Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

The Menu Meeting

The following essay was written for the New Amsterdam Market blog, in preparation for New Amsterdam Market’s upcoming Winter Night Banquet.  The multi-course dinner will be the first in a series of events that will inform and benefit the development of the New Amsterdam Market School of Regional Cookery, envisioned as a place where all New Yorkers can learn to shop for and prepare economical and nutritious meals, season by season.  The meeting described was an effort to collaboratively design the banquet menu.

Our banquet chefs, Sara Jenkins and Odessa Piper, may both be well known for their work in the sustainable food movement, but they are not cut of the same cloth.  You meet the two women and imagine each presiding over a productive kitchen, one with a hefty cleaver, and the other with a magic wand.  Sara chuckles at the idea of lamb testicles, and lays down the law when it comes to Italian olive oil.  Odessa reflects on exquisite hickory nuts and daydreams about flats of fresh ground cherries.  Their personal styles are as different as those of April Bloomfield in New York and Alice Waters in Berkeley.  Yet they are both women, both in the same profession, and this weekend they came together to form the menu for a banquet.

Gathered round a wooden table in the Henry Street Settlement House last Saturday afternoon, we were an intimate crew, warm from the sun-reflecting snow that shown through the building’s high windows.  Robert Lavalva, Cerise Mayo, and the two female chefs, were joined by a cook who once worked in Odessa’s kitchen in Madison, the seafood purveyor who will provide the oysters for the banquet, a local neighbor and a gardener who will both be attending the dinner, the gardener’s daughter (an aspiring writer), a journalist who will be planning the place-settings for the banquet, and me, the Forager at The Spotted Pig.  We listened, as Robert introduced us to the space.

The house was built in the 1890’s, he told us, and the original residents undoubtedly sourced their food from the old Essex Street Market on Essex and Grand Streets, and from the Fulton Street Market where we hope the New Amsterdam Market will come to life.  He read a brief passage from The Market Assistant, a book written by the nineteenth century New York butcher Thomas Devoe.  Devoe described in detail the “large and famous Baron of Beef,” a cut “held in the highest estimation as the crowning dish for the Christmas dinner.”  We found ourselves envisioning our version of this crowning dish…. And the meeting was off!  And the menu began to take shape.

We would begin with oysters.  Sara wanted to use the Maine shrimp from Port Clyde.  Could we get fresh horseradish for the oysters?  Of course.  Would the shrimp need to be peeled?  No, you can eat the whole thing!  Isn’t Maine too far away to call local?  Robert explained his understanding that while Maine is by no means in our region, sustainability in fishing is less about the miles than the species of fish and the manner in which the fish are caught.  Maine would be ok for shrimp.  The horseradish would need to be from New York State.

We envisioned the beginning: we will come in and the piano will be playing and there will be oysters and shrimp.  And then Sara imagined we should have a consommé, filled with all variety of vegetables we can provide.  Cerise had given everyone at the table a preliminary list of available ingredients, and their sources.  Parsley root, potatoes, shallots, carrots, onions, and garlic from Muddy River Farm.  Chard, kale, spinach, and sunchokes from The Rogowski Farm.  Grains and beans from Cayuga Organics, meat from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, cheese from Saxelby Cheesemongers, and black walnuts and wild ginger from the Wild Food Foragers in Vermont.  Early Spring has a bounty to celebrate!  Sara and Odessa rallied back and forth about the vegetables in the consommé, deciding on potatoes, swiss chard, and barley.  Odessa debated how the vegetables should be cut.  Would we have vegetables in the salad as well?  No, because lamb testicles were on our list, and Sara was not about to leave them out.  She wanted to fry them tempura style, serve them with a good cutting vinegar and arugula, or watercress, and maybe black radishes.  Parsley would be appreciated.  Why does no one grow parsley in the winter?  Cerise chimed in that the herb is slow growing and not a particularly profitable use of greenhouse space.  We settled for shaved parsley root.

