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.

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.”

 

Worcester Foodies Group

Simjang – American-Korean Flavors in the Heart of Worcester

One of Worcester’s most anticipated restaurant openings was this past spring as simjang opened their doors in March on Shrewsbury Street, in the space that once housed Sweet Kitchen + Bar.

The name simjang comes from combining a few Korean words – Sim for “heart” and Jang for the concept of the “world around us.” Executive Chef and Co-owner Jared Forman (deadhorse hill) and Chef de Cuisine Mike Wenc have led the team since the opening and the Foodies were anxious to try the latest addition to the always changing Worcester restaurant scene.

Simjang has been well received by the community at large. Having spoken to many about their experience, most people have found the menu to be a bit intimidating at first but after some explanation by a well-trained staff, feel comfortable enough to go outside their comfort zone and enjoy some traditional Korean ingredients, flavors, and dishes.

The layout of the space itself hasn’t changed since Sweet was there, the big industrial-styled dining room and the open view of the kitchen are basically the same. The décor has been updated to fit the contemporary theme of the restaurant and our Foodie sister Amy tells us, the brightly colored painted mural behind the bar (by POW! WOW! Worcester muralist Arlin Graff) is meant to reflect the meaning behind the name simjang. The mural is beautifully vibrant and sets the tone for what to expect from the food!

Once we all arrived we were seated immediately and our server (Joy) began the process of taking drink and app orders. To start, we were served a delightful plate of kimchi-style pickled small tastes which were well received by the group. Looking down the long table I saw a variety of drinks from bourbons to fanciful, tall sweet drinks with a few Narragansett Tall Boys mixed in for good measure.

The shareable chicken wings and thighs seemed to be a popular way to start the evening’s activities. “The miso-soy garlic chicken thighs were some of the most delicious “wings” I’ve ever tasted. The sauce made you want to take another bite, and the skin was super crispy, while the tender chicken on the interior was moist and flavorful. This item alone is enough to bring me back for more,” said Evan.

Apps complete, the main dishes began to arrive. Amy offered, “I ordered the Kimchijeon (scallion kimchi pancake) and was not disappointed. The size was substantial and offered hearty pieces of pickled muscle giving the pancake a true level of distinction and robust flavor! Scott ordered the same meal and thought it was “delicious” as well!

Robyn ordered the Mulgogi (whole fish) which was served with green empress, daikon, apple, fried shallot and cashews and she described “…it was amazing and something I would go back and order again. It was flavorful and cooked to flaky perfection.

Evan offered that simjang was “innovative Korean-American fusion with menu items that are unique in their own right but familiar enough to take a chance and order something delicious. For my meal, I ordered the Bibimbap with Pork Belly which was a delightfully bright dish with fresh veggies, a fabulous textured creation with the crispy rice, and a fried egg to top it all off. The pork belly was rich and fatty, like the best bacon on steroids you could eat. All in all, one of my best restaurant experiences from start to finish in a long time”.

Julie was very enthusiastic, “The Nuri buttered rice was uniquely delicious and really a meal unto itself. I also had the haemul jjigae (spicy seafood stew) which was served piping-hot and full of flavorful fish, scallops, and shrimp. The spice brought the dish to a different level”.

Stephanie added, “I went way out of my comfort zone and the staff and chef made every accommodation possible because of my food allergies. The Pineapple Fried Rice is a must try and absolutely fabulous”.

“The food was fantastic, a delicious mix of flavors with great tastes. I do think the portion sizes of my meal were on the small side. I had the pork rib special and thought it was appetizer sized for the main dish,” said Dana.

Personally, I had the Nori rice and the Bibimbap and found both to be tremendous. The fatty, melt in your mouth pork belly, combined with the crispy fried rice and fried egg made a flavor-packed, fulfilling comfort-food meal that left me wanting to return.

To the person, we all felt the service was outstanding. Our server Joy was very attentive, knew the menu very well and had great input about choices. As it happens with our larger group, some meals arrived very late to the table but we will chalk that up to the size of our group.

Overall we were incredibly pleased with our experience at simjang and many of us made a point to say we will definitely return to try some new items.

