Food Feed

Where to Find Fiddleheads and Ramps on the Menu

There are a few things I am forbidden from telling you about my afternoon of foraging with Julia Auger and Jared Forman.

I can tell you that traveling to their secret spot takes two hours roundtrip. I can tell you that Forman sometimes refers to it as “Ramptopia.” I can tell you that I was asked to turn my geotags off. I can tell you that they did not go so far as to blindfold me. But, I cannot tell you where they brought me or how we got there.

As proprietors of deadhorse hill and simjang in Worcester, Auger and Forman practice a modern philosophy of hospitality. This means taking excessive measures to guarantee an optimal guest experience—even if that requires braving the untamed forest in search of wild bounty.

Chefs favor ramps and fiddleheads as the first sign of spring. Ramp season is short, lasting about a month as soon as the weather grows seasonable. Fiddleheads are equally elusive, calling for wet and swampy conditions.

You don’t need to go off the grid to sample these rare treasures of New England. A variety of farm stands west of the Quabbin reservoir have ramps available for purchase and many of your neighborhood chefs have done the hard work for you.

Lock 50
Executive Chef Tim Russo is pickling fiddleheads at Lock 50 to extend their availability over the next two months. He also charred and packed his ramp haul in oil to make chimichurri and salsa verde set to appear in feature dishes all season long.

City Bar and Grille
Chef/Owner Al Soto has fiddleheads and ramps on the menu at his new westside hot spot, City Bar and Grille. Expect a dose of grilled ramp aioli with your first course at CBG’s Mad River cocktail dinner on May 15th.

BirchTree Bread Co.
This week, BirchTree Bread’s specialty toast features roasted fiddleheads along with a fried duck egg and asiago cream sauce served on seeded levain. Keep an eye out for fiddleheads on future Wednesday and Friday pizza nights.

deadhorse hill
If you aren’t lucky enough to enjoy your ramp-stuffed trout over an outdoor grill after hours of manual labor in the pouring rain, enjoy your ramps the civilized way—in the dining room. Forman has a kurobuta pork chop on the menu right now dressed with wild ramps, fiddleheads, and mushrooms.

Armsby Abbey
Armsby Abbey no longer uses foraged ingredients, but you can still find ramps and fiddleheads on the menu for special occasions. Executive Chef Sean Dacey was serving up pickled ramps in his fried vegetables along with a horseradish cream puree, aged sheep’s milk cheese, and a fried egg. The ramps used were a one time purchase from a farm and once gone they are gone (hint: they’re gone). He has also devised a tasty carrot-ramp vinaigrette to properly dress the spring salad for Mother’s Day brunch. Like the ramps, you’ll only be able to get the fiddleheads through Mother’s Day before they are off of the menu!

Whether dining in or enjoying the summer weather with BYOB Rosé is the drink you should be choosing. Pictured: 90+ Cellars Lot 33 Languedoc Rosé is the perfect summer sipper. Great Guide

Instagram Your Rosé the Worcester Way

There was a short time in my adult life when the mere mention of “pink wine” produced wrinkled noses and piteous stares from my sophisticated friends. A glass of white zinfandel rendered the drinker not only cheap, but also destined for a hangover.

With the rise of Instagram came America’s widespread introduction to a proper rosé. Yes, it was pink, but it could also be dry and delightfully sessionable. Plus, it was attractive and French—like Brigitte Bardot or an Hermès bag.

By 2013, American millennials had developed an unquenchable thirst for rosé.

My yearning for rosé continues to correspond directly to the temperature. When the weather gets warm, I want crisp pink wine, light salads, and fresh seafood. Mesmerizing instagram shots are also a must. Worcester has plenty of spots for sunny day sipping, snacking, and snapping. Here are a few of my favorites.

 

Rosé is picture perfect on Instagram
Rosé is picture perfect on Instagram

Bocado Tapas Wine Bar
Pairing: Bocado offers a wide selection of “light reds” or rosados from Spain and Portugal. Pair with tapas frias like the gazpacho or the ensalada de madalena, made with chopped lettuce, red onion, hearts of palm, tomato, avocado, and manchego.
For the Gram: Bocado is located just up the block from one of Worcester’s ghostly manufacturing murals. This hand-painted advertisement for Heywood Boot and Shoe Company features a faded red heart. Murals by street artists Adam Fu and Earth Crusher are also within walking distance, located at the rear of the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center.

The Sole Proprietor
Pairing: The Sole’s selection of rosé sparkles all summer long. Pair with a Buster Roll made with blue crab, apple, avocado, and cucumber then topped with crisp smoked salmon.
For the Gram: Buster the giant inflatable crab was conceived more than 25 years ago when The Sole Proprietor closed for a week’s worth of renovations. Owners knew they would need a boost to make up for the dip in sales. Buster still brings in the crowds year in and year out. Just a short walk from the Sole, you’ll also find the iconic iron bridge at Elm Park and more than a dozen striking Pow! Wow! Worcester murals at Elm Park Community School.

North Main Provisions
Pairing: North Main Provisions offers the makings of a perfect picnic. Ask owners Nate Rossi and Alexis Kelleher to help you pair a bottle of rosé with just the right artisanal cheese. Pick up a loaf of naturally leavened bread next door at their flagship establishment, Crust Bakery.
For the Gram: Take your picnic haul up the hill to Bancroft Tower, Worcester’s breathtaking feudal castle and have at it.

Lock 50
Pairing: Lock 50 has hosted entire evenings dedicated to rosé. As such, the staff is exceptionally knowledgeable when it comes to thinking pink. Pair with the chilled Spanish octopus served with salsa verde and Aleppo pepper.
For the Gram: In many ways, Lock 50 has succeeded in becoming the most Instagrammable restaurant in the city. Aside from the eye catching igloos, Lock 50 is home to a special mural painted by esteemed Native American artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham. Owners are opening a new restaurant called Russo across the street with a camera-ready cave room this spring.

deadhorse hill
Pairing: deadhorse hill has the strongest natural wine program in the city on account of manager, Julia Auger. Her intimate relationship with winemakers from around the world distinguishes deadhorse’s rotating wine list. Visit with a partner or pal on a Tuesday or Wednesday to enjoy their $45 date night experience.
For the Gram: Just a few paces from deadhorse’s front door, you’ll find stunning murals by artists Arlin Graff and O.G. Slick on the Palladium Theater. Owners opened an equally vibrant Korean-American eatery on Shrewsbury Street called simjang, which features another of Graff’s mesmerizing works.

Food News

In Search of the Perfect Dish: Our Visit To…

My imposter syndrome kept flaring up. Our escalator was carrying us closer and closer to the blue door that separates Per Se from the rest of Manhattan and I still felt uncertain about my motivations for the visit. Was I really eager to broaden my culinary education or just hoping for a glimpse of the 1%?

Per Se’s iconic blue doors in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

I knew that writing about the experience would mean admitting to my ardently frugal family that I had spent a small fortune on a single dinner. Three-Michelin-stars, nine-courses, and a month’s rent.

Deadhorse hill chef-owner Jared Forman reminded me later that it hadn’t been such an expensive meal when you considered how many people had touched the food before it arrived at our table.

I’d like to say I knew this first hand; after all, I had ventured back to the kitchen at the end of my visit. But, Forman told me I was mistaken.

