By Annette Hinkle
In post W.W.II America, cuisine became largely about convenience in the form of packaged ingredients frozen in time and shipped from miles away. This was often as true for restaurants as it was in home kitchens.
But the last decade or two has breathed new life into old ways of cooking — reviving the European tradition of eating local. The East End is a center of the burgeoning Slow Food movement. Young farmers have reclaimed the fields, offering more diverse crops than ever and chefs have formed a tight alliance with those growers — ensuring menus are fresh, seasonal and above all … local.
In her new book, “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” Leeann Lavin focuses on the stories of South Fork, North Fork and Shelter Island chefs, highlighting their close relationship with specific farmers. The book also features recipes from using the bounty of the East End from places like The American Hotel, Southfork Kitchen, 1770 House and Vine Street Café and their partners at Pike Farms, Mecox Bay Dairy, Balsam Farms and others.
While the linking of chefs and farmers is a unique format for a book, for Lavin, a garden designer who loves to cook, it came naturally.
“I feel gardens are so inspiring to everyone, especially artists —including culinary artists who use the bounty of the garden in their artwork — so I started with that as the underlying foundation,” explains Lavin. “It seems today locavore is everywhere, but in 2002 when I started putting this together, that wasn’t popular. I wanted to find the chefs that don’t just call the purveyor and get it.”
And Lavin soon realized local growers weren’t just raising fruits and vegetables — they were also making honey, harvesting oysters or producing cheese — all of which was finding its way onto the menus of chefs who were tuned into what was happening on the East End.
“Throughout the book I wanted to communicate how a chef has a special relationship with their growers and how both have a relationship with the land and the water. The picture tells the story — how much they embrace the land and love it.”
That’s certainly true for Jason Weiner of Almond in Bridgehampton. Before coming to the East End, Weiner worked on the West Coast, which is known for embracing the locavore movement. But when he opened Almond out here 12 years ago, the term took on a whole new meaning.
“My mind was blown. I’m in a situation where I’m watching leeks come out of the ground and using tomatoes out of the field that day,” says Weiner. “It was a new experience. I had worked in San Francisco where products came from Napa to our door, but there was a middle man. This was a direct relationship with growers.”
It was a relationship Weiner first saw in the late ‘90s at Nick & Toni’s where he worked alongside the late Jeff Salaway — a vanguard in using local ingredients, many sourced from the restaurant’s own kitchen.
“We had our own plot behind the parking lot, which is amazing,” adds Weiner. “The thing about the Hamptons, as much as it’s a playground for the rich and famous, the farming and fishing community remains today. It’s really important to support that.”
Weiner and his partners Eric Lemonides and Antonio Rappazzo, who also have a New York City branch of Almond, are scheduled to open a second restaurant there this week — L&W Oyster Company on Fifth Avenue. There’s a good chance diners will soon be eating potatoes from the Falkowskis, corn from the Pikes and heirloom tomatoes from Marilee Foster. That’s because Weiner loads up his Prius with produce once a week and drives it into the city himself.
Like Weiner, Bryan Futerman, chef and owner of Foody’s in Water Mill, personally picks up the ingredients he needs each day from local farmers as he drives between his home in Springs and the restaurant.
“I stop off at each one — the fish purveyor for locally caught clams and bass, the Reeves’ farmstands on the highway in Bridgehampton, the Halseys in Water Mill for potatoes, salad corn, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini.”
“It’s become a big trend now, but traditionally chefs have a close relationship with growers and always did. That’s always been the tradition in France,” says Futerman who worked alongside Guy Reuge at the Long Island eatery Mirabelle for six years. “We had a garden with the restaurant — and that was 20 years ago. He had great diversity and amazing ingredients, and a great relationship with the farmers.”
Since that time, not only have restaurant gardens bloomed, so to speak, so has the relationship between chefs and farmers. He notes it’s young farmers committed to staying on the East End that has made the relationship between chef and grower work — just like it did in the old days.
“You have places like Amber Waves growing wheat — we traditionally had that on the East End — they’re so unique in farming that crop and are bringing it to schools,” says Futerman who is active in the Edible Schoolyard programs which have sprouted up all over the East End. “We’ll be planting some wheat at Springs School as part of the curriculum.”
And there’s other new products coming to market, notes Futerman pointing to the seafood, craft brews, cheese and chicken now available locally. It’s a trend he hopes the Slow Food movement will continue to encourage.
“It’s really a privilege to be able to cook for people if they care about it,” adds Futerman. “Some people pay attention and some people don’t. Fortunately out here there is a community of people who pay attention.”
On Saturday, November 10, 2012 Leeann Lavin will speak about her book during a five course Homegrown Dinner at Foody’s (760 Montauk Highway, Water Mill). The dinner is a fundraiser for Slow Food East End. Additional donations will be accepted for Futerman’s Kickstarter campaign to develop a book for Edible Schoolyard programs around the East End. Seatings are at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The cost is $75 ($65 for Slow Food members). Call Foody’s to reserve at 726-3663.