PITTSFIELD — Putting the freshest ingredients on the table is an integral part of chef Brian Alberg's farm-to-table cooking philosophy. And the ability to do just that is what drew him to Hancock Shaker Village two years ago.
There, Seeds Market Cafe, which is managed by Main Street Hospitality Group, is just a short stroll away from the living museum's heirloom vegetable and herb gardens. For three seasons, he has been crafting seasonal menus at the cafe with the produce from the village's gardens and supplemental items from local farms and bakeries. Most recently, Alberg, executive chef and vice president of culinary development for Main Street Hospitality, brought his talents out into the fields at Hancock Shaker, offering "Eat the Landscape," a unique farm-to-table workshop where participants were able to harvest, prepare and cook dinner alongside him.
"The working farm is so beautiful and so well maintained and cared for that it gives us the capability to use the most fresh ingredients we can within season. I thought it would be really cool to get a group of people together to enjoy a dinner, harvest some vegetables and kind of cook together," said Alberg, who, in his role as executive chef, oversees all of the restaurants in the hospitality group's portfolio as well as its catering arm.
To better understand how Alberg creates his farm-to-table dishes, this reporter recently participated in his workshop/cooking class at Hancock Shaker Village. The class, which required advanced registration, cost $126 for members and $140 for non-members.
Twelve participants, including myself and Lauren Piotrowski, the village's head gardener/CSA manager, met Alberg and chef Max Kiperman under a crab apple tree near the village's Poultry House and its iconic Round Stone Barn on a sunny Sunday afternoon, just after the museum closed for the day. There, one of Alberg's signature cast-iron cauldron grills (most often seen at catering and outdoor events) had been warming up for about two hours.
After a quick introduction and some garlic peeling, we were off on our first task, gathering fresh blooms from the nearby flower and medicinal herb gardens to create decorative arrangements for the table. We gathered bright yellow sunflowers, gray-green poppy seed pods, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, yarrow, hyssop and many other colorful flowers, that participants, more courageous and talented than I, arranged in picture-perfect bouquets.
While garlic roasted in a wok over an open flame, we followed Piotrowski out into the fields to harvest the vegetables that would be used for dinner. Our first stop was a section of the garden filled with rows of sweet, red and summer onions.
"I have some white summer onions that are splitting in the ground and need to be gotten out and ate right away," Piotrowski said, "so, these are probably the best ones to pick. Whoever is in the mood to pick an onion, you can just go down there and look for one that has a bent stem."
Dear reader, I will tell you it was hard not to feel like I was doing something naughty as I yanked a large white bulb from the ground. But I'd soon shake the feeling as we moved on, sending a basket of onions and cabbages back to the chefs for prepping as we cut parsley, fennel. leeks and Swiss chard and pulled up carrots and beets. We navigated zucchini beds, avoiding the scratchy leaves as we twisted the green squash free from prickly vines. The last of the pea pods were pulled from withering vines, while we admired rows of not-yet-ready corn and sorghum. We added thyme, dill and mint to our bounty before returning to base camp.
Back at the chefs' makeshift prep station, Alberg had already cored and sliced the cabbage heads in two, drizzled them with olive oil and placed them on the grill. The onions were prepped and sauteing in the wok, while their green stems, now grilled, sat in a bowl on a table. But the prep work was hardly done.
As one participant rinsed of the carrots and beets in a bowl of clean water, a group of us rallied round a bowl of yellow wax beans, picked prior to our arrival, snapping off the stem ends before passing them along to where another group member was hard at work frenching them for a raw salad. While Kiperman used a y-shaped hand potato peeler to cull thin strips of from carrots and beets, group members shelled peas and Alberg prepared the evening's proteins — spatchcocking chickens and slicing cuts of top round lamb into smaller portions. After a quick rub down with salt and Ras el Hanout, a spice he described as being similar to curry, the meat was off to the grill. There, Alberg covered the chicken thighs and breasts with vegetable greens.
"Are those the onion tops?" one participant asked, questioning the purpose after hearing an affirmative reply.
"They'll add flavor, I hope. I don't know," Alberg said, shrugging his shoulders before turning his attention to the cabbage, which he turned and dusted with Aleppo pepper. Soon after, the remaining parts of the grill were filled with fennel and thin slices of zucchini.
While a group member kept a watchful eye on the grill, Alberg instructed others to add the Swiss chard to the wok, already filled with cut-up onion, onion tops and garlic, as he answered questions about what local farms he purchases proteins from and where he gets his knives. He said he uses two types of salt — kosher and Morton, the former mostly during the early stages of cooking, the latter near the end.
"I don't use recipes," he said, when asked.
As the meal began to come together, we watched as the carrots, beets, peas, frenched beans, cherry tomatoes and parsley were tossed into a raw salad. The cabbage, now removed from the grill, had shed its charred outer layers and was now being sliced into tender bits and mixed with grilled fennel. A third dish, comprised of the onion parts, leeks, garlic and Swiss chard arrived shortly thereafter, as Alberg sliced the lamb and chicken into mouthwatering portions. Bread and maple butter rounded out the offerings, before we gathered round to fill our plates with the evening's harvest.
"Thanks for all the help, that was awesome. Thanks for slamming me with a thousand vegetables," Alberg said as he served the dinner.
At dinner, we learned more about each other. One couple was from a New York hill town, while two of us hailed from Adams. But the evening's award for furthest traveled was given to a surgeon from Brooklyn, N.Y., who, with her mother, traveled to the Berkshires specifically to attend the class. They had read about it online when looking for a weekend excursion — a weekly ritual that sometimes brings them to the Berkshires.
After second helpings were eaten and leftovers packaged for the ride home, it seemed impossible there was more to eat. But there was — a sour cherry pie topped with fresh whipped cream — the perfect conclusion to three hours of culinary fun.
For those interested in participating in a workshop, Alberg says there are more classes coming in the future. Those interested should keep an eye on hancockshakervillage.org.