According to him, I met only a fraction of the cooks tasked with crafting my meal. What I had witnessed was the main kitchen, complete with a live feed tuned to Thomas Keller’s first love — The French Laundry in California. The commis kitchen had been kept out of site.

Forman has spent enough time picking herbs, topping eggshells, and opening oysters at Per Se to know the difference.

Per Se’s main kitchen offers a live feed to The French Laundry in California.

Johnson & Wales students compete every trimester for a prestigious Per Se internship. More than a decade ago, Forman earned the coveted spot, landing him a four month stint in Keller’s kitchen. The commis kitchen, that is, where the prep cooks toil away until (if they’re lucky) they are called up to run the cheese station before progressing to the role of fish roaster, and so on and so forth. No matter how much time they spend at Per Se, there will only ever be one man at the top.

Keller is one of the most celebrated chefs in history. He currently holds seven Michelin stars, three at Per Se, three at The French Laundry, and one at Bouchon. The Michelin guide is something of a restaurant bible. One star represents “a very good restaurant,” two stars signify “excellent cooking that is worth a detour,” and three stars mean “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”

Forman started at Per Se just after Keller had finished consulting on Ratatouille, an Academy Award winning animated film about a rat who becomes a chef. Forman’s arrival at Per Se came only a week after the photos for Keller’s second book, Under Pressure, had been shot at the restaurant.

Keller’s books are not meant to cook out of.

“Half the recipes don’t work. It’s not about recipes. They’re about inspiration,” Forman says, “When his first book came out, there was nothing else like it.”

When his internship ended, Forman parlayed his newfound experience into a job at David Chang’s momofuku noodle bar. “Per Se is like a coloring book. You color in these lines and then go home. You have a very real barometer of what success and failure is because Thomas Keller’s there to tell you what it is,” Forman says.

He recalls one cook on the line who wore a bracelet embossed with WWKD, as in, “What would Thomas Keller do?”

He says he knows better than to compare Per Se to anywhere else he has ever or will ever work, but in four short months, he admits that the restaurant showed him something remarkable.

“Per Se is not a cutthroat kitchen. At some high end restaurants, people steal mise en place. People sabotage each other,” Forman remembers, “At Per Se, there’s a greater vision embraced by everybody. People are firm and strict, but it’s always with purpose.”

Initially, Forman scoffed at the notion of my visit to Per Se.

“I don’t think it’s the best food in the world. It’s not the most groundbreaking food, anyways,” he said, “It’s a place you go for precision and perfection and we should all be glad it’s there for that. You go there for technique.”

I explained to him that I was deep in pursuit of the standards that shaped deadhorse hill in Worcester in addition to America’s vision for fine dining.

He rolled his eyes and said, “I just hope someone else is paying.”

Per Se’s oysters and pearls.

Behind the Blue Door

The restaurant consists of 66 seats perched high above Columbus Circle, along with a private dining room that accommodates no more than 30 guests behind boardroom glass and brown curtains.

Per Se fosters steadfast dedication in its staff.

Servers fetch clean bills from the bank every evening to ensure that you don’t end up with the wrinkled change from someone else’s pocket. Reservations are on point. The floral arrangements are fit for the Royal Wedding. The napkins might as well be cashmere blankets. And the charger plates offer some sort of Magic Eye pattern from which I kept hoping a sailboat or a spaceship would reveal itself.

The moment I attempted to set down my purse on the back of my chair, a tiny stool appeared at my side, as if by magic.

“Why not begin with champagne?” we asked. The salmon cornet with tartare and crème fraîche, balanced on an ice cream cone, practically demanded it, as did the oysters and pearls — a custard of tapioca and Regiis Ova caviar.

Like everything else, these petite bites were quite intentional. “His philosophy is the idea of diminishing returns; as you’re eating something, you get used to it. Keller never lets this happen,” Forman explained, “Your palate never gets accustomed.”

The courses unfolded in such a way that each one proved more personal than the last.

Per Se’s slow-poached Hudson Valley foulard-duck foie gras.

Take for example, the slow-poached Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras for which the ducks are hatched and harvested humanely by a former member of the Israeli Armed Forces and his partner who notably worked on Wall Street before he got into the liver business.

Even the bread course arrived with an announcement that the butter hailed from a cow named Keller, milked twice a day by a dedicated dairy farmer in Orwell, Vermont.

I do not work for a fancy firm with a standing table, I have never been to a restaurant quite this formal, and I suspect I butchered the pronunciation of the 2015 Patrick Piuze I was drinking.

I visited Per Se for the anecdotes. The tales our servers told us made the smell of charcoal-grilled blackfish more intoxicating and conjured visions of the Pacific coast before the parmesan-crusted sea snails had so much as touched my lips.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t receive my booklet of purveyors until after the meal. Not because I would have felt dismayed to devour the Liberty Farm duck breast while observing the fourth generation farmer cuddling with one of his flock. On the contrary, I fear I’d have been so engaged in his one page bio that I’d let the poor pekin grow cold on my plate.

The same is true of the 100 day dry-aged Snake River Farms beef rib eye. Aside from its concentrated flavor and the well marbled meat, I’d have hastened to detect its diet of barley, golden wheat straw, alfalfa hay, and Idaho potatoes had I known it existed.

The dessert courses arrived all at once in a flood of raspberry-stained Bartlett pears, pickled honeynut squash, and blackcurrant flapjack ice cream. The “mignardises,” French for bite-sized dessert, may as well have been blown from delicate bits of colored glass.

The presentation of Per Se’s mignardises.

Along with my booklet of purveyors, I was sent home clutching a branded bag filled with carefully wrapped mignardises and tins of shortbread — parting gifts. I also received an invitation back to the pristine kitchen.

When I told Forman about the back of house tour, he recalled this was not out of the ordinary.

“Some people don’t want to see behind the scenes. Other people get a crazy kick out of it,” he said, “They probably googled you when you made the reservation and knew you’d be into it.”

The Myth of Perfection

The literature inside my Per Se gift bag includes a note from Keller himself. “When ingredients arrive at the restaurant they are, in one sense already finished,” he wrote, “At the stove, we have no control over how an animal was raised or the way a peach was harvested. As chefs, all we can do is to carefully select our suppliers and then work with them to ensure we get the best possible ingredients.”

I have heard Forman express similar sentiments. He feels lucky to live in a place with so many amazing farms and wild habitats capable of turning out the sweetest corn and the most pungent ramps.

“The distribution system to Worcester has exploded over the past few years, which allows us to combine all of these local products with other amazing things from across the country and around the globe,“ Forman told me, “A huge chunk of my time in any given week is spent sourcing products for the restaurant, visiting farmers markets and ethnic markets, weeding out specialty items, and talking directly with farmers. The details are absolutely endless.”

Per Se offers a vast wine selection highlighting a collection of older wines as well as wines from small producers that are released in limited quantities.

Two weeks after my visit to Keller’s kitchen, Forman loaned me his copy of The French Laundry Cookbook.

Sitting at home in my Worcester apartment, I cracked the heavy volume open in my lap and a line leapt right off the page. “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about,” Keller had written.

Per Se showed me precision, technique, and urgency, but the experience didn’t earn me any degrees or badges. I had not been an imposter at Per Se anymore than I am an imposter in my own kitchen. Keller had relished the chance to make me happy, and he had immeasurably succeeded.