The conversation, the crafting of this menu, mixed together our pools of knowledge with refreshing simplicity.  We all learned and contributed from our individual perspectives on farming and seasonality, professional cooking and plate presentation, urban histories and rural traditions.  Robert humbly asked what, in fact, was a consommé?  Clarified stock, Sara answered simply.  It was originally an Italian food for the sick, she explained.  Adding vegetables is really an American slant.

Everybody knows a ribeye, Sara declared, so she suggested a beef shank for the meat course.  The shin of the animal, less familiar, not very tender, in need of slow cooking.  Sara had tasted a plate in Italy: beef shank with lightly cooked, lightly pickled vegetables, quickly blanched in a hot brine.  This would be her chance to try making it herself.  She could use the oven at Porchetta.  The vegetables would be carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.  She could put the bone from the shank to good use, to make the consommé.

The discussion continued with Odessa musing on the rich nuttiness of Jerusalem artichokes and the contrasting sweetness of parsnips, and Sara describing her memories of lamb testicles – she used to eat them with her Mexican kitchen crew, braised with tomatoes and chilis, when they were getting lambs at her restaurant.  The banquet guests would be the perfect audience for this food, otherwise too outlandish for even a New York restaurant menu.  Melissa, who will be helping with the place settings, raised the question of what should be plated, and what would best be served family style.  The soup will be difficult to carry, so Sara suggested that the broth be poured at the table over the vegetables in each guest’s bowl.  The gardener volunteered her homegrown chamomile for tea.  The gardener’s daughter wondered whether we might include Cayuga’s grains.  We defined Freekah, complete with Robert’s explanation of how the early wheat used to be burned in the fields, creating an unintended pleasant, toasted flavor.  We wondered if green garlic would be ready in two weeks, if watercress will yet be growing at the stream heads.

We forged ahead with Cerise explaining Anne Saxelby’s suggestions for the cheese course: either the fresh goat cheeses that will just be coming into season, or a single cheese in it’s seasonal variations, to demonstrate the effect of the seasons on the flavor of the milk.  Odessa piped up in favor of the seasonal demonstration, before realizing that local honey was available, which she immediately wanted to serve with a fresh goat cheese.  Regardless, we knew Anne would present the cheese with her ever-evolving charismatic knowledge of local cheese making.

Odessa already had her dessert imagined.  Heirloom apples halved, deseeded, roasted with maple sugar, wrapped in phyllo dough articulated with hickory nuts.  Could we have local brandy?  Raw cider?  Had we invited any artisan chocolate makers?  In fact, the Mast Brothers will be making a chocolate especially for the meal, with black walnuts from the Vermont foragers.  Odessa expressed her love-hate relationship with black walnuts, but forged on with her chocolate ideas.  Could we get frozen fruit?  We could dip the fruit in chocolate…we could entooomb it in chocolate!  We settled for the apples, and the chocolate already arranged.

And we reviewed the menu from the beginning.


From Long Island, with fresh horseradish, shucked on ice.


Whole, from Maine.


A consommé made from the beef shank bone, with parsley root, potato, swiss chard, spinach, and barley, the broth poured at the table.


Tempura lamb testicles with watercress, black radishes,

A mustard and squash oil dressing.


Beef shank braised with lightly pickled carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.


From the Finger Lakes.


All of the wide variety available.


A fresh goat’s milk with honey.


Baked heirloom apples with maple sugar and hickory nuts


Made with black walnuts.

The cheese and bread we’d been eating at the table suddenly left us hungry for this beautiful meal.  And we around the table smiled shyly with the pleasure of early accomplishment, with the excitement of the event just two weeks away, and the many preparations still to be made.  “Well,” Robert concluded simply, “I think we have a banquet!”  And we all couldn’t help but agree.

