New England Regional | Explorations
The joys and tumults of creating specialty foods
From European spices and fine French fare to free-range beef and elderberry wine, Harvard alumni throughout New England are asserting their entrepreneurial rights to create delicious things to eat. Their businesses cater to those who like to know where their food comes from and who is behind it. And they share a belief in doing their jobs well. Very well. Its too much work and too many hours and too many variables not to be calling your own shots, says Jill Kelly Crawley 89. And thank goodness they do.
Jill Kelly Crawley 89
On Sundays, Jill Crawley and her husband, Kevin, have one rule: No talking about it. The restaurant, that is, which otherwise consumes more than 100 hours of their week and all of their attention. But Im not very good at following the rule, he confesses. I like to talk about it. Yes, you do, she says, laughing. Each thrives in the intimate theater of restaurant life, where the kitchen crewunder pressure to create edible art, fastpractically work on top of each other in a dizzying atmosphere of steam, sweat, and flames. Theres a lot of energy and action, which brings out the fire in people, she says. Over the years, weve seen the good, the bad, the uglyand we still like each other a lot.
This warmth of spirit is evident in Coriander, a French-inspired bistro they opened in 2001 that now ranks as highly as any of its urban competitors. It sits in tiny downtown Sharon because the Crawleys saw a need to feed Bostons bedroom communities, a strategy that has workedbut not without a driven energy and scrappy resourcefulness that they also share. On Monday nights, they teach cooking classes, host drug-company seminars for doctors, and run private functions. Kevin, the executive chef, has also branched into cable television, developing and starring in the 20-episode series The Screaming Hot Pan, and appears in a Food Network show this fall. Its really about getting [people] in seats, so you do whatever you have to, says Jill. Luckily, neither of us likes a regular routine on a regular basis. We would get bored.
At college, Jill concentrated in psychology and waitressed part-time; she continued working in restaurants on the management side after graduation, having discovered that she liked the array of characters attracted to the food industry. She met Kevin through his sisters, who were originally friends with her roommate, and in 1994 he called her to set up the front end of the house (the dining room and anything having to do with customer service) at Isabella, in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he was the chef and a co-owner. They married in 1998, and two years later he proposed combining their talents professionally. We wanted to create a place that was a whole evening experience, she explains, where people could have not just a good meal, but a great time.
Kevin uses produce from Wards Berry Farm (about three miles down the road from the restaurant) and cheese from Wasiks in Wellesley; he and the chef de cuisine, Chris Thibeault, make almost everything on the menu fresh daily. For my visit, Kevin delivered a platter of three cheeses, including a long-aged, firm goat cheese, Garrotxa, from Catalonia, dark pecan bread, smoked fig jam, and a Rainier-cherry compote. A dish of hot crispy-fried squash blossoms in a zucchini and basil pure was served with the invitation: Come, Ill treat you like a queen. Every single day matters in this business, Jill says, as we eat. Five or 10 customers a night can really make the difference in your soap bill, the linen bill, credit-card fees. Sometimes we lose nights to snowstorms or something else that keeps people away. It can torture you, Kevin adds, noting the big dark circles under most chefs eyes. (The couple took their only full week of vacation in five years just this summer, during which Jills brother coped with a small tornado that blew through town and a power outage at the restaurant.) But neither can imagine doing anything else. In fact, they are planning to open a new, bigger place in Newton or Brookline because weve got the itch, she says. We both like to create something out of nothing, he explains. And its fun to catch a big fish. But its more fun to catch it with someone else.
Philip E. Tonks 67
Grand View Winery
If you pick hundreds of dandelions and pluck the sprinkling of tiny yellow petals on each one, you could make a gallon of wine. One year we hired teenage girls to go out and get them, says Philip Tonks 67, owner of the Grand View Winery near Montpelier. It was a gorgeous day and I think they spent more time talking than picking. But I just dont have the patience to do it myself. In the spring, Tonks steeps the petals in boiling water to make between 200 and 500 bottles of his dandelion winewhich offers a drier, more pronounced floral essence than the old-time country drink, and nearly sells out during the winerys annual Dandelion Festival in May (when visitors are invited into the fields to pick flowers for next years batch).