A recent selection of oysters from simjang's raw bar on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photography for Mass Foodies) Food Feed

In Praise of The Raw Bar at Simjang

When I was 13, I lost myself in the buttery warm layers of a warm apple tart from Poilâne Bakery in Paris walking up the Rue du Cherche-Midi. I was so captivated by it, I smashed headfirst into a black iron lamp post. (I saved the tart.)

Something similar happened when I first spotted the raw bar at simjang, the new bunsik-style American-Korean contemporary restaurant from the team behind deadhorse hill. Walking into the restaurant, the allure of the glass case filled with oysters, clams, fish, a Dungeness crab, and incredible tiny scallops pulled me left, away from the host stand, and straight into the edge of the actual bar.

Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

Simjang is Korean for heart and with its raw bar the restaurant is clearly wearing its heart on its sleeve. That raw bar may be just several feet of oysters and other bivalve mollusks and fish but its display is exciting and enticing – a heady mixture of love, passion, and taste. Especially those oysters. Eight varieties of different sizes and species the days I visited, each calling to me with their disparate flavors the way no other spot in town does.

Now before you think my heart analogy is anatomically north of why those oysters have such appeal, the notion that oysters are an aphrodisiac is scientifically unproven. The idea has been around for millennia but there’s nothing conclusive. But at the risk of sounding like I am perpetuating the power of fake news: science be damned. Oysters may be a placebo for desire, but as George Costanza said on Seinfeld, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman understands. In one context, he called oysters “sexy.” But that was just one context of many. Forman is delighted to do a deep dive into his experience and knowledge of the shallow waters that hold those oyster beds. His tour around the half-dozen oysters I tasted revealed a chef intimately connected to what he serves.

Forman starts with two oysters from the Damariscotta River in Maine. The Maine coast “where the ocean meets the forest” down to Massachusetts captivates Forman, whose definition of a beach was New York City’s Coney Island, which hasn’t been home to oysters since the 19th century. He is particularly rapt by Glidden Points, which look like an oyster that walked (yes, they have a foot) out of central casting. Bottom planted without cages and hand-harvested by divers, they sink into the oxygenated silt and “live in that beautiful muck and do their oyster thing.” With a self-effacing grin, Forman calls them “a fat kid’s oysters” – given their size they shouldn’t be as perfect as they are, but these are meaty, super salty, and perfect. (Case in point, when simjang had some giant Oregon oysters that would be decidedly undelicious raw, they were cooked on the wood-fired grill and sliced.)

Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The other Maine oyster on offer during my visit was a Belon. Belons are the legendary European flat oyster of Brittany and true Belons come only from the Belon River there. But Maine Belons seem an equally fine version. Despite their growing proximity, these look and taste nothing like the Glidden Points, which are eastern or Virginica oysters. Belons are a different species entirely and are easily identified in the case where they are wrapped in rubber bands to preserve their freshness and moisture as they lack the ability to keep themselves closed out of water. Like the Glidden Points, Forman notes, these wild Belons are not a beginner’s oyster: “They are super coppery and interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend a half-dozen unless you know what you’re getting into.”

For those who need a gateway oyster, Forman heads south to Massachusetts and Island Creek Oysters – but not the company’s amazing namesake from Duxbury. These are Beach Points, which the company gets from Barnstable. “They are the perfect beginner oyster,” says Forman. “Delicious and easy to love. Nice and salty and crisp. These are for anyone but especially those who come in and want to try oysters but never had one before. The name even sounds approachable.”

Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The final Virginica or eastern oyster on the plate is a Puffer Petite from Wellfleet Massachusetts. The greenish shell signals its more vegetal flavor but as Forman notes, “It still has that easy brininess.” That brininess is in perfect contrast to the sweetness of two West Coast oysters, the first of which has its origins in Asia and is grown in Williapa Bay, Washington: the Shigoku. Redolent of cucumber and melon, Forman calls them the “ultimate expression of a West Coast oyster,” their sweetness coming from the fact they are a lot less salty than their eastern brethren. These Shigokus are also defined by deep cups which Forman explains comes from the tumbling the oysters like rocks to break off the edges and force them to grow down, not out, which makes for a “real chewy oyster experience.”

Finally, there’s the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. They are tiny compared to the Gliddens and Belons but buyer beware: these too are not for beginners. “They pack the biggest punch in terms of flavor in the entire case,” Forman says. “They have an appealingly tinny metallic quality to them.”

Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

At simjang, the plate of oysters comes with key limes not lemon – tasty and because as Forman notes, “they’re just so darn cute.” For an additional Korean twist, a fish sauce mignonette and a cocktail sauce spiked with gochujang, the legendary Korean red chili paste based condiment come on the side. Enjoy it all with a bubbly glass of Alice, the Osé Rose Brut Vino Spumante, or Medusa’s “Jang,” made exclusively for simjang.

Forman’s Korean connection to oysters dates back to when he worked for Korean-American chef David Chang at Momofuku. (For a look at the Korean raw and cooked seafood tradition, check out the recent Olympic eating story in the New York Times.) Forman had helped prepare Thomas Keller’s famed “oysters and pearls” dish at Per Se, but the passion and personal connection came from working with Chang. Inspired, Forman set off to know oysters the way Bo Jackson knows sports. (Jackson is one of two players, along with Massachusetts native Howie Long, from Forman’s beloved Oakland Raiders who adorn the simjang walls.). He explored flavors of different oysters, studied their history in America and the world, researched their environmental benefits, befriended farmers who grew them, and tried out different knives to shuck them. (He prefers a smaller New Haven style oyster knife from Dexter Russell in Massachusetts.)

Like many chefs, Forman prides himself on the connections he has with the farmers who provide the oysters and everything on display in the raw bar like littleneck (and soon Manilla) clams. But he gets kinda misty-eyed when we get to those stunning small scallops. Their size says “bay” but they are actually baby Atlantic sea scallops, which are. . . illegal to harvest wild.

Executive chef Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Boasting the region’s finest raw bar, simjang brings in an exotic mix of oysters, including the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Posted by Mass Foodies on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

But before you go calling the food police, Forman explains that they are actually legally farmed by lobstermen – something until recently he had never seen before. When they pull traps, there are always baby scallops clinging to the ropes. Instead of letting them just die on the boat, the lobstermen Forman works with “grab the tiny guys just like they were an oyster seed, put them in oyster bags, and drop them down into deep water so they are in their natural environment. When they are big enough, they pull the bags up and introduce some back into the environment because they can survive and sell the rest to us as a farm-raised crop. So we are not illegally harvesting but we are actually promoting healthy ecosystems.”

Simjang's spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Simjang’s spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

And oh the flavor. Raw they are just nuggets of pure sweet scallop joy. They may be expensive but worth every bite, most notably in the spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, Florida rock shrimp, and pieces of whatever fresh fish is around.

Simjang is more, of course, than its raw bar. That said, it would make Forman completely happy to just see people lined up at the deep rock maple bar having a Jang, oysters, Korean fried chicken, and heading happily off. But come back another time for the rest of the menu: “I love oysters, I love bold Korean flavors,” Forman says, “mixing them is what I think is great about this country and great about food.”

 

A Closer Look with Erb Photography

The dead horse hill staff sits down together every day at 4 o'clock to share a family meal. Food Feed

Family Secrets: Preparing for Saturday Night Service at deadhorse…

It’s 3:36 and deadhorse hill’s Executive Chef Jared Forman is crouching down at the end of the bar, eyeing the alignment of each water glass for precision. “Can someone please straighten these out?” he asks, striding to the front of the dining room and pausing before a towering flower vase near the windows. “The water needs to be changed when you have a moment,” he tells the two hosts who are hard at work, reviewing the evening’s reservations on a tablet. He tugs at a napkin until it is square with the edge of the table before completing another lap of the floor to make sure everything is just right for service.

Loyda Guzman and Ronnie Jenkinz prepare the deadhorse hill dining room for Saturday night service.

Co-owner Sean Woods is doing his best to get menus printed on time. “We change the menus often. Like, every day,” Forman tells me. But, today, the restaurant’s printer is on the fritz and Woods is pressed for time. In 86 minutes, every seat in the house will be full, but he seems entirely unfazed. Years of bartending have granted him composure. Woods offers me a cup of coffee before darting off to a local office building where he has called in a favor to get the menus printed in time for family meal. I am here to observe how Worcester’s prize restaurateurs prepare for a busy night and it has turned out to be nothing short of a spectacle.

