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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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Scott Erb Visits Niche’s Test Kitchen

Oaxacan Chorizo Taco From Niche Test Kitchen in Worcester

Oaxacan Chorizo Taco From Niche Test Kitchen in Worcester

“Unique.” That is the word that is the essence of my experience at the Niche Test Kitchen. From the format of the evening, to the food itself, unique is what it all was.

I’ve never been to a test kitchen before and I was excited by the layout and the yummy smells wafting through the air. Owner Mike Covino brought out his “A” team for the evening. Chef de Cuisine Neil Rogers and Executive Chef Steve Champagne pulled out all the stops with their “nose to tail” 6 course tasting menu.

Chef Neil Rogers and team created a menu that each dish contained part of a locally sourced pork from Chimney Hill Farm. I found out that the crew even took part in the rendering of the animal to create some succulent dishes for the evening.

I have to say one of my favorite parts of the evening was the layout of the test kitchen. As a participant, we were able to wander around the whole time between engaging with the Chefs as they cooked and then saunter over to the 4 high top tables where we found ourselves moving from one to another to chat with each other and gush about what we were served. This was great because usually we are sitting at a table and often do not get to chat with others if they are at the other end of the table. By far, my most enjoyable Foodies night yet!

Now for the good part. The food! There were 6 courses, but I’ll concentrate on the ones I loved the most.

For the first course, we had a Bratwurst and a Spiced Pork Spread from the People’s Kitchen. Being part German and growing up on some yummy German food, I’m a sucker for Bratwurst. OMG, it’s hard to keep me away if there is bratwurst around. This one was amazing. Succulent and juicy served on brioche with pickled veggies. What more can you ask for? Yum!

The Second course was from the Fix. We were served a Taylors Ham slider along with two different choices of Poutine. A Bloody Mary Poutine and a Bon Mi Poutine. I love me some Taylors Ham. I grew up on Taylors Ham. It is now part of my formative cuisine years. It’s hard to find in New England and have only seen it in a couple of places. It was very exciting to see the Chefs create their own version and put it on a slider. I think this is what separates the Niche Group of Restaurants from many others. They actually create something new and exciting vs. other restaurants who may only serve what their distributors sell them. Niche goes the extra mile to create something worthy of a foodie palette.

The third course was from Rye & Thyme. Oysters on the half shell and the lettuce cups. I have to say that typically I’m not an oyster fan (texture issues) however when I saw the oysters and found out they had house cured pork, uni, quail eggs and a grapefruit mignonette, I had to try it. It was fabulous! I’d actually try it again if it get’s put on the menu at Rye and Thyme. My favorite however, was the Lettuce wraps. With pork belly, crumbly blue cheese dressing and minced shallots, I’m sure it will be a best seller. I went back for thirds.

Next up was Mezcal with Oaxacan Chorizo Tacos and Sopecitos De Carnitas. These two were by far my most favorite of the evening. I love me some spicy foods and the Taco’s delivered. They had saffron corn salsa, creamy adabo, radish and cilantro. A taste bud exsplosion! The Sopa’s (small corn masa bowls) were created with a black beans, avocado salsa, Cotija cheese and habanero oil. The Sopa’s were definitely a hit with almost everyone and I can see these being a regular hit for their menu. I also had second servings on these as well.

Now for Bocado. Niche’s tappas restaurant. We were served Porchetta con pimenton and Paella Grande. Who doesn’t love a Porchetta? This one was amazing. Prepared with pickled onion, shaved carrot salad and crushed marcona almonds, you are feasting on some very juicy pig with a tiny bit of crunch from the almonds and carrots. I can’t say enough about the Paella. This also had a bit of crunch from the sides of the pan. I love this. Large prawns sitting in the giant pan tempted you with the flavor of the sea. The rice was cooked perfectly and seasoned just right. It was fun to watch them cooking it in the large pan. Not something I get to see every day. I’ll definitely be ordering both when we go next. Let’s hope it get’s on the permanent menu.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cheesecake From Niche Test Kitchen in Worcester
Mexican Hot Chocolate Cheesecake From Niche Test Kitchen in Worcester

Last but not least, the final course. Churro bites and Mexican Hot Chocolate Cheesecake. If you are a chocolate lover, these are for you. Churros you can dip into the chocolate and a new dish for me, the Hot Chocolate Cheesecake. OMG, I could just fall into gluttony on that one. With a little bit of ancho chile and salted cashews, my mouth was watering at the description.

All in all, it was one of my absolutely favorite and “Unique” experiences to date. From the amazing food to the Chef’s and their team to the wonderful company of our foodies group, I can honestly say this one will go down in the books as one of my most cherished culinary experiences ever.

Thanks to for arranging this all for us and also to Mike Covino, Chef Neil Rogers, Chef Steve Champagne and the rest of the team for creating this wonderful experience for us all to cherish.