|Philip Tonks sells the fruits of his experimental labors.|
|Photograph by Jim Harrison|
People think of [non-grape] fruit and flower wines as overly sweet and low in alcohol content, says Tonks. But there is no reason to make them that way. Our pear wines are light and delicate and go well with Brie before dinner. The blueberry, on the other hand, has a good tannin component, like a red wine, and is great with smoked cheeses. Or the sparkling version can be eaten with wedding cake. Tonks put Chem 20 and his biology concentration to use creating jams and wines for fun for 30 years before starting the winery in 1996. He has developed at least 18 different fruit wines, including one from a fabulous, aromatic cold-climate plum. Currently wines made from rhubarb, apples, Montmorency cherries, raspberries, elderberries, and several grape varieties (Marchal Foch, Seyval, and Riesling among them) are sold through local retailers, the tasting room in Waterbury Center, and at the winery itself, next door to his home (www.grandviewwinery.com). Its a little too close and convenient, says Tonks, who finds his retirement business anything but leisurely.
Tonks and his wife, Julie, live on 30 hilly acres, a couple of which are covered with berry bushes, rows of rhubarb, and apple trees. Most of the fruit used for the wine is bought from in-state farmers. Tonks reasons that he does more to promote local agriculture than if he grew it himself. The pears from southern Vermont, for example, are funny-looking, dented ones that are not table qualityso were paying for fruit that couldve been left in the orchard, he explains. The owner adds value to his farm by grinding and pressing them and brings me the juice so I dont have to handle all that fruit. But the juice is delicate; we make the wine right away and age it for a year before bottling it.
A spirit of cooperation exists among the small growers and makers of specialty food in Vermont: its the second-largest manufacturing classification in the state (next to electronics, thanks to IBM), Tonks says. He has bought black currants from women intent on rehabilitating old farmland along Lake Champlain, and he gets strawberries from another farm down the hill. He has also worked out an attractive day-trip scenario with Bragg Farm Sugar House and Cabot Creamery, which he promotes to local inns and ski resorts because people traveling these days want something active to do, to learn about something interesting, he says. I feel sorry for people who come to Vermont, go to Ben and Jerrys, and go home. They havent seen Vermont.
For Tonks, who spent a decade of his career developing the North American market for British Aga cookstoves, being a solo practitioner has its benefits. Even for chefs, when they produce something, they dont often get to hear the oooohs and aaaaahs that I do when Im pouring a wine and someone tastes it for the first time, he says. A lot of people in the business world need to get that ooooh and aaaaah a little more.
Sarah Leah Chase 79
Coastal Goods; cookbook author, chef
There once was a time on Nantucket when someone fresh out of college could open a small business in town and make a living from it, just as Sarah Leah Chase 79 did with her gourmet food shop, Que Sera Sarah. I had a passion for Nantucket and for food, for European travel and bike touring, she says. I loved the way you could bike into a sleepy French village and pick up provisions and have a grand al fresco picnic. At that time, there were no stores in the United States that would allow you to do that. People vacationing on Nantucket, she figured correctly, were sophisticated enough to appreciate her more eclectic, European cuisine (which included a Moroccan-style carrot dish and the then-esoteric hummus). She ran the labor-intensive business through the 1980s before selling it to pursue fingernails and a personal life. For the next decade she catered, wrote cookbooks, taught cooking classes, and traveled around the country. She also met her future husband, Nigel Dyche, at a winter wine tasting at 21 Federal, a popular Nantucket restautant, and had a son, Oliver, in 1997.
Island life lost its luster after Dyche struggled through three tick-borne diseases and motherhood triggered in Chase an aversion to frequent flying in small planes through dense fog over water. These days, the couple are building a new business, Coastal Goods, which sells specialty salts from Provence, spices, herbs, and sauces. (The Meyer lemon cocktail sauce, for instance, she describes as a shelf-stable product with a real kick of horseradish, like what you would buy fresh in a seafood market.) They do business with Crate and Barrel, Williams Sonoma, and Whole Foodssome of whose West Coast stores actually offer salt bars and sell to individuals through www.coastalgoods.com. I do the creative end of the business, the cuisine, the recipes, she says. Were in the process of trying to make the company less entrepreneurial and raise more capitaland getting advice from classmate Michael J. Roberts, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.