Woods and Forman have both worked in plenty of restaurants where the front of house staff would be expected to arrive at 4:45 for a 5 o’clock shift, leaving no opportunity to “get on the same page” with one another. The duo knew from the start that they wanted deadhorse hill to be more team oriented than any of the other spots where they had worked. As a result, the staff sits down together every day at 4 o’clock to share a meal and find out what’s in store. “We get the time to just breathe together. Everybody needs to have that moment of zen where we’re all doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Only then we can move into service,” Woods explains.

Forman sees the value of family meal as two-fold. First, it’s about creating unity. “We want to make sure that everyone has a chance to sit down and eat together so that they feel like part of a family. Food is obviously why we’re in this business. It brings us all together,” he says. Tonight, everyone helps themselves to heaping plates of biscuits and gravy. They sip soda water from plastic quart containers and pullout bound notebooks filled with detailed scribbles.

Second, Forman and Woods use this time to educate their team. “My job is to give the staff the most knowledge possible about what each product is, where it’s coming from, all of the ingredients, and how we prepare it. They need a quick and succinct way to explain it to the guests, which is what we call our dropline,” Forman says. He knows that It is impossible for customers to look at most of his dishes and simply identify what is in front of them. Droplines account for the short, spirited descriptions communicated by the staff throughout one’s meal. Everything that hits the table offers a surprise and Forman never wants dining to feel robotic for his guests.

Robots aside, technology has taken on a crucial role for improving guest services. The front of house staff uses Reserve, a table management and restaurant reservations platform, to predict how quickly tables will turn and to record customer preferences. “Everybody knows when Bert and Anna come in, they love to sit at 63,” Forman reminds his team during staff meal, encouraging them to diligently review guests’ histories within the system.

“Is it their first time? Their birthday or anniversary? Do they have allergies, likes, or dislikes?” Woods adds.

By 4:47, customers are already streaming through the door, infiltrating the bar in anticipation of their 5 p.m. tables. Manager, Julia Auger strategically doles out positions. The staff tuck their notebooks away and disperse. I take advantage of the brief interlude to ask Forman and Woods what sort of information they have stored in the Reserve system about me, but they make a joke of it, hesitating to reveal everything behind the curtain.

When I sit down for dinner at 5:17, the chef sends out fat Cape Neddick oysters with a pickled ginger and pink peppercorn mignonette, followed by a velvety blue crab bisque with lemongrass aromatics and French style butter toasted sourdough croutons. I still haven’t a clue what Reserve’s discerning algorithm has to say about me, but if this spread is any indication, it seems to be on the right track. I watch bar customers lift water glasses to their lips and place them down haphazardly, oblivious to the meticulous curation that has occurred in deadhorse hill’s dining room all afternoon. It is, in fact, a marvel how Forman and Woods have managed to make sophisticated dining feel so effortless. The invisible and tireless attention to detail in the front of the house will no longer be lost on me.

Food Feed

Simjang’s Chef Mike Wenc Makes his Worcester Debut

This week, deadhorse hill’s little sister, simjang, finally made her debut under the watchful eyes of chef de cuisine Mike Wenc. Wenc has worked at a number of Boston’s top restaurants including Ribelle, Shepard, and Cafe du Pays. Wenc met executive chef Jared Forman six years ago at his very first cooking job – a stint at Strip T’s in Watertown.

Bachan including deviled eggs, yuzu mayo potato salad, sweet and sour fish, cucumber name, kimchi, and yellow pickled daikon.

At Worcester’s Best Chef on Sunday, Wenc told Mass Foodies, “Ever since he [Forman] opened deadhorse, he wanted me to come work for him, and it never worked out. But, finally, I was in between jobs and I came out here.” Worcester cast its spell on Wenc in no time.

The team of Wenc and Forman prepared a dish called “Korea Town in a Bite” for the occasion, a slow roasted pork belly bossam wrapped in mustard greens and served with kimchi and simjang mayo, then finished with scallions.

“We open March 1st on Shrewsbury Street in the old Sweet spot. We’re all really excited about it,” Wenc shared. The anticipated opening falls just three days after the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. The new concept is described as American-Korean and marks the second Worcester project for the leadership team of chef Forman, bar director Sean Woods, wine director Julia Auger, and co-owner Albert LaValley. “Simjang” is the Korean word for heart.