In the weeks that followed, I would struggle to rattle off finite details of the nine course menu I so enjoyed at Per Se, but the memory of a blissful evening never left me.

Maybe you have the cash to let chefs like Forman or Keller help you find happiness in your food on a regular basis, but most people don’t. The perfect dish is the one that brings contentment and it could cost you next to nothing if you’re willing to treasure it properly.

Food Feed

Eat, Drink, and Be Me(rry)… While Still Serving Others

Can we just agree daylight savings time blows? I’m not saying the sky spitting rain into the upper-30s air would be entirely tolerable with a 5:30pm sunset. But dark at 4:30 after a brutal stressful day? It seems downright cruel, inducing enough crankiness to make a non-violent person contemplate punching the cheer out of anyone. I could see myself jumping on the Hanover stage at Elf that night and cold cocking the actor that plays Buddy the Elf. Which would of course lead to my getting my ass kicked by said actor and a horrified audience, being thrown in jail, and then failing to make bail because everyone including my family hates me for punching Buddy and ruining the show… and Christmas. You feel my mood?

I was in this damp down state of mind and weather when I found myself on Shrewsbury Street between appointments. Seeking a salve for my ill temper – okay, rage against the season – just because “the man” made me turn my clock back an hour, I stopped in Nuovo, hit the bar, and ordered up Alex Gjonca’s Albanian Appetizer of oven braised liver, garlic, feta cheese, and hot pepper – a dish that I “discovered” when I profiled him for Foodies a couple of years ago. It proudly captures his and wife Loretta’s Albanian heritage amidst the tasty Italian fare that fills the rest of their menu. I asked for a good glass of red to go with it and ended up with a cabernet. I wasn’t listening when the bartender told me what was poured.

The liver was rich and warming as I remembered, and the wine was yummy – deeply tannic and balanced with those berry jammy flavors I love. Mood, lifted.

And I might have kept all this to myself if I hadn’t looked at the check before I paid it. The wine turned out to be the Vaillancourt 2018 Christmas Wine, a reserve cabernet sauvignon from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. It’s a new wine sourced by Luke M. Vaillancourt to be sold this season through his family’s two-generation folk art business in Sutton. Now, full disclosure, Vaillancourt is a sponsor of Mass Foodies and Luke is the site’s founder and publisher, but I wasn’t at Nuovo at his behest or Vaillancourt’s. I was there to lift my funk with a delicious glass of wine and a tasty plate of food and got it.

But as I am wont to do, I started overthinking my way into this story: What did it mean for Luke to pursue this culinary passion as part of his family’s business? It’s not like wine and Vaillancourt’s chalkware is a classic combination like bacon and eggs or grilled cheese and tomato soup. It seemed to me more like milk and cockles not milk and cookies. Sure, it goes with Luke’s passion: He, Ed Russo, and another partner launched the Worcester Wine Festival in 2017. Yet still, to bottle wine is to go to extraordinary lengths to execute on a vision, especially when there is not a natural pairing. But what do I know? It worked. And lucky me that I got a sip or two of little that remains of the 672 bottles produced this season. (Less than 3 cases remain between Nuovo, VIA Italian Table, and Uxlocale and as well as at Julio’s and the Vaillancourt’s retail gallery.)

Inspired, I checked in with a few of my favorite couples and families to hear what they do to pursue their culinary passions this season. My thought was that the holidays should be a time of great cheer, but for those in restaurants and food (and indeed all) retail it must be exhausting: the hours grow longer as the days grow shorter between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. How do you retain and show what the holidays mean to you and your family while still making it about everyone else – even if you work with your family? It must be a slog with little time for yourself and those closest to you, right?

Leave it a guy from Queens, New York to tell me I had it all backwards. “The holidays are when ‘normal’ people get into the spirit of giving,” said, Jared Forman of deadhorse hill and simjang. “This is where the hospitality industry is all the time. It’s always with us. You’re into our groove this time of year.” For Jared, like all chefs who cook seasonally in the New England, the fact that there is less local fresh food available makes it even more fun, because it forces him to be more creative with what he has and to do more with less. It seems like a cruel irony that the restaurant is slower in the summer when Jared is overwhelmed by New England’s bounty and packed with people and events when December hits, but he loves the feeling when lots is going on, even if that means catering an event on his day off.

The creativity extends to the look of the restaurant – the province of Julia Auger, Jared’s long-time girlfriend, who runs the front of the house and the wine program. Instead of flowers, she worked with Five Fork Farm to fill deadhorse hill with winter foliage that looks and smells incredible: “The aroma of the New England forests and the organic ambiance is amazing and just adds to the holiday spirit.” As for a personal connection, deadhorse hill’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu offered December 18 to 24 is based on the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner Jared had growing up. “Our parents, family and friends have been coming to deadhorse hill on Christmas eve to join us since we began doing the dinner,” Julia says. “It’s unique to the season and always served family style. We now see other families returning, making it a tradition for them and theirs. It means a lot to be included in their family.”

Bill Aldrich and Jeanette Harmsen of Theatre Café just down Main Street from deadhorse also show their passion by creating special menus for the holiday gatherings they cater and donating food (like to the family of the firefighter who died this past weekend in Worcester and to the St John’s food pantry). But what really stood out to me was when Bill talked about how they give meals to regular customers during the holidays whom they know are on limited budgets. They know how much it means.

“It can be difficult to bring the holiday spirit ‘home’ during this absolutely busiest time of the year,” Bill says “During November and December, we average around 80 hours each week, so we have very little time to decorate and celebrate. We tend to treat ourselves to dinner out a bit more than usual and plan family holiday time for January after the rush is over. We also try to reward our dedicated staff for their efforts throughout the year. But I love making the experience great for our guests, so it’s rewarding on both levels. We don’t suffer in the end.”

The idea of customers extended family means a lot to everyone I spoke to, but perhaps none more than the sister and brother team of Miriam and Gregory Hyder, whose father Ed passed away last February. This is their first Christmas at Ed Hyder’s Mediterranean Marketplace and at home without him. Family is definitely on their minds, especially as Miriam is due with her first child just 12 days before Christmas. But when I speak to her, she tells me it’s “Christmas crazy right now” and she is far less concerned about the baby due Thursday and more with the fact that she can’t get any anise oil from her supplier in New York City which is going out of business after 100 years. “I’ve got Italian customers who need this for their cookies, and I have one bottle left. I need to figure it out.”

Hyder’s 43rd anniversary also fell in December and for the fourth straight year they did a tasting of the exquisite Cavedoni balsamic vinegar (straight from little spoons, no bread necessary), which makes a nice foodie gift. “This is what we do,” Miriam adds, revealing how her dad used to hand out envelopes of scratch tickets to everyone because he didn’t have time to shop. “We go flat out until we get out Christmas Eve, turn out the lights, and say, That’s it, we did it! I get a little jealous of the people at home making those cookies. But really this is our family.” To this, Gregory adds, “It sounds strange but the joy of making it easier for everyone else keeps us going. People come in here and they’re happy, looking in baskets, talking, seeing friends. You can’t get that in a supermarket or big box.”