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Since the end of May this year, I have been working as a Forager for the Executive Chef of two New York City restaurants.  I purchase local food, research food sources, track food prices, and cultivate a relationship between the chef and the producers of the food she cooks.  While recognizing that to have a Forager (or Steward, or Food Procurer, if you will) is a luxury most chefs cannot afford, I know it is also something many of them have never really considered.  And I believe the position could be a core element of a restaurant’s role in the development of a regional food system.  My vision for that role is a work in progress.  For now, I’ll share what I can.

The need for chefs to have individual relationships with the farmers of the food they cook is a need that goes beyond the implication of attention to and respect for how and where food is produced.  Restaurants can be life support for a farm, and can cultivate a farmer’s skills in producing high quality food.  Chefs can develop their recipes and menus, and their skills in the kitchen, knowing the characteristics of the food that a specific farm can provide.  The relationship between farm and restaurant, ideally, is between two independent businesses – one that provides a product and one that pays an adequate sum – both of which feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for what is possible, what is exciting, what strengthens not only the soil, but the palate, as well as the pocketbook.  Someone who works for a chef, but who understands the economics, politics, and physical logistics of farming, is a crucial link.  The employment of a Forager, as a representative of his or her chef, ensures that the relationship between restaurant and farmer will exist and flourish, rather than disintegrate under the pressures of time, money, and physical convenience.

For anyone who has known me, or has read the essays on this site over the last two years, it may seem a stretch of the imagination to relate urban foraging for high-end Manhattan restaurants to my work in food access, human health, sustainable agriculture, and fair trade policy.  If it is in fact a stretch to consider this connection, I think the stretch is healthy exercise for the imagination.  That is, my current work not only draws upon the knowledge I have gained over the years, but is also teaching me quite a lot about things I thought I knew.

For two and a half months, I have considered many ways in which I might write about my work, without revealing any secrets, without finding myself mired in New York City restaurant world gossip.  I know simply that I want to share what I am learning.  I am learning – as a benevolent sort of middlewoman – how to interact with chefs purposefully, how to communicate with farmers with integrity, how whole animals are delivered, butchered, and prepared, how to cost out a recipe, how to consider a taste for another person’s palate, how fish is sourced, judged, cleaned, and cut, how fragile mixed greens are washed and stored with care.  I am being given the chance to develop and strengthen an incredible relationship between two restaurants and their regional producers, and I believe this development is worth documenting.  This is the first go.  My hope is to write weekly, briefly, about a specific thing that I have learned through my work, whether related to the soil, the marketplace, the kitchen, or the plate.  And I will include photos at the end.  I hope what I share is of interest.


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This post is the first in a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market.  Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th.  The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.


A conversation with a working chef is usually a somewhat brief, rapid-fire exchange.  You the non-chef must make your point, and make it quick, preferably to the rhythm and speed of vegetable chopping, egg whisking, or bread slicing.  If the chef likes you, he or she might look up. 

Not so a conversation with Caroline Fidanza, chef of Brooklyn restaurants Diner and Marlow & Sons.  Caroline met me with a confident, modest manner, a warm, thoughtful eloquence.  New Amsterdam Market has had a few years to gain her dedicated support and understanding, and sitting at the white chipped tables in the handsomely dark, dim lighting of Marlow & Sons, I was charmed by her welcoming warmth, her glow of youth and experience.


Diner opened in 1998, on Broadway and Berry Street, a sunny Brooklyn corner jutting from the shade of the Williamsburg Bridge.  Caroline has been the executive chef from day one.  “The values of using fresh, local foods had been instilled in me while working at Savoy,” she said, and Diner’s owners Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth needed no persuasion to prioritize these values in their new restaurant.  Beyond being a result of her own influence, Caroline mentioned, Diner’s farm-to-restaurant sourcing really began when Andrew’s father-in-law started organic farming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  “He introduced us to the community of Amish farmers there, and suddenly we really had access to better product.”  Ten years ago, Caroline explained, farmers weren’t delivering to the city quite like they are now.  “We went to the Greenmarket and bought what we could,” she said, “but when it came down to it, there just wasn’t enough room in the car!  We really needed the farmers coming to us.” 

