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Armsby Abbey’s Many Moving Parts

On a late-winter morning, I found myself standing outside 144 Main Street at 6:58 a.m., tapping on the kitchen window of Armsby Abbey. Executive Chef Sean Dacey was fit to butcher a 29 lb. lamb and I hadn’t even had my coffee yet.

He opened the door and then disappeared into the walk-in where he fetched Ram, the one year old lamb that had arrived from Chimney Hill Farm the day before. “There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” Dacey told me.

A lot of the Abbey’s animals come with names, a simple consequence of the fact that Dacey maintains close relationships with his farmers.

“It can be emotional for farmers,” Dacey said, recalling Walker Farm’s prize steer, George. “George had grazed seasonally, rotating through Joanie Walker’s fields to maintain the health of her soil. She gave us George and then came in to eat him because she trusted us,” he explained.

Dacey takes particular pride and care when cooking with older animals.

“In the factory farming system, older animals are generally viewed as a negative. But, we know that animals that live full lives and get pastured have amazing qualities. Joanie Walker takes three times longer to raise her cows than most farmers and that’s more expensive for her,“ explained owner Alec Lopez.

“There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” says Executive Chef Sean Dacey.

Walker’s visit to Armsby Abbey for her final farewell to George was not unusual for the establishment. Influential brewers, chefs, and farmers have flanked to the Abbey to enjoy the fruits of their labor (sometimes literally) since it opened nearly a decade ago. Regardless of whether a respected farmer or a first time customer sits down at a table, Dacey expects his staff to be more than just knowledgeable. The restaurant’s table management system, Reserve, certainly helps. The system allows staff to monitor and maintain customers’ visits, dining habits, dietary restrictions, allergies, and requests. If a farmer is coming in for a special goodbye, you can be sure there’s a note in Reserve so that his or her server can be briefed.

Gazing at the primal cuts of Ram (the lamb) in the early morning light, I asked Dacey, “How much is your front of house team expected to know about what goes on back here?”

“Everything,” he responded.

On Sunday, I returned for brunch, this time on the other side of the pass. The general layout at 144 Main Street is curious in that the kitchen is located across the hall from Armsby Abbey’s dining room.

I could tell that Dacey was not exaggerating about the awareness of his staff. Our service was nothing short of remarkable. I ordered the stout braised lamb served with seared mashed potatoes and a rolled oat cake, and topped with smoked turnip puree, butter braised carrots, pickled potatoes, and a soft-cooked egg. Ram tasted just as handsome as he looked.

On Monday night, Dacey invited me back once more to attend a staff meeting about primal cuts and charcuterie. At the Abbey, weekly meetings provide key opportunities for interpersonal moments between the kitchen and the front of house. During a busy service, much of the communication among these two parties takes place with iPads and pagers. “Armsby utilizes a dual iPad system that runs Reserve; meaning our host station and our kitchen run the app simultaneously for real time information,” owner Sherri Sadowski explained, “without Reserve, the only window into how busy the dining room is, is via the tickets streaming from the printer.”

Armsby Abbey attracts an eclectic crowd. “During a busy dinner service, Reserve allows the kitchen to see what kind of night it is; be it a date night where the room is filled with deuces or more of a rowdy atmosphere where the dining room is overflowing with larger parties. Every shift is different and Reserve allows the kitchen to keep tabs on exactly how the shift will play out,” Sadowski shared.

On Monday nights, Dacey is free to move at an easier pace. It’s technically his day off, but he finds these gatherings too important to neglect. Dacey wants his team to be knowledgeable enough to sell his most unconventional dishes because he views them as not only exquisite, but also humane. Above anything else, Armsby Abbey’s kitchen strives to run with patience – a constant struggle in an industry where things seem to move at full tilt.

Dacey began the training by reminding his staff, “At your pre-shift meetings on Fridays and Saturdays, there is time to relay information, but no time for nuance. That’s why we’re all here tonight.”