“That’s like what Worcester is: family. It’s about family,” adds Sammy Cheng, who owns Blue Shades Coffee and Liege Waffles on Park Avenue with his wife Crystal. Their ten-year old son Evan is (seemingly diligently) doing homework in the back. Crystal is six months pregnant with their second child. And none of the holiday craziness phases them at all. Because they always know and are grateful they have each other.

“My family were refugees from Vietnam in 1981,” Sammy tells me. “My father saved enough to buy a boat and we escaped to a detention center in Macau when I was seven. My sister was born in the center. We were sponsored by a Jewish organization and ended up in Worcester. We were the lucky ones, and we never forgot it. We worked hard until we could buy our first business, a gas station, where I learned to run a business in 2003. I opened this place in November 2016, and I’ve added things Worcester understands like ramen and pork belly until they get the waffles. But I am here with my family every day. We get that here.”

We all should. So grab a waffle, try some balsamic, feast on fishes, and really try to support all the great family places in this city, especially those that have families working them like Meze Greek Tapas, Theatre Café, Armsby Abbey, Crust, BirchTree Bread, Lock 50… And if you want to have a glass of Vaillancourt’s wine at Nuovo and liver isn’t your thing? Try Alex and Loretta’s spinach pie. While available most of the year, this is one dish they especially share with family, friends and customers this time of year – and it takes a lot of passion to keep making because it takes a lot to make.

“The making of spinach pie is something that has always gathered our family around the table for years and especially during the holiday season. The process, while time consuming, is one that we have been practicing for many, many years,” Says Loretta. “We start off by first making filo dough from scratch and then layering the dough into sheets on a pan using butter or olive oil between each sheet. From there we stop halfway and add our stuffing. Typically this is a combination of cooked spinach and cheese, some Greek yogurt, butter, milk and eggs. However, there are also special occasions where we use meat fillings, leek, tomatoes, and onions. From there we continue adding the dough layers and finally once all the dough has been used, we bake it in the oven and wait for that yummy smell to fill up the kitchen.”

Listening to Loretta, I felt like a jackass for wanting to punch anyone, let alone an elf. It’s easy to get self-centered and overwhelmed when you are having a craptastic busy day and feel anything but giving. What I should have remembered is that’s when you give more. That’s when you make spinach pie even if the restaurant is sold out for days, you are catering events on your day off, or searching for anise oil while waiting for your water to break. I was right to use that down time to take care of myself, but I should have also used it to think about others, which I guess I did eventually. That’s also the piece of advice I got from Jared – a lesson for all of us amateur cooks and bakers and givers of gifts this season: Take a moment to think about what you’re doing in the few quiet moments you have.

In other words, plan to be thoughtful, not just generous this season. Even when it’s dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.

deadhorse hill's plate from Worcester's Best Chef Competition in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Erb Photography) Great Guide

Great Places For Lunch In Central Massachusetts

Let’s talk about lunch. Not brunch– often just an excuse to charge more for eggs on weekends by making them sound pretentious. Not breakfastfor lunch, which is fine – good even – but if you want it, go any of the great diners the area offers that are open ‘til 2. And not grab and go – that’s another ever-growing list of choices (from Ed Hyder’s to Living Earth); this isfor lunch, meaning sit down. No, to make this great lunch list, places must offer true lunch menus, be they filled sandwiches, soup, salads, burgers, an entrée or three … whatever floats their creative boats. Oh and it must not just be good but uniquely theirs in some way. This is not the time for Boar’s Head pastrami and bread you can buy at Big Y. Lunch must have a point of view and made to order. It must serve us by serving something that makes you understand why you are there and not just some nameless place that charges half as much. That’s NOT to denigrate any of the good lunch places out there – or the really terrific ones that just missed this list and are alwaysworth a visit like BirtchTree Bread, Lock 50, and simjang – but to elevate the great ones to understand why you might want to bring a client, host a meeting, have a serious discussion, play hooky, or just escape deliciously for a bit on a weekday.

Armsby Abbey

Reveling in the current Worcester restaurant Renaissance and the remarkable rise of the Canal District, it’s easy to forget the place that started it all on Main Street, especially when it comes to lunch. Don’t. When Alec Lopez and Sheri Sadowski and put their stakes down the north end of Main Street, they were rewarded with our praise and love. They have honored that by remaining great for more than ten years and while the menu has evolved and changed, its core and soul remain. Those things are on fine display at lunch without the drinking crowds: Slates of cheese and charcuterie that can feature anything from the unusual (beef heart pastrami) to the easily accessible (serrano ham) or be vegetarian. There’s the legendary Mac n’ Cheese (tip: mix in smoky blue cheese and caramelized onions) and adult grilled cheese, flatbread, and smash burger options that change seasonally. Wash them down with an amazing craft beer on the list that day and you’ll realize the only downside is that when you’re done you feel like curling up like a cat in the sunny windows instead of heading back to work.

Bahnan’s International Marketplace and Café

Most people treat Bahnan’s as a counter for take-out, but it has enough seats to claim a spot on this list. And really we would find a way to include it even if it didn’t have those seats. The beef and chicken shawarma rivals that at the shawarma joints in town. The smoky, silky baba ganoush is the rival of any we have ever had. If you’re lucky enough to be in when they serve eggplant as a dish and there is some still available, don’t hesitate. You need not be a vegetarian to thank us. You’re welcome. Kibbeh, grape leaves, kabobs, falafel, and any of the meat or veggie triangle pies are delectable and expertly prepared. And don’t miss the sides: cucumber salad (with or without feta but go with), rice, pickled veggies, unpickled veggies… what’s not to like? Nothing from the food to the incredible staff and family working the kitchen to the portions, which are simply make a great meal and a great value.

Dacosta’s Pizza Bakery

When Dacosta’s opened, its innocuous section of Millbrook Street was more a cut through road than anything else. There was no Greater Good Imperial Brewing across the street or a Chick-fil-A just down the other. The area was as much a food wasteland as Main Street was when Armsby opened, but the stake was just as important for a section of Worcester that gets little love from foodies. Owner, creator, and chief provocateur Marc Felicio has defied the odds and made Dacosta’s among the best, if not the best pizza in town. The chewy Neapolitan crust loaded with original toppings has its ardent fans and Felicio keeps rotating in new ones. Go for the Uncle Tony’s Roni’s, Mushroom Sally, or Go Fig Yourself – or really try them all, especially his version of the Detroit pizza on Wednesdays. What’s even more surprising is not that Detroit has a pizza history, but that Dacosta’s non-pizza menu rivals its pizza one, including outstanding wood-fired brussels sprouts, delicious Italian wings, and an Italian sandwich that would make Tony Soprano happy. Bonus points for the best game room in town!

deadhorse hill

Are we tired of talking about deadhorse hill yet? Nope. And with good reason. Jared Forman, Robin Clark, Nathan Sanden, and the rest of the team at deadhorse could have just sat back and let the accolades carry them along. They didn’t NEED to keep impressing and evolving. But they did and do for us, which makes this place feel as alive and important as it did when it opened. For lunch, the buzz of the bar and din of the dining room are replaced with a lightness and brightness in the room that makes you feel happy. The list of eight or so sandwiches alone, which have changed on and off since we can remember, are worth eating your way through. One summer visit, a fried green tomato sandwich made you think Worcester was in the south. The fried chicken sandwich is the best in town, and you will never want a regular French Dip again after diving into the open-faced roast beef one here. You can also find versions of dinner mainstays like spätzle. But besides those exceptions, deadhorse is completely different at lunch and that is not just a good thing – it’s a great thing.