Fried Chicken

On Tuesday, curious customers flocked to deadhorse hill for the first taste of simjang’s menu at a preview event that drew an impressive crowd. Manager Ellen Benson reported that over 100 reservations had been taken for the preview, as of Monday evening.

The first look included bachan such as deviled eggs, yuzu mayo potato salad, cucumber namul, kimchi, yellow pickled daikon, and tiny pan-fried sweet and sour fish. The galibi, scallop crudo, offered bright punchy bites of crunchy soy, radish, and wintermelon in a chilly yuzu broth. The saelleodeu, Korean Caesar salad, combined mustard greens, tofu garlic dressing, gochutons, cured egg, and ultra crispy fish. Heartier plates included tteokbokki, sautéed rice cakes, with braised lamb shoulder, black garlic, and chunjang – salty black bean sauce. Derrick Walters, the mastermind behind deadhorse hill’s southern fried chicken thighs, was on hand in the dining room to try simjang’s take on fried chicken, served with a choice of miso soy roasted garlic, spicy gochujang, or salt and pepper.

Tteokbokki – sauteer rice cakes with braised lamb shoulder, black garlic, and chunjang.

Guests will find Woods behind the bar during the launch of the new restaurant. At Tuesday’s event, he provided a sneak peek at his vision for simjang’s cocktails. Offerings included his version of the Pain Killer and the Mai Tai alongside original creations like the Raft of Dead Monkeys and the Pineapple Expresso. The latter was made with tiki bitters, Parlor Coffee redux, lime juice, pineapple syrup, and Woods’ signature r(h)um blend. The striking cocktail was built in a large tiki glass with crushed ice, a swizzle straw, and a pineapple leaf garnish. Guests also enjoyed a selection of sake. Favorites included the junmai daiginjo & daiginjo, which emitted delicate notes of jasmine and the junmai ginjo & ginjo with aromas of fresh cut grass. 

soju bomb!

The team hopes simjang can be a “gateway” for Worcester’s epicurean scene. If Tuesday’s turn out is any indication, they’re already well on their way.

Simjang Worcester Food Feed

Simjang Announces January Menu Takeover Led by Opening Team

The simjang team will quell the region’s curiosity on January 30th when guests are invited for a first look and taste of the inaugural menu during a takeover at sister establishment, deadhorse hill. The fiercely anticipated American-Korean concept marks the second restaurant from Chef Jared Forman, Bar Director Sean Woods, Wine Director Julia Auger, and co-owner Albert LaValley.

 

The hoedeopbap (sliced fish, pickled vegetables, seawood, mushroom rice) from simjang worcester.
The hoedeopbap (sliced fish, pickled vegetables, seawood, mushroom rice) from simjang worcester.

Simjang announced its opening team this week including Mike Wenc, chef de cuisine, and Ellen Benson, general manager. The team previously worked together at Strip T’s in Watertown. Since 2012, Wenc has evolved his practice at Boston area favorites such as Ribelle, Shepard, and Cafe du Pays. Benson’s impressive resume includes management experience at Moody’s, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Giulia, in addition to nearly two years at deadhorse hill.

 

Simjang is the Korean word for “heart.” Recent social media posts advertising an open call for interviews revealed the makings of a “lovelock” bridge. The bridge harkens to a venerable European ritual in which sweethearts inscribed their initials on padlocks and affixed them to iconic bridges as a symbol of unbreakable romance. Detroit based artists, Arlin Graff, likewise contributed to the restaurant’s fresh interior with his vibrant mural of a human heart depicted as a complex, deconstructed organ. Graff’s other Worcester work, Bird #6, can be seen from deadhorse hill’s front stoop and has become synonymous with the restaurant. The new interior constitutes a sharp departure from that of previous occupant, Sweet, which was known for its soft pink decor.

Whereas Sweet served as an ideal venue for baby and wedding showers, Simjang will cater to a more diverse crowd. The new tenant’s emphasis on large plates built for sharing coupled with the availability of prepared foods will no doubt attract customers at neighboring institution, Wormtown Brewery. The brewery allows patrons to bring their own food. Conversely, Simjang will hold a full liquor license. Simjang is slated to open at 72 Shrewsbury Street in winter of 2018.

