Much of the time the production side of the produce industry thinks only of high volume foodservice, yet, just as Keynes cautioned that “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
So it is that powerful high volume commercial menu planners are often channeling the trends launched by chefs at fine white table cloth restaurants.
Thanks to a grant from Earthbound Farms, The New York Produce Show and Conference will be presenting Chef Dave Pasternack, a super important culinary trendsetter. He will be cooking on the Central Park Celebrity Chef Stage, and he will be doing work that is near to his heart.
Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott recently met up with Chef Pasternack at his Esca restaurant in between the lunch and dinner shifts to learn more about the man, his cooking and his plans for The New York produce show and Conference.
Q: I heard you just got back from a few days of fishing out in Long Island. How did you fare? Did you catch anything worthy that you’ll be cooking up fresh today with seasonal produce to wow your Esca restaurant patrons?
A: I caught some beautiful striped bass, blue fish and sea bass. That’s living large! I do most of my fishing between Fire Island and the Far Rockaways. It doesn’t get better than when I bring my catch into the restaurant and simply grill it up with perfectly pared local vegetables just delivered from nearby farms.
Q: That certainly elevates the definition of fresh! Your fishing prowess is quite impressive. The one time I went fishing on Cape Cod, the only thing I caught was a blowfish, and I threw it back in the ocean because I was told it could be poisonous.
A: That’s true, but it depends on the species. I have blowfish on the antipasto lunch menu now — Coda di Rospa, crisp local blowfish tails with cippoline onions and lemon jam.
Q: As an acclaimed James Beard Award-winning chef, you’ve been called the fish whisperer. How does this inimitable ability influence your sensibilities as a chef? And more importantly, as far as our readers are concerned, how do fresh fruits and vegetables fit in? Are you also a produce whisperer?
A: I grew up around the sea, and I still love fishing, but produce is an important part of what I do. I have an amazing garden. Right now, I’ve got peppers in the ground, and a few tomato plants, also bok choy, Tuscan kale, some broccoli…
This year, I had some issues with my fruit trees. I was able to pick good flavor Jonagold apples, a New York variety that’s a cross between the crisp Golden Delicious and the blush-crimson Jonathan. I have two black fig trees, and one Turkish fig tree, but they didn’t produce any fruit. Neither did my cherry tree because of an early frost. And squirrels ate my peaches, so it’s been rough, but it gives me an appreciation for the challenges farmers face. I could live off the land.
Q: Tell us more about how you fuse your passion for cultivating the soil and navigating the sea in your cooking…
A: Most people take the protein and pare it with produce. I like to see what I have for produce and match it with the protein. The seasonality of it is quintessential. Fish is seasonal too. Most people don’t look at fish as a seasonal item. The flavors and characteristics of the produce are the way I’m starting a lot of times.
Q: Produce industry executives would say you’ve got your priorities in the right place! What are your favorite produce items?
A: I like everything. OK, there are a few things I don’t like, but most of all it’s related to seasonality. Certain things are good at certain times of year, and you enjoy them at that moment and then you move on.
Wait here. I’m going to the kitchen to bring out some fresh Italia black kale and red Russian kale for you to taste. [Chef Pasternack returns with a full plate of the different varieties.] I’m doing an Italia black kale salad with Monchego cheese and apples. The black kale, a long narrow, blue green leaf is a little more nutty, sweet and crunchy. People like the texture. It’s really good sautéed too. The red Russian kale, a flat leaf of reddish purple color, is more mild and earthy and less crunchy. At The New York Produce Show, I’ll be cooking with Earthbound Farm’s Italia black kale.
Q: A couple of years ago, kale seemed to show up everywhere from salads to kale chips, enjoying a major resurgence. What do you think of these trends?
A: Who knows how that happens? Some smart farmers had a good idea!
Q: So your talents also come with a sense of humor…
A: When you’re in this business as long as I am, a sense of humor is an irreparable skill to have. Esca will be 15 years old this March. We always evolve. If you don’t, you die.
Q: When you look back at Esca’s evolution, what kinds of changes have occurred?
A: People used to be more adventurous. It seems people are taking a few steps backward in that regard.
Q: That’s a surprising answer. I would have expected you to say the opposite. Please elaborate…
A: Today, people have a million allergies, gluten-free, dairy-free, no oil, sauces and dressings on the side… These issues and requests were non-existent. Sometimes, I want to tell the customer, who’s demanding all these alternations to my menu, to leave my restaurant and go cook at home.
It’s like if you as a journalist are told that you can’t use these five words anymore and it puts you in a weird predicament where you can’t do your job properly.
Q: That sounds frustrating, but fortunately you have a loyal fan base that appreciates how you finesse flavor profiles using the freshest ingredients in a masterful way.
A: The value of a good chef is his taste buds and understanding how food works.
Q: Have you always had this innate talent for cooking?
A: No. It’s like being a craftsman. It takes time to understand and learn flavors. It takes practice, man. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Q: Your approach to food has been critiqued as deceptively complex in its simplicity. Do you think that’s an accurate portrayal?
A: Absolutely. I try never to go over three ingredients or four ingredients max.