Kummerspeck

With Weintraub’s on the verge of closing, you should know that next door is a pastrami sandwich so good it will make you plotz. And not the lean bullshit pastrami that supermarkets offer from plastic packages but delicious mouth-melting FAT pastrami as G-d intended. God bless you Matt Mahoney and Rachel Coit for making this pastrami love and all your lunch creations available a few days a week. The bahn mi with its Thai-chili bologna and schmear of your chicken liver pate is unexpected and hardly screams Vietnam yet it works. That grief burger may be the best in town. The shrimp and grits definitely is. If we are leaning hard on the meat until that last option, remember Kummerspeck translates to “grief bacon” and the restaurant has a butcher shop in the back with selections of meats (fresh and cured), sausages, and prepared stuff, some of which is on the menu and available to take home so you can do their lunch at home too.

Telegram and Gazette Newsroom (May 19, 1949) from the George Cocaine collection at Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts. Food Feed

Food Writing’s Last Gasp

Featured Photo: Telegram and Gazette Newsroom (May 19, 1949) from the George Cocaine collection at Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts.

Mass Foodies is dedicated to supporting the underlying principle that the foundation for strong restaurants is an adaptive and collaborative community.

New England’s second largest city is grappling with the reality of crowd sourced-restaurant reviews and a shrinking local media. In 2018, the title of Food Editor is virtually non-existent in mid-size metropolitan newsrooms across the country. Still, the appetite for food content remains insatiable. Food is a vehicle for culture.

Dynamic reporting has the power to animate conversations, lend voice to the disenfranchised, and hold parties accountable. Food writing, in particular, examines diversity from a universal entry point.

Grains preserve the breaking of bread. Vegetables evoke tenacity. Meat begs mortality. Fruit arouses pleasure. Worcester knows how to eat.

Endangered Editors

Barbara Houle has been Worcester’s preeminent food writer since the days when dining was considered “women’s news” and “having social media” meant piling into a car with Julia Child for an impromptu reporters’ road trip. “She was a friend,” Houle says of the famous chef and television personality, adding, “She always asked what was going on in Worcester when she saw me. At that time, there weren’t as many restaurants, but she was especially interested in our vocational school.” Houle has brushed elbows with plenty of celebrity chefs and food personalities over the years, including James Beard whom she encountered on several occasions over the course of her time with Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Veteran food writer, Barbara Houle praises Executive Chef Bill Brady. Sarah Connell, right. Outside of the interior entrance of Sonoma at the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, MA.
Veteran food writer, Barbara Houle praises Executive Chef Bill Brady. Sarah Connell, right. Outside of the interior entrance of Sonoma at the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, MA.

Houle still writes a highly regarded food news column each week for Worcester Telegram & Gazette as a freelance contributor, but of her editorial peers from the dawn of her career, she is the only one left standing. “I keep going,” she explains, taking a sip of her coffee at the counter of the Table Talk Pie Outlet on Green Street, “Because when you’re in it so long, especially today with all of these restaurants opening in Worcester. It’s still kind of exciting, you know?”

The immediacy of online journalism doesn’t appeal to Houle personally, but she can understand why outlets have grown so competitive. And, while she thinks of herself as a newspaper columnist, it’s not lost on her that most people access her work via their mobile phones. Houle still taps into Worcester’s timeless curiosity because restaurants are a microcosm of the city’s cultural identity. “Even if people don’t eat out all the time, they just want to know what’s going on,” she says.

As for criticism, she’s cognizant that a bad review can break a local business, but she’s always honest. “Your job is to get it right. You have to go back more than once,” Houle insists. As a rule, she never reviews restaurants anymore.

Mass Foodies writer, Veronica, sharing a meal with Barbara Houle and Corporate Executive Chef Mark Hawley at VIA Italian Table.
Mass Foodies writer, Veronica, sharing a meal with Barbara Houle and Corporate Executive Chef Mark Hawley at VIA Italian Table.

Hospitality growth has quickly emerged as one of the first indicators of the city’s rejuvenation. Fifty-four common victualer licenses were awarded in 2017 alone, allowing establishments to cook, prepare, and serve food throughout the city of Worcester. New York City, arguably the food capital of the world, is located only 170 miles away. Furthermore, it is rare for a mother-metropolis like Boston to sit a mere 42 miles from its second-city. In this case, close proximity has allowed for a new generation of chefs to incite mass migration from Boston to Central Mass in favor of cheaper rents and eager investors. (See: Kummerspeck, deadhorse hill, and B.T.’s Smokehouse.)

Every chef wants to open his or her own spot with their ’40 Under 40′ eligibility intact and Worcester is happy to accommodate. The public school system is doing its best to keep pace by churning out a skilled kitchen workforce complete with food safety certifications. Worcester’s robust culinary arts educational pathways have always been ahead of their time. (Julia Child knew it.)

In Worcester, the food business is booming. The food writing business is not.

Stop the Presses

Houle had many contemporaries when she began her career as a food editor, but the title has grown increasingly rare as major food-focused publications like Gourmet Magazine and Lucky Peach have shuttered their presses.

William Sertl, Ruth Reichl, and John
“Doc” Willoughby at “Beyond the Plate,” a food symposium hosted at Edgewood Farm in Truro in June 2018.

Ruth Reichl served as the Editor in Chief of Gourmet for a decade up until it folded in 2009. Before that, she was the restaurant critic at both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Reichl has received six James Beard Awards over the course of her career. At “Beyond the Plate,” a food symposium hosted by Truro Center for the Arts in June, she reminisced about growing up with Gourmet in the 40’s and 50’s before it grew “stodgy.” At that time, great literary writers like Ray Bradbury were given room to breathe in the magazine’s pages. Reichl watched Gourmet turn into what she calls, “One of those magazines for rich people to plan their vacations and figure out what recipes to give to their cooks.” When she was approached about becoming Editor in Chief, she told publisher Condé Nast, “I want to write about race and gender. I want to write about food as culture. It seems to me that the magazine has a monotone voice.”

Reichl accepted the job under the condition that Gourmet would incorporate a diverse range of contributors. “I want to talk about the issues that really matter,” she told the publisher.

“At the time, we were all interested in genetic modification,” she remembers. She made her approach clear to Condé Nast stating, “I’d like to get people to write on both sides of the issue. I do not want to do this polite magazine like things have always been.”

The publisher gave her their blessing, but many longtime Gourmet subscribers saw the new guard as pretentious. “If you have David Foster Wallace writing for you. It’s ‘elitist,’ right? If you’re writing about bioethics, it’s ‘elitist.’ I mean, we were asking people to bring their minds to the magazine and I think as it changed from being ‘lifted pinky’ to more intellectual, people still considered it ‘elitist,’” Reichl recalls.

There was one subset of readers that Reichl relished reaching more than anyone: the cooks. The best writers understood this most of all. “It’s really interesting to me that when we were fighting with David Foster Wallace about the edit of ‘Consider the Lobster’ there were some references that we couldn’t live with. He argued over every comma – literally,” she remembers.