A press release issued on Tuesday indicated that Simjang’s January 30th preview will likely feature a selection of banchan (small dishes) like deviled eggs, sweet & sour fish, and yuzo mayo potato salad and more substantial plates like:

korean fried chicken | miso soy roasted garlic or spicy gochujang
korean caesar | tofu garlic dressing, crispy fish, lemons, gochutons, cured egg
hoedeopbap | sliced fish, pickled vegetables, seawood, mushroom rice
grilled live scallop | black garlic butter, scallion, celery, mung bean
pork belly bossam | ssamjang, perilla leaf, kimchi, herbs
chinese broccoli pancake | pickled mussels, wild sesame mayo

Food Feed

Worcester’s Food Wrap-Up: November

Restaurant juggernaut Danny Meyer is noted for his adage: “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple and that hard.” Here at Mass Foodies, we couldn’t agree more, which is why November marked the start of a new column by contributor Veronica Van Jura dedicated to Atmosphere and Appetites. As an abstract painter, Van Jura has always maintained vast appreciations for both interior design and the culinary arts. This month brought her to the new home of The Queen’s Cups, which she found sleek, classy, and marvelously inclusive. Van Jura also visited VIA Italian Table where she effectively located the “best seat in the house” – a rear nook containing a privately commissioned painting of Florence and a custom engraved table. She also notes that the bar was constructed in a shape which beckons for “love at first sight.” VIA is all about feelings.

Van Jura wasn’t the only Mass Foodies correspondent to visit VIA this month. I also had an opportunity to enjoy the hard labor of Corporate Executive Chef Mark Hawley for his first suckling pig dinner. Hawley has begun tinkering with family style experiences for small groups. “Tidy plates can be very nice, but sometimes I just want to eat like a family,” Hawley explains. Every eye in the restaurant followed the platter as General Manager Keith Carolan made an ornate presentation of the suckling pig, which took Chef Hawley an entire day to prepare.

Sonoma also made its Chef’s Dinner debut at the Beechwood Hotel with a well-attended media event featuring the likes of sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi with pancetta and escargot, mushroom and goat cheese strudel, and char-grilled Korean short rib. Chef Bill Brady commented on the transition from his former outpost in Princeton, noting the weight of adapting from a “five day dinnerhouse” to a “six o’clock in the morning to midnight, seven day a week, yearlong operation.” Beechwood Co-owners Dr. Charles and Jane Birbara were on hand for the evening. During an opening toast, Dr. Birbara recalled his strong instinct that Brady would be the only chef capable of elevating the one-of-a-kind boutique space to an entirely new plane.

White Hut Cheeseburg (via Facebook)
White Hut Cheeseburg (via Facebook)

Mass Foodies was proud to publish Chris Rassias’ first on-the-record remarks about his new venture, Josephine at the Hanover Theater. Rassias is the owner of Fairmont Grille in Boston’s Hyde Park. As a Worcester native, Rassias is excited to launch a new concept in his hometown inspired by the panache of 1920’s theater. For every new restaurant, it seems like another one falls. This time, it was The Chameleon at 166 Shrewsbury Street – a storied space marked by the arrest of its former owner earlier this year.

Still, other new additions to the area’s culinary landscape are faring well. The Worcester Foodies visited Kummerspeck where they enjoyed an homage to some American classics like chicken pot pie, and shrimp and grits. Robyn enjoyed chatting with head butcher Erin Hockey who has since departed to join the team at deadhorse hill on Main Street in preparation for an impending high profile opportunity looming on her horizon. Chef Jared Forman of deadhorse hill will cook at the James Beard House this week in New York City with his team, a tremendous culinary milestone.

Contributor Giselle Rivera-Flores continued her quest for an idyllic #SundayFunday, indulging in the likes of Union Square Donuts and White Hut burgers. Rivera also sat down with the director of Julio’s Liquors Toni Deluca who set out to debunk wine’s pompous reputation. “Wine is for everyone,” she assured readers, adding, “my job is to educate both novice and advanced wine drinkers into exploring new flavors, regions and, grapes.”

