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Harvest on the Hudson
Bonnie Davidson | Photo: Catherine Waage, Phil Haber Photography and Ashley Sears | September 27, 2013
Locavores, lend us your ears: Top NYC chefs, responding to the call of wild and freshly farmed ingredients, are heading north to Hudson—and foodies are following in droves.
“This guy just arrived this morning,” says Zakary Pelaccio, as he swings open the door of a walk-in refrigerator to reveal the torso of a 192-pound Tamworth pig, halved lengthwise, dangling by its hind legs. Humanely raised on a nearby Animal Welfare Institute-approved farm, it has skin that’s smooth, unblemished, milky pink. Its head, already off when handed to Pelaccio, rests on a nearby shelf, face forward, smiling.
Over the course of the next week or two, nearly every part of the beautiful beast will find its way into dishes on the eight-course tasting menu at Fish & Game (13 S. Third St., 518.822.1500, fishandgamehudson.com), Pelaccio’s rustic new farm-to-table restaurant in Hudson, N.Y., where animals are utilized nose-to-tail and vegetables root-to-tip. Antibiotic- and hormone-free Normandy ducks roast on a spit in a fireplace in the dining room. Maple, oak, cherry, elm and apple woods flavor meat, fish and poultry in an open kitchen. Dewy herbs, mushrooms and wild greens are gathered in forests, fields and rivers within a very small radius. “Our menu is reactive in the sense that we get emails from our farmers with their crop list each week, and we take it from there,” says Pelaccio. “We’re not overmanipulating food. We cook each dish quite simply,” accented by housemade kimchees and assorted condiments.
Pelaccio, also the owner of Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants Fatty Crab and Fatty ’Cue, has been a media darling since he and wife Jori Jayne Emde, along with their partner, producer Patrick Milling Smith, opened Fish & Game last May. The trio is only the latest in a series of NYC chefs lured to the country by the abundance of fresh-from-the-Earth and pasture-raised ingredients. Their menus list organic growers and food artisans by name, and their seasonal, hyperlocal cuisine is turning the small upstate city of Hudson, in Columbia County, into the hippest dining destination since Williamsburg.
Two hours north of Manhattan by car or Amtrak, Hudson is a hub of activity for second homeowners and day-trippers in the region. Antiques dealers and designers, such as milliner Behida Dolic (715 Warren St., 518.567.5829), have set up shop along Warren Street, the main thoroughfare. Jeff Gimmel, a former executive chef of midtown institution Michael’s, has been a supporter of the local, sustainable agriculture movement at his restaurant, Swoon Kitchenbar (340 Warren St., 518.822.8938, swoonkitchenbar.com), for 10 years—along with his wife, Nina, former pastry chef at Café M in The Stanhope Hotel, who crafts picture-perfect desserts. Grazin’ (717 Warren St., 518.822.9323, grazindiner.com), a diner owned by Brooklyn expat Andrew Chiapinelli and said to be the first Animal Welfare Institute-approved restaurant in the country, serves premium, 100-percent grass-fed and finished Black Angus beef burgers raised on the family’s 450-acre organic and biodynamic farm, just seven miles away. And on Saturday mornings, everyone seems to wind up at the thriving farmers market.
“It’s like the South without the accent,” says Hugh Horner, executive chef of Helsinki Hudson (405 Columbia St., 518.828.4800, helsinkihudson.com), a wildly popular restaurant and nightclub. “There’s a very friendly vibe and a real sense of community.” With deep roots in Georgia, North Carolina and New Orleans, Horner, a veteran of The Black Duck at the Park South Hotel and kitchens from Boston to Brooklyn, now cooks locally sourced Low Country cuisine. “I’m not trying to be trendy, not trying to keep up with carrot foam and rosemary smoke,” he says. “I’m here cooking honest food.” Among his favorite ingredients are pasture-raised beef, free-range poultry, sustainable seafood and down-home veggies, like okra, collard greens, turnip greens and sweet potato leaves that “my farmer buddies grow specifically for me,” he says.
Horner smokes ribs over apple wood, fries green tomatoes and devils eggs with chipotle and Gulf shrimp. In a sprawling courtyard—the setting for pig picks and shrimp boils—his giant barbecue, nicknamed Atticus, smokes meats over apple, hickory, oak, plum and cherry woods. Right this minute, Horner is most excited about the fall crop of Brussels sprouts, not to mention one special root vegetable. “I love the parsnips around here,” he drawls. “Somethin’s goin’ on. I don’t know if it’s the soil content or what, but the parsnips are like candy. I’ll braise them in vegetable stock; I’ll puree them; I’ll fold them with grits; I’ll do parsnip grits with osso bucco or lamb shank. You tell me somethin’ better!”
At the northern end of town, Ben Freemole and John McCarthy, proteges of Wylie Dufresne, who met in the kitchen at Dufresne’s wd~50, have been preparing modern, inventive and often experimental Asian-inspired American cuisine at The Crimson Sparrow (746 Warren St., 518.671.6565, thecrimsonsparrow.com) for more than a year. They rely on ingredients “harvested, like, an hour before they get here,” says Freemole, who was born and raised in Montana. Because of the chefs’ proximity to—and friendships with—area farmers, they “get micro-packages of produce and herbs that don’t make sense to send anywhere else,” Freemole says. “A quarter-pound, 4 ounces, a tiny container of something I’ve never even seen or heard of, like popalo or sour greens, and it spawns an entire new dish.” A recent surplus of sumac cones led to pickling, fermenting and salt-curing the berries like capers. “We took a bunch of the stems, which look like sea beans, and cured those in a dashi-and-salt solution, so now they have an ocean sort of flavor, as well as a sumac taste.” The chefs’ latest challenge is figuring out what to do with the herb marshmallow, which is believed to have medicinal qualities and is “very hard to cook with.”
The fall harvest brings squash, potatoes and heartier soups and sauces to the nightly tasting menu at The Crimson Sparrow. “I just love the smell of fall—the rabbits, the ducks, the game,” says Freemole. McCarthy jumps in: “The flavor profiles are different now. You smell cloves, cinnamon and za’atar more than you do thyme, epazote or basil. It’s kind of soul-warming.” Adds Freemole: “Fall is a great time to cook in general. I’m just looking forward to cooking whatever we can get our hands on.”