Reichl said to him, “Look, this piece is brilliant. Anyone will publish it, you know you can take it to The New Yorker, you can take it to Harper’s; you will not have a problem finding a place for this wonderful article. But, you want to publish it in Gourmet because you want to reach the cooks. You want every person who is about to put a lobster in a pot to think about what it means to put that lobster in the pot. And so we came to the foundation.”

The present state of food writing pains her for one simple reason. “The important pieces about what’s going on at the farms and food history and culture are not being put into places where cooks have easy access to them. I think that’s a problem,” she says.

Reichl sees food as a serious subject. “I mean, we all know that the food supply is in trouble and we know that community is about food and the whole way that the world looks at food has changed. A whole generation of kids have grown up thinking of eating as an ethical issue and that is a huge change,” she says. Unfortunately, ethics rarely pay the bills.

“We knew that the Internet was important,” Reichl recalls. She begged for Gourmet to have a standalone website, but all of the food content from Bon Appetit, Parade, and Gourmet went into a different holding called Epicurious. When Gourmet’s website finally came online, it cost millions of dollars. Despite the price tag for twelve full-time cooks, a videographer, and eight state-of-the-art test-kitchens, Epicurious continued to collect the advertising revenue for every recipe.

Gourmet’s Travel Editor at the time, William Sertl, recalls the birth of clickbait. “Numbers on the covers were always important,” he says, “Someone asked when are you going to stop doing ‘twelve of this,’ and ‘fifteen of that’?”

Condé Nast’s reply was simple: “When it stops selling magazines.”

Gourmet’s Executive Editor John “Doc” Willoughby adds, “If you looked at Eater until recently, it was crap. It’s just, ‘Here are the seven restaurants you absolutely have to be at tomorrow.’ It’s the worst approach to food.” Willoughby applauds writers like Helen Rosner of The New Yorker who adhere to the editorial process and take the time to write well-researched food stories.

As one of the most esteemed restaurant reviewers in American history, Reichl understands the gravity of criticism in the age of Yelp. “I think the few remaining paid restaurant critics are probably the best critics we’ve ever had because they have to be so much better to merit being paid and they’re good writers and researchers and they’re knowledgeable, which is new,” she says. Reichl actually applauds Yelp’s role in cultivating smarter consumers of information who will question a reviewer’s motivation or incentive.

When asked how she leveraged honesty to readers with the economic impact negative reviews have on small businesses, Reichl grew starkly serious. “When I was a critic, I was very focused on the fact that my readers were who I worked for. I did not work for the industry.” Her reviews were not written for “wealthy white men.” Reichl wrote for everyone, not just for rich people.

“When I went to the LA Times, it was kind of scary because I was suddenly a voice,” she remembers. Reichl kept a photograph of a poor young couple by her desk and imagined it was she and her husband at the start of their marriage when they were living in a commune and could only afford to eat at a restaurant once a year. “Every time I was inclined to pull my punches, I would think, ‘You know something? I’m going to send them to a restaurant just that one time and I have to tell the truth,’” she says. “Nobody believes you if you only write good things. I mean if you can’t write negative reviews, you shouldn’t be doing it. You just have to tell the truth or there’s no point to criticism,” she concludes.

Can Minor League Baseball Save Food Media for our Gateway City?

Print media may be dying in 2018, but the flow of real-time communication has heightened tenfold. In Houle’s tenure, Worcester Telegram & Gazette has been passed around between everyone from The New York Times Company to Red Sox owner John W. Henry. At current, the Telegram is at the hands of juggernaut Gatehouse Media. According to their website, Gatehouse publishes 145 daily newspapers, 340 community publications and more than 570 local market websites that reach 23 million people each week.

Larry Lucchino celebrates the new home of the AAA Red Sox affiliate in Worcester.

Worcester is a “Gateway City,” a midsize urban center that anchors Central Massachusetts’ economy. Historically, when manufacturing jobs receded in the area, resources followed suit. This effectively left Worcester rich with what MassINC refers to as ”unrealized potential.” A solid media presence is inextricably linked to economic development.

In a landscape where all of America’s newspapers are being scooped up by billionaires, the local beat (food and otherwise) has grown increasingly sparse. When the Boston Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate announced in August that they would move to Worcester by 2021, the region clamored for diligent coverage. The Minor League Baseball story drew national media attention to Worcester with unprecedented optimism. With the ballpark’s construction price tag hovering at $240-million, a journalistic frenzy ensued.

The ballpark design will be overseen by Larry Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith who are purportedly the foremost leaders in ballpark design in the country. Lucchino and Smith are responsible for the return of urban ballparks following decades of suburban relocation. The City of Worcester’s plan emphasizes, “The ballpark will be designed to seamlessly fit into the Canal District and complement the existing feel of the area.” If all goes according to plan, preserving the neighborhood’s character will prove a top priority.

The Red Sox deal includes 65,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space in addition to market-rate apartments and two hotels. With the infrastructure laid for millions of dollars in restaurant development, the time is ripe for writers who can illuminate food as culture in a city struggling to realize its potential.

New England is no stranger to the package marketing of sports and food. In 2013, the region’s most-watched sports network launched a successful weekly television show called Dining Playbook. There’s no telling what the Worcester Red Sox might bring in terms of new media, new restaurants, and new opportunities, but it seems clear that the city has effectively positioned itself for a rebirth of economic success.

Lessons from Gourmet Magazine

If Worcester is to learn anything from Condé Nast’s mistakes, it is that food writing extends well beyond top ten lists and recipes. Moreover, there is no sense in critiquing each and every corporate restaurant that will inevitably make up a sizeable chunk of the 65,000 square feet of a ballpark development deal. Reviews are intended for professionals who set a high bar and demand specific standards. Just because 54 new restaurants open in a single year doesn’t mean each one must be immediately assessed in print. Evaluative press should be reserved for a particular caliber of establishment.

In Worcester, it seems every eatery warrants a review. If food writing is to survive, it must become a vehicle for serious conversations about farms, culture, and sustainability. Worcester can learn from entities like Eater who began as nothing more than reputable clickbait and now pull in James Beard nominations by the fistful. The necessity of advertising revenue and a wide range of consumer needs requires a place for corporate chains on superlative fried pickle lists and pre-game guides, but establishments looking to be reviewed seriously should self-identify.

Julia Auger, General Manager of deadhorse hill in Worcester, pointed out recently that The New York Times’ restaurant reviewer, Pete Wells, has likely dined in thousands of establishments but he wouldn’t dare review them all. Auger labors the point that receiving even one star from The New York Times means something. The fact that Wells chooses to review a restaurant makes for good press in and of itself, regardless of how many stars he bestows.

Writing about food means writing about discovery and survival. There is room for meaningful storytelling. What’s more, local coverage cannot simply cater to residents of Worcester’s wealthy West Side and its suburbs; to endure, content has to speak to the cooks. Worcester’s food media must be honest if it is to succeed.