Lopez and Dacey went on to recall a workshop with butchery legend, Adam Danforth, at the Chefs Collaborative Summit last summer during which Danforth broke down an 11 year old lamb and cooked the cuts on ripping hot cast iron for immediate consumption. The experience accentuated flavors rendered from working muscles, affirming the decision that the Abbey has made to support farmers by taking on older animals like George. This practice began with previous Executive Chef Damian Evangelous who departed in March for the west coast.

When the meeting concluded at 10:30 p.m., I watched a few members of the staff hang back to ask Dacey and Lopez questions. Others thumbed through a copy of Danforth’s book and nibbled at what was left of the head cheese. At 11:00, when Dacey felt sure the staff was prepared, he finally defected to get some sleep for a few precious hours. I can’t help but suspect that he even cooks in his dreams.


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The “Rockwellesque” Dining Options of the Norman Rockwell Museum

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA is notable for American Illustration Art and a setting for #foodisart.

Enjoying the warmer weather we turn to a summer series visiting museums to partake in a summer journey of art and food, after all, #FoodIsArt. (Eat at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Peabody Essex Museum; Worcester Art Museum; Norman Rockwell MuseumIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum… and more).

From The Problems We All Live With – a 1964 iconic painting depicting Ruby Bridges, a six-year old African American girl on her way to William Frantz Elementary School, an all-white public school during the New Orleans desegregation crisis – to the Four Freedoms – a series of four 1943 oil paintings referencing President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms State of the Union address – Norman Rockwell’s art epitomizes the essence of American life. Between the raw edges of his later work that infused the concerns of Americans with depictions of poverty, race and war to his optimistic outlook on the simple charmed country life, Rockwell portrayed the country through a clear lens and marked his expressions as an American tradition. Breathing life into the Rockwell legacy stands the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts – the town he called home for the last 25 years of his life.

The Connoisseur at the The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.
The Connoisseur at the The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

The museum itself is ‘Rockwellesque,’ housing the largest and most significant of his works in the Berkshires. To complement its portrayal of the life Rockwell built through his paintings, the museum offers an equally appropriate ‘Rockwellian’ rendition with its culinary offerings.

Catered by executive chef Brian Alberg of The Red Lion Inn – a staple inn in New England since the 18th century and a supporter of the artistic traditions through artist residencies and pop-up performances – the Terrace Café is a simplistic adaptation of Rockwell’s America. The Terrace Café overlooks picturesque Berkshires scenery, offering a seasonal dining area reminiscent of Stockbridge’s charming beginnings. Adorned with flowers pots, American flags and the sweet smell of fresh air, it balances the reasonings of Rockwell’s artistic style and encourages life’s imitation of art.

Chef Alberg – an active culinary member of Chefs Collaborative and Boston Chefs as well as the founding chair of Berkshire Farm & Table – understands the food movement of the Berkshires and Hudson Valley and intertwines his beliefs of freshness into the picture-perfect frame built by Rockwell. Dishes at the Norman Rockwell Museum ring true to the American family’s traditional views on what lunch is comprised of: sandwiches, salads and sweets.

The Freedom from Want at the The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.
The Freedom from Want at the The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

The three S’s ring true to the guests of the museum with names meant to embody Rockwell’s famous works like The Connoisseur – marinated grilled veggies with Monterey goat cheese on focaccia bread – The Runaway – a roast beef with horseradish mayo on a challah bread – and The Freedom from Want – a turkey breast sandwich with cranberry mayo, lettuce, and stuffing on multi-grain bread. While many may argue that Rockwell’s museum deserves a menu of sophistication and fine cuisine to celebrate his legacy, it would be counterproductive to the museum, its guests and his work. The menu –carefully crafted to include references to his art, like the stuffing in The Freedom of Want – does not overstate its importance to guests of the Norman Rockwell Museum and instead, continues Rockwell’s work through food as an art form.

Rockwell, “without thinking too much about it in specific terms,” showed the America he “knew and observed to others who might have not noticed.” He stated that his fundamental purpose was to ”interpret the typical American” as he was a “story teller” and he did not fail us. The Terrace Café is an extension of his influence.