Chase has always loved to cook. At Harvard, she studied European intellectual history, worked in local restaurants, and made meals for a psychiatrist who lived across the street from Julia Child. I was always hoping I could go and borrow a cup of sugar, she says, but it never happened. Packing up at the end of her senior year, she noticed that her stack of Gourmet magazines towered over the research books for her thesis (which argued that Proust, Wittgenstein, and Lvi-Strauss all expressed the notion that chaos was its own form of order). I thought the magazines were a good clue about what I wanted to do in my life, she says.
Five years later, while running Que Sera Sarah, she made a name for herself by working on the influential Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, which revolutionized peoples consciousness about food, she says. Julia Childs books were very serious. This was a fun book with funny names and quirky drawings with a home-made look and ingredients that were just starting to become availablelike fla- v ored mustards and raspberry vinegar. She went on to write her own cookbooks, including Saltwater SeasoningsGood Food from Coastal Maine with her brother, Jonathan Chase 77 (now the chef at The Lookout in Brooklin, Maine). Many cookbooks these days are produced almost like movies, there are superstar chefs and theres all this hype, she says, when asked about a new cookbook in the works. Im one of those people who still believe in doing everything myselfshopping for all the food, cooking it all up, and cleaning up after everything. So I really know the recipes. They have come out of my life.
Amiel G. Cooper 58
Mountain Meadows Farm
Sudbury and South Newfane,
Boston pathologist Amiel Cooper spends his weekdays peering into a microscope. On weekends, he trades that view for the hilly horizons of his Vermont cattle farms. With 900 cows, Our operation is a drop in the bucket for Texas and Nebraska, he says, but were actually the largest organic beef farm in the Northeast.
Since he started the first farm in 1996, national sales of organic food have risen 20 percent, he reports, with organic meat sales alone jumping by 55 percent from 2004 to 2005. Such demand helps justify the risks and workload intrinsic to Coopers obsessive passion. Most people who know me would put the emphasis on obsessive, he adds. To me, thats not an insult. Im interested in making beef as healthy and as good as possible.
Between 5 and 8 percent of breast cancers, his professional specialty, are hereditary, he says; the balance are acquired. The prevailing causes are not known, but multiple environmental factors are suspected. Id prefer that for myself, my family members and friends, and anyone else who asked me, the food ingested have as few synthetic chemicals as possible, such as the herbicides and pesticides that are used in most conventional farms in the United States.
Cooper also cooks. I would not say I live to eat, but its close, he reports. His wife, pathologist Lori Adcock, takes little interest in the farms operations, but conceded the endeavor worthwhile after savoring a steak au poivre Cooper served her on Valentines Day a few years back. I think of beef as the king of foods, he muses, although I also love lobster.
Most of his stock (Charolais heifers, Angus bulls, and their offspring) are pastured on 1,000 acres in Sudbury and Orwell (the smaller, original farm is in South Newfane). Cooper spends about 40 hours a week on farm-related business, in concert with a general manager who oversees daily operations on site. Daily discussions, sometimes held by phone from his lab at Faulkner Hospital, can focus on when to cut the 1,500 acres of hay fields, which fences need to be fixed, and where to spread the manure. From April through October the cows are outside eating clover and grass; those close to market are finished off with an additional grain mix of wheat, spelt, barley, and corn, Cooper says. Up to 6,000 tons of fermented haylage culled annually from the farmland and compressed by a tractorthe old-fashioned wayfeed the stock through the winter. The cows love it and it keeps its high-protein value, he explains. Each storage bunk has its own flavor, like tobacco, and it smells beautiful.
It takes about three years to grow a steer for market; Cooper sells about five a week to Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts and Manhattan. Its just the antithesis of standard commercial beef farms, where everything is about rapid turnaround, he says. There, calves are weaned and sent to a feedlot, where the aim is to get them out at 14 or 15 months by essentially heavily feeding them corn and byproducts. Often they have 5,000 to 10,000 cows in a multi-pen feed lot in the mud doing nothing but eating.
Coopers way is slow, more costly, and labor-intensive; its the difference between any traditional product and its mass-produced cousin. The challenge is to do something that is totally different from anything else I had ever done in life, and something difficult that not many people are willing to undertake, he says. And it keeps me grounded. When you live in a fancy city like Boston and have the choice to do or eat anything you want at any moment, you tend to forget where all your food comes fromand how difficult it is to make.
Nell Porter Brown is the assistant editor of this magazine.