Believe it or not, Yelp has cultivated a smarter age of consumers. Executive Director of Discover Central Mass Stephanie Ramey sees expectations growing as organizations set out to plan meetings and conferences in the city of Worcester. “Beyond wanting function facilities with size and technological specifications, they want culture and experiences,” she says. And it’s not just the usual suspects. “There are so many different restaurants; we have a really eclectic assortment. Often, we find neighborhood places to highlight when we push content out and people ask, ‘Why didn’t you include this place?’” Ramey has doubled down on her utilization of the community’s eyes and ears. “People want authentic experiences,” she acknowledges, adding, “There was a time when you had to leave the city to try new cuisine. Now we are pulling people here. People are hungry for what’s next.”

A comprehensive report released by the Seven Hills Foundation in 2015 revealed that “Worcester is home to an estimated 37,970 immigrants from 85 countries, which make up 21 percent of the city’s total population.” The majority of these foreign-born residents arrived after 1990, shaping the city of Worcester into a model for multiculturalism.

For food writing to succeed in Worcester, it cannot be polite. It cannot speak in monotone. It cannot smack of pretension. As the city enters its next phase of development, dining will clue us into the culture we have built for ourselves as a community. There will be a place for corporate giants, but they cannot become the loudest voices. When our ethnic markets, our farms, our butchers, and our beekeepers have tales to tell, it is our obligation to lift them up. Large media outlets will be wise to listen for them over the din of construction and recognize that food writing can serve to safeguard Worcester’s progress. To echo the declaration of Boston Red Sox legend Pedro Martinez earlier this week, Worcester is not just the heart of the Commonwealth – it is the heart of New England.

Worcester Wine Festival 2017

The Second Annual Worcester Wine Festival

Order Tickets Online »

As a supporter and sponsor of the Worcester Wine Festival we were happy to hear the second annual “week of wine” is scheduled from September 4th  through the 9th; with the Grand Tasting taking place on Saturday, September 8th at Union Station in Worcester.

Organizers of the Worcester Wine Festival had one thing on their mind when they conceived of last year’s inaugural event: sophistication. Given all of the positive growth in the hospitality industry over the last few years, organizers and sponsors felt Worcester deserved this. They hoped it would be a two-day symposium intended for wineries, distributors, and vineyards to reach area restaurants, stores, and consumers. When nearly 1,500 participants turned out for the inaugural festival, the festival’s founders knew they had tapped into something that was missing and needed in the region.

This year, the Worcester Wine Festival will grow three times in size, stretching to six days of intimate paired dinners, nuanced brunches, and of course – the Grand Tasting at Union Station. The festivities will run from September 4th-9th in and around Worcester.

The Festival’s wine dinners and brunches will be held at area restaurants known for their wine programs and include Willy’s Steakhouse, Bocado Wine Bar, Sonoma at the Beechwood, deadhorse hill, Altea’s, and Lock 50. Chefs will prepare exclusive pairing menus for the occasion and have an intimate dinner within their restaurant for a small number of attendees. Tickets are on sale now.

The Grand Tasting is set to return to Union Station on Saturday, September 8th and remains the most hotly anticipated event of the busy week. A variety of excellent food vendors will also be on hand providing samples and sustenance for guests. A limited number of VIP tickets are still available on the Worcester Wine Festival’s website. The VIP Lounge includes tastings of exclusive wines, complimentary small bites, premium hydration, and comfortable seating.

 

Order Tickets Online »

The Chefs and MC of Chopped! Worcester (2017) Food News

Recap Map: Last Month’s Happenings

In Praise of…

Wildwood Mushrooms: Nestled in the historic Manchaug Mills in Sutton, Massachusetts, Brad Allain has created a controlled lab where mushrooms are cultivated for restaurants like deadhorse hill, Kummerspeck, and BirchTree Bread Co. in addition to local markets like Living Earth and Ed Hyder’s Mediterranean Marketplace.

miracle at The CitizenAtmospheres and Appetites

Mare E Monti: Guests are invited for a real Italian family experience – to relax, and to simply enjoy their meals in an atmosphere that resembles the seaside coast and the mountains of Italy.

#FamilyEats

Legacy Bar and Grill: There comes a point in the family dining experience where parents sometimes look at each other and question their decision to bring the kiddos to dine out, but the concept of family dining is embedded in the very existence of Legacy Bar & Grill.

Pairings

Kummerspeck: Fried chicken Monday at Kummerspeck also means $5 cans of Medusa – a combination sure to bring the balance and fulfillment that you need to start your week. Chef/owners Matt Mahoney and Rachel Coit have picked a worthy pair to entice, offering first responders and teachers 10% off their bills (excluding alcohol) on fried chicken Mondays all summer long.

Food News

Fratelli’s Corner Crust Pizza is under new ownership.

Worcester Art Museum Cafe is extending its hours.

Miracle, NYC’s popular holiday-themed pop-up bar, will return to The Citizen in Worcester.

Jeremiah’s Inn will sponsor the 2nd Annual Chopped! Worcester with competitors from deadhorse hill, Maddi’s Cookery and Taphouse, Kummerspeck, and BT’s Smokehouse.

Food Feed

Brad Allain and the Wild World of Wildwood Mushrooms…

Let’s get some things out of the way about Brad Allain and the mushrooms he grows at his small gourmet mushroom farm, Wildwood Mushrooms, in Sutton: No, Brad does not grow mushrooms in his basement (it’s a completely above ground operation housed in the historic Manchaug Mill in the Blackstone Valley). No, his mushrooms do not grow in the dark (only white button mushrooms do – they are basically creminis deprived of light). No, not all mushroom foragers and farmers look like some grizzled woodsman in Wellies (I mean, look at him). And no, sorry Dead fans and anyone else looking to “trip,” Brad does not sell magic mushrooms – his are for culinary journeys not hallucinogenic ones.

Brad Allain of Wildwood Mushrooms of Sutton, MA
Brad Allain of Wildwood Mushrooms of Sutton, MA

That said, one bite and Brad’s mushrooms will blow your mind.

Don’t take my word for it: taste any of the mycophagous pleasures Jared Forman and Robin Clark of deadhorse hill or Matt Mahoney and Rachel Coit of Kummerspeck or Rob Fecteau of BirchTree Bread create using Wildwood’s mushrooms. They are just some of the chefs and restaurants that have lined up for the exquisite, fresh, local, and uber-tasty mushrooms Brad has produced since he opened in January 2018. Or better yet pick up some mushrooms at the Shrewsbury, Natick, Lexington, and Roslindale farmer’s markets, Whittier Farms in Sutton, Foppema’s Farm in Northbridge, Living Earth in Worcester, and starting this fall at Ed Hyder’s in Worcester and cook up tastiness for yourself.

And don’t stick to the familiar. Shitake may happen but that’s just one of the fungus among us thanks to Wildwood. You really ought to try like lion’s mane, oyster, pioppino, and chestnut. Brad grows 6 to 10 varieties at Wildwood and to create them he must be equal parts farmer, scientist, artist, and detective. Gourmet mushroom growing in general is a craft and replicating it indoors it is even more challenging. The process stretches over weeks and requires several rooms and steps, much of the work customized by Brad.

“Mushroom farming in general is very proprietary, and there are a lot of variables,” Brad says. “That’s why you don’t see a lot of gourmet mushroom farms anywhere. But I’m in love with the process. You have to put it all together in a way that works. You have to know how to read the mushrooms themselves. This whole world is amazing and really piques my interest because it is still so unknown. Even experienced mycologists are learning new things. The intrigue and mystery of the world of fungus is super interesting.”

