It is one thing to place a graphic on menus pointing out local ingredients used in food preparation. It is altogether different to pack your bags, invite your so-called competitors from the local restaurant scene and bring your "A" game to New York City's premier foodie destination for a culinary show-and-tell.
On Wednesday, March 12, a team of Berkshire County and greater Hudson Valley chefs are heading to New York City's James Beard House for the Berkshire Cure-All dinner, showcasing the local food and farm-to-table movement that has swept several local restaurants to prove that chefs using local ingredients can produce high-quality and diverse menus.
"We wouldn't do the business we do without the local ingredients," said Red Lion Inn Executive Chef, Brian Alberg. "To me, it's about getting the word out about our region, creating some interaction and have a
The James Beard House, according to its website, is the best-kept gastronomic secret in the city. Beard was a noted author of several cookbooks, a TV personality and culinary advocate. His townhouse, located in New York City's Greenwich Village, hosts more than 20 cooking events a month, welcoming chefs and ingredients from all over the world.
Alberg made his first appearance at the James Beard House in New York City in 1998 as part of a collaborative of shoreline chefs, while he was working along the Connecticut coast. For one reason or another, he keeps finding his way back.
This year, for the sixth consecutive year since being at the Red Lion Inn, he's not only part of another collaboration to visit the house, but he's spearheading the effort, bringing industry peers and inviting the people who grow and raise the ingredients he uses daily.
For Alberg, serving food from locally grown sources began when he was a teenager, traveling to Great Barrington's Taft Farm to gather greens for his then boss.
"It was unbelievable," said Alberg. "And back then it was just kind of what we did. It wasn't drilled into people like it is today."
Today, he uses dozens of local farms for his menu at the Red Lion Inn for all kinds of ingredients. Alberg isn't alone.
"It's a no-brainer," said Josephine Proul, executive chef at Local 111, in Philmont, N.Y. "The local food movement has seen such growth in just the past three years."
Proul, who has been at the Local 111 for six years and has just been incorporated as owner, stressed the dialogue and quality that local food bestows at her restaurant.
"Revenue might not be as high, but the profitability is," said Proul, adding that customers come back to ask her for recipes or tips, and since everything's been sourced locally, she can point out what they need to look for at the next farmers market.
It helps create a sense of ownership and a conversation at the restaurant between the diner and chefs.
"I'm all for sharing," said Proul. "I like teaching people how to cook. It's a little bit like ‘go on now, you can do it.' "
One of the unique aspects of the James Beard House is how the dining room and kitchen are situated. Diners are routed through the kitchen on the way to their tables to not only see the chefs and their weapons of choice, but are also encouraged to chat with them.
"People are curious," said Alberg. "They like to ask questions."
Alberg said after the plates have been cleared the chefs head upstairs to the dining room to answer questions from the diners.
In order to bring the ingredients even closer to the dining experience, Alberg invites the farmers who grow and raise the produce and meat used to the dinner to sit with other guests, creating a unique and informative dialogue.
Morgan Hartman, managing partner at Berlin N.Y.'s Black Queen Angus Farm, which supplies beef to several local restaurants, attended last year's dinner and is looking forward to this year's.
"It is phenomenal," said Hartman. "I can't say enough good things about it."
Hartman said he was blown away by watching the chefs work in unison and how the entire group "checked their egos at the door" to work together.
As for his fellow diners, Hartman said several had never been to the Berkshires and noted how important it was to get the region known to the greater public beyond the popular venues like Tanglewood.
"That's what these events are all about," said Hartman. "Showing what's going on here. We have local people producing phenomenal world-class food with local ingredients."
The menu for the Cure-All is, not surprisingly, heavy on cured meats, showcasing what local chefs can do in winter months.
"The Cure-All is an opportunity to showcase a wide range of local food in the winter months," said Alberg. "We're curing things with salt, acid and smoke in an effort to preserve last year's harvest."
Alberg said it is important to show what chefs can do with 18-20 inches of snow on the ground.
"You can still work with local ingredients."
Blue Cheese Cheesecake with Candied Walnut Crust, Serrano-Style Ham Crisp and Apple-Rum Caramel Sauce
Brian Alberg makes this sweet-and-salty cheesecake almost entirely with ingredients from the Berkshires.
Apple-Rum Caramel Sauce:
1 1/2 cups unfiltered apple cider
1/2 cup dark rum
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons heavy cream at room temperature
1/2 cup butter, cut into 8 pieces
Blue Cheese Cheesecake:
1 egg white
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup multigrain bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 cups cream cheese
1 cup (about 7 ounces) Taleggio, rind removed
1 1/4 cups (about 10 ounces) sheep's milk blue cheese, such as Shaker Blue from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company
2 tablespoons honey
8 thin slices Serrano ham
1 apple, thinly sliced
Make the apple-rum caramel sauce: Combine the apple cider, rum and lemon juice in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce until the mixture reaches a syrupy consistency, about 20 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Whisk in the butter, 2 pieces at a time, letting each addition fully incorporate before adding more. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. (Can be made a day ahead.)
Make the cheesecake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the egg white with 1/4 teaspoon salt and the sugar. Add the walnuts and toss to coat. Spread into an even layer on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and chop until finely ground. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the bread crumbs and butter; mix to combine.
Spray an 8-inch springform pan with vegetable-oil spray. Press the walnut mixture into the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Set aside.
Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese and Tallegio until smooth. Add the blue cheese and continue to mix. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until smooth after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining salt and the honey. Mix until combined.
Pour the cheesecake batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake until set, about one hour. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least an hour, or overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the ham slices on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake until crisp, about 5 minutes. Let cool, then roughly chop.
Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake. Release the latch on the side of the pan and carefully remove the circular band from the cake.
To serve, cut the cake into slices. Garnish each slice with caramel sauce, pieces of ham and apple slices.