Q: It goes back to why you have to insure the best quality ingredients. You’re not masking anything…
A: Exactly. I formed a partnership to produce my own specially blended olive oil out of Spain. There are a lot of great smells in this world, but the aroma of olives during the fermentation and curing process is the greatest smell of all. Drinking the olive juice right out of the vat is an awesome experience.
Q: Have you developed relationships with local farmers?
A: For a very long time… I do a lot with growers in the Hudson Valley, and Long Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. Some of the guys I’ve been doing business with for 20 to 25 years. These are pretty steady relationships.
Q: That must benefit you in customizing your needs and bringing in the quality you’re after…
A: If you want to be good, you have to buy the best. Sometimes people complain and ask, why is it so expensive? But if you want to have good products and eat the best quality, you’re going to have to pay for it, no matter what, no matter what anybody tells you.
I feel strongly about developing menus based on what’s in season. That’s the only way to do it. There are times when local is not available. I have other resources in places like Florida. Now we’re coming to citrus season. I look forward to the variety, which has increased tremendously.
Q: Could you highlight some of your favorite seasonal dishes?
A: I always have some kind of seasonal vegetable salad. This time of year, there are a lot of great greens and kales. Farmers are bringing me chestnuts, different pumpkins, squashes, and Brussels sprouts.
I’m also a big fan of old varieties of apples — most farmers don’t grow them anymore. They’re much more flavorful; Northern Spies, Winesaps, Baldwins, and I’m using some RubyFrosts. On our tasting menu, we have a crispy local skate with pumpkin puree, carmelized chestnuts, crab apple and vanilla.
Right now they’re catching a lot of Mahi Mahi, so I’m doing it in a stew with 20 different kinds of peppers I got from two different farms; some are hot, some are sweet. We just started with these local baby Brussels sprouts, adding pancetta, and other ingredients; that’s pretty interchangeable for a variety of different kinds of fish.
And then I’m using Tripletail snapper. I’m making another stew with all kinds of shell fish, and I take three different kinds of pumpkins and I juice them; 10 different kinds of mussels and clams and scallops in the shell. I add apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, sage, chili oil and steam it all together in the broth.
This time of year, I’m doing different kinds of wild mushrooms, and combine chestnuts glazed with chestnut honey. I serve this with goat cheese baked in the oven, with soft polenta. You can change it up with a variety of things, which keeps the menu exciting.
Q: Tell us more about the concept behind Barchetta, which launched earlier this year…
A: Still primarily seafood-focused, it’s a more casual restaurant. The concept is to be more downtown and straight-forward, user-friendly. It takes time to build a business and figure out who your clients are going to be. It’s still relatively new.
So far the feedback is pretty good. Customers like the atmosphere and the food. We just started lunch and are doing some brunch, which seems to be going well.
Q: You’ve certainly proven that Esca is a mainstay. With so many restaurants to choose from in Manhattan, and the competitive nature of the market, are you seeing Barchetta as unique in certain ways?
A: There are very few fish restaurants in New York City. I don’t really know the reason. I try to keep it simple and stay focused on the quality ingredients all the time.
Q: What are the biggest food trends you’re seeing?
A: Most of the trends come and go. If you make good solid food and people can understand it, it will survive the test of time. No need to reinvent the wheel.
Q: You’re keen on local produce. How about organic?
A: I use a lot of organic produce. What’s most important for me is how it’s grown, where it’s grown, who the farmer is, is he passionate, does he care… That’s the key.
We deal with a lot of guys who grow in the historic black dirt region in New York. The soil is very rich. It really does make a difference when you go back to the source.
Q: Your penchant for fish, produce and pure ingredients seems to be in line with the movement to address obesity, diabetes and other health issues.
A: Processed food is a whole other topic for another day. I don’t use any butter or cream, so my dishes are healthy to begin with.
Q: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
A: Yes. I’d like to spend more time fishing! I’m happy putting new motors on my boat, and planting new vegetables in my garden. Growing up, I always fished, always had a great garden, and always had good food on the table. I’m now holding the torch for my family.
Q: Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with people in the produce industry?
A: Keep it simple. Sometimes they try to make it too fancy with the packaging. Spend less money on the packaging and spend more money on what you’re growing.
Some produce firms get worried when they hear chefs speak so lovingly of local. Fair enough… After all, everything is local somewhere, and sometimes the best quality of an item is far away. Other produce firms worry about such devotion to heirloom varieties that are typically not commercially grown because they don’t have the yield or disease-resistance or other characteristics necessary to do high volume.
We would say it is more important to listen. The food at Esca is incredibly delicious. It better be, though, because this is where you buy Taglierini Piedmontese – Piedmontese-style spaghetti with Alba white truffles for $100 a plate!
And although many items are much less, the great tasting menu for the whole table is $125 a person with wine included.
So Chef Pasternack can focus on buying and serving the very best.
That is not viable for mainstream foodservice, but it is aspirational for many consumers.
In a sense, the challenge for the produce industry is how it should respond to consumer aspirations for things they can’t or won’t pay for.
One very powerful idea is if the produce industry can move more chefs and home cooks to choose produce first and then select proteins as flavoring. This will allow chefs and consumers to buy peak flavor and well-priced produce.
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We look forward to seeing everyone in New York.