Not that Brad grew up knowing this was his destiny. He didn’t forage in the woods while other kids played sports or video games, eating mushrooms like Sour Patch Kids. He graduated Linden State in Vermont with a degree in adventure recreation management, which led to work doing outdoor guiding like whitewater rafting. The traveling and seasonal lifestyle that came with that eventually wore on him, so he left the land completely, jumped on a Tall Ship, and lived and worked on it for three years. When he returned home, he built a tiny house on wheels and looked for what was next.

“I was always fascinated with growing and nature and the woods,” Brad explains. “I came across a continuing education class on mushroom growing in 2015 and thought mushrooms and fungus were fascinating. They are everywhere. They are essential to the ecosystem.”

The mushroom part of that ecosystem starts with the wood-loving mushrooms Brad grows – primary decomposers that break down raw hardwoods and grow on them. Secondary decomposers like portabellas like the compost left behind. They work symbiotically to break down trees into soil. But replicating this process inside is challenging, from trying to control all the environmental conditions to preventing contamination and ensuring the quality Brad expects. Hearing him describe it makes me wish I paid more attention in high school biology.

The Process

The entire farm and process at Wildwood has been designed and customized by Brad. It begins with batch mixing: Mixing substrate that mimics the wood the mushrooms grow on in nature (oak or hardwood sawdust) with the fungus strain he wants to grow. This is the start of creating mycelium, the vegetative part of the mushrooms that grow underground. It will soon colonize the substrate, meaning grow until it takes over the dark wood and the entre bag becomes white.

Brad dials in a moisture level on the water meter, which is connected to valves that disperse the moisture evenly inside the mixer – a different “recipe” depending on the size of the batch and variety of mushroom. Once mixed, a pedal-operated pneumatic cylinder efficiently pushes out the mixture into plastic bags with HEPA filters that allow them to breathe and the mycelium to colonize without particle contamination.

From there, the bagged substrate mixture gets placed on racks and rolled into the sterile laboratory where Brad has modified a former Pizza Hut dough proofer – essentially an insulated stainless-steel box – into a 11,000-watt sterilization cabinet. A microcomputer precisely heats the bags to 205 degrees for 18.5 hours and then gradually cools then down over 5 to 7 days. Brad monitors the process carefully to make sure there are no issues, that clean air is constantly being replaced in the bags as they cool, and the things he doesn’t want (bacteria, yeast, mold spores) get out and stay out.

“It’s a mix between art and science,” Brad notes. “If my mushrooms are growing a way I don’t like, I can look for issues like high CO2 content or low humidity and adjust.”

Once the bags are cooled, Brad injects them with a spawn (inoculated grain like millet or rye berries) to allow the fungus to propagate, seals them up, and tosses them in a dryer to mix everything evenly. Then it’s off to the climate-controlled incubation or grow room where the mushrooms do their thing.

If the process so far has been mechanical and lab-driven (like a biomedical facility and a machine shop had a baby), the grow room is the progeny of a walk-in fridge and Invasion of the Body Snatchers: simultaneously beautiful, fascinating, and maybe initially a little disconcerting. But looking closely at the heads of lion’s manes poking from the bags and dangling from the racks or all the colors of oyster mushrooms reaching for the air you are nothing but captivated … and really hungry.

Selling Shrooms

Kummerpeck Crispy Herbed Spaetzle with Wildwood Mushrooms Poached Duck Eggs and Summer Vegetable Ragu
Kummerpeck Crispy Herbed Spaetzle with Wildwood Mushrooms Poached Duck Eggs and Summer Vegetable Ragu

It wasn’t long after Brad opened that he won the love of the chef community and the booming Worcester restaurant and food scene. “Good quality mushrooms in general are hard to come by,” says Brad. “Most mushrooms that chefs and people who love to cook have available to them are from Pennsylvania or large national mushroom companies. By the time they get to us they are old, and mushrooms don’t have a great shelf life and don’t travel well. They are fragile and delicate. So it’s essential for them to be as local as possible to get from farmer to chef in the shortest amount of time. Jared Forman was my first supporter and it just grew from there. When I bring my product to chefs they know it is special. They want to support it and get more. It’s essential for a farmer like me to have that support system in the culinary community.”

Not that Brad was surprised by the response. He got into the business knowing it was a niche that needed to be filled and like any passionate entrepreneur, he worked his butt off to make those connections and fill the void for what his customers demanded:

“I am not reinventing the wheel or offering varieties that are unique. I am giving chefs access on a routine basis to a really high-quality fresh mushrooms every single week. Whatever they want. I’m harvesting and delivering straight to them unlike the stuff that gets to them a week and a half old with a shorter shelf life.”

Not to mention more usable product. Brad’s controlled environments allows the caps get nice and big so there is more to work with and less going to compost. Customers have responded at farmer’s markets too. Lion’s mane is the most popular for its medicinal value, while oysters are the closest to a gateway mushroom for those just wading in. They are familiar but perhaps not with the off-the-charts flavor and in the golden, pink, blue colors of Brad’s. (A bit of advice from Brad: Do not eat raw mushrooms. The chitin or cell wall is hard for our bodies to break it down so cook them any way you want.)

 

Brad pictured with Zack Slik outside their Sutton lab.
Brad pictured with Zack Slik outside their Sutton lab.

The result of all this demand is leading to a happy looming problem: With business mushrooming, Wildwood will likely need to expand. For now Brad has brought on his first employee to help: Zack Slik, a musician cum mushroom farmer well known around Worcester and who loves the art behind the science.

For Brad, the only downside to all the success with his indoor farm is he does miss the outdoor life: “I still like to forage a few times a year in the woods. There is something special about that. It brings me back to the land and where they came from.”

 

The Chefs and MC of Chopped! Worcester (2017) Food Feed

Jeremiah’s Inn to Sponsor 2nd Annual Chopped! Worcester

In Worcester, the prevalence of hunger is twice that than the Commonwealth. One in 3 children living in our city are facing hunger. You can help make a difference by attending Jeremiah’s Inn 2nd Annual Chopped! Worcester.

Jeremiah’s Inn houses one of 29 food pantries in Worcester, and more than 9,000 people who are struggling with hunger turn to us for help each year. At each visit, we provide each client with 60-75 pounds of food, including produce, milk, meat, eggs and cheese. The Inn also runs a residential treatment program for men suffering from a substance abuse disorder.

Chopped!Worcester will be held on Monday, September 24th from 5:30-8:30pm in the Odeum Room in the Rubin Campus Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

Using ingredients one would find in a food pantry, four local chefs will go head to head, creating an appetizer and an entrée in under 40 minutes. Their food will be evaluated by a panel of 3 judges. After both rounds are complete, a winner will be declared.

This year’s contestants are: Chris O’Harra from Maddi’s Cookery and TapHouse, Rachel Coit from Kummerspeck, Bill Nemeroff from BT’s Smokehouse and Robin Clark from deadhorse hill.

This year, we’re auctioning off a seat at the judge’s table! One lucky bidder gets the exclusive opportunity to join our panel of judges, sample and critique the creations, and vote for the winner of the coveted “Golden Cleaver” award!! For more information about that, people can visit our auction page at www.biddingOwl.com/JeremiahsInn. Food writer Jim Eber will be this year’s MC.

Order tickets online.