Union Square Donuts (Source: Facebook)
Union Square Donuts (Source: Facebook)

I couldn’t agree more after my visit to UxLocale in Uxbridge where the staff led me to the perfect pairing. I ordered the Sausage in Vodka Sauce with the Sasyr Sangiovese and Syrah blend, a wine possessing supple tannins. The Italian wine’s inky density and earthy aromas complemented my savory red sauce and the Tuscan roots of the dish’s pecorino romano attested to a fine artisan union. I met another unlikely pairing in the last week of November at Bull Mansion in the form of KrafTea Kombucha and Cricket Creek cheese. I was surprised to find that the potent and funky properties of kombucha brought out curious dimensions of my artisanal farmstead cheese plate.

If what Meyer says is true, then hospitality put simply is how the delivery of a product makes us feel. Central Massachusetts certainly has no shortage of a heartfelt, passionate, and sentimental service industry. Among the atmospheres, appetites, exclusives, openings, closings, pairings, and pinings – hospitality is alive and well in Worcester.

deadhorse hill's culinary team: Chef de cuisine Robin Clark, Executive Chef Jared Forman, Nathan Sanden, and new addition, Erin Hockey Food Feed

New Addition to the deadhorse hill Team Presents a…

Another familiar face just joined deadhorse hill’s impressive culinary team and Executive Chef Jared Forman feels certain that his job is about to get more difficult. “Taking people on never makes our lives easier, it advances our agenda for better food and a better menu,” Forman explains.

The team, including latest addition Erin Hockey, has gathered around a long table in the back of the restaurant for a ritual pre-service meeting. They sit beneath the watchful eyes of an old sea captain who hangs over Forman’s right shoulder. A collective gaze falls on Hockey, the expectation being that with a new meat manager on board, deadhorse’s already ambitious repertoire will continue to grow.

Hockey grew up hunting and fishing in her hometown of Quincy. “My uncle owned a big game and taxidermy shop, so I broke down my first deer pretty early in life,” she recalls. After accepting a full ride to the New England Culinary Institute, she went on to intern at The Butcher Shop, working for the famed restaurateur, Barbara Lynch. Hockey’s arrival in Worcester coincided with the opening of Kummerspeck on Water Street, an endeavor to which she played an integral role.

For deadhorse hill, welcoming Hockey means the start of a true charcuterie program and another step toward achieving full potential as a seasonal American restaurant. For Hockey, the move opens up a host of spotlight opportunities as an accomplished female butcher. Her debut with the deadhorse hill team took place at America’s Test Kitchen in Boston at the end of October, a star-studded affair.

“I’m not actually good at anything,” Forman jokes from his seat at the head of the table.
“At least you’re funny,” his chef de cuisine Robin Clark fires back before adding, “Jared can see the talent behind him. He empowers us all to let our passions and skillsets shine.”

Chef Clark is living proof. Described by owners as “the heartbeat” of the kitchen, she offers the organized mind of a pastry chef along with a savory intuition. Early experience at Mill’s Tavern, a Providence institution, taught Clark to play with fire, make pasta by hand, and prepare classic dishes at volume. From there, she gained fine dining experience at T.W.Food in Cambridge where she mastered the intricacies of a meticulous modern French bistro. At deadhorse, Clark is free to marry both of those experiences, bringing her aptitude for the elaborate to an exceedingly busy kitchen. She favors recipes that involve a lot of patshke like the tiny tortellinis she has been fussing with all morning, as only a perfectionist could.

Conversely, Clark’s daytime counterpart, a.m. sous chef Nathan Sanden, is an idea-man. Sanden proved his dedication when he drove to Worcester in the throes of an April snowstorm for his interview at deadhorse hill. He feels he has landed a sort of dream job in that he spends his days exploring the distinct techniques of other cultures. Sanden is a dedicated study of Forman, who has outright lied in his assertion that he is “not actually good at anything.” Forman has gleaned his own wisdom from the greats at Per Se, momofuku noodle bar, Marea, and Gramercy Tavern before playing an evident role in the success of Strip T’s and Ribelle.

At the end of the meeting, Hockey, Clark, and Sanden dart off to the kitchen while Forman moves the long table back into a corner. He tucks the chairs neatly into place in preparation for dinner service and eyes the captain over his shoulder. “Some chefs think that you’re only as good as your last dish, but the truth is, you’re only as good as the people you have working behind you.”