Marlow & Sons, Andrew and Mark’s second restaurant, opened next door to Diner in 2004.  Both locations serve lunch and dinner, on tables in and outdoors.  Caroline and I sat inside, where the warm lighting reflects off bottle-lined shelves and mirrors, and chalkboards list the offerings of the day.  The July 11th menu included a soup of Kale-Ricotta Tortellini in a Vegetable Broth with Parm & Basil; a list of sandwiches: French Egg Salad, Italiano, Pressed Fontina, and Pork Tenderloin; and various plates, including toast with house-made nut butter, quiche, charcuterie, chicken liver pate, and a market salad.  There were cheeses available from New York, Virginia, and Oregon.  For desert: house made strawberry ice cream with a brown butter cornmeal cookie.

To reach Marlow & Sons’ back room of tables, one must walk through a shop in the front, where they sell cheeses from upstate New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania, local honeys and yogurt, milk, fruit, vegetables, granola, and pastries and sandwiches made in house.  They also carry Fra’Mani sausages from Berkeley, imported mozzarella, various specialty sea salts, Rancho Gordo beans and lentils, pastas, olive oils, grains, coffee, popcorn, canned tomatoes, and olives.  Asked how these products are selected for the shop, Caroline explained that the offerings cater to the needs of a kitchen, but reflect the increasing availability of local products.  “We want to have products that complement our regional food, like olive oil, and sea salts, but we are also switching out everything that’s not local as it becomes available from nearby.”

The shop also sells the Diner Journal, a publication that was, until recently, written and designed entirely by the staff of the two restaurants.  Originally created in lieu of a cookbook, the quarterly magazine contains articles about various food products, recipes, and related artwork.  Writing for the journal “helps all of us think on a much broader level,” Caroline mentioned.  “I learn something every time we put it together.  Like the practice of grafting an apple tree.  I just never thought about it, but you have to graft very tree!  That’s so much work!”  

The crew at Marlow & Sons and Diner has supported New Amsterdam Market since the very first market event in 2005.  “I remember the first time I really understood the New Amsterdam Market vision for the Seaport,” Caroline said.  “I was immediately sold, from that first minute.  It’s ridiculous that New York doesn’t have a permanent market like in San Francisco and London.”  Caroline recognized that she doesn’t normally work at markets, but that she feels “the New Amsterdam Market serves our interest in extending our community.  Ultimately,” she said, “the individuals here at Marlow, and those working to create the Market…we all really believe in each other.”  She remembered the heirloom apples, chocolate producers, and Hamptons honey of the first New Amsterdam Market, at the Municipal Building.  Marlow donated house-made ice cream.  “But that day was more about individual producers promoting their own businesses,” she said.  “This past Sunday [June 29th], it felt more like the vendors came together, to promote the Market itself.”

Caroline emphasized the community element of the “sustainability” she feels will be encouraged by the New Amsterdam Market.  A strong force behind her commitment to regional foods is a feeling of loyalty to New York State.  “I’m looking to New York to rally together,” she said, “to have it’s own economy of food production.  This city forgets it’s connected to the state!  New York State is struggling, and has been for a long time.  I will always choose stuff from New York, even if New Jersey is closer.”  Raised in upstate New York, Caroline admits to thinking her hometown Poughkeepsie “was the worst!” when she was growing up.  Now of course, she wishes New Yorkers would take more pride in the food produced in their State.  She is sure the farmers and producers in the state would rally, if there might be a consortium with a place, a Market of sorts, where the economy could thrive and the community might gain strength.

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I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development.ncdc_ict_04_640.jpg I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.

This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting.  Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate– versus the family-owned.seedsofhope2lo_new.jpg These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about peacecall.jpg opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.

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