amounts of overtime to get the job done. “Chefs and restaurateurs are extremely busy people,” says Josh Kroner, chef/owner of Terrapin in Rhinebeck. “Having an ongoing relationship with a farmer is an extra step; it has to be a conscientious effort. A chef’s first inclination is to just call the produce guy and tell them exactly what he wants, and have it delivered. And the prices are generally cheaper than straight from the farm.” Kroner, who maintains relationships with local farms as matter of course, works with a number of local purveyors. Terrapin gets its greens from Sky Farms (Millerton), heirloom tomatoes from Irving Mink (Clermont), cheese from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, potatoes from Brittany Hollow Farm (Rhinebeck), honey and currants from Ray Tousey (Clermont), and dairy and ice cream from Ronnybrook Farm (Ancramdale). Kroner also notes that his signature dessert, a molten chocolate cake (the recipe was featured in Gourmet), has been outsold for the first time since Terrapin opened. Customers have been preferring pastry chef Derin Tanyol’s “peach bomb,” a dish of peach cake topped with peach ice cream (made in-house) and a slice of peach. The peaches are from Migliorelli Farms in Tivoli, which supplies Terrapin with a wide array of fruits and vegetables.