For chef Matt Jennings, Providence, Rhode Island, isn’t just home to his restaurant, Farmstead; it’s the best food community in the country. Join him as he toasts the growers and producers behind his success.
By Matthew Jennings
Sep 11 2013
Matt and Kate JenningsPhoto Credit : Keller + Keller
To be a cook in New England is to have a relationship with food that is different from that in most other places. We live in a land of stark contrasts, of distinct seasons that shape our appetites. The dark winters, with their abundance of root vegetables and stews; the spring thaw, with its rush toward the first ingredients fresh from the ground; then suddenly we’re off to the summer’s bounty of fresh berries, corn, and peaches. And then the climax: Before winter arrives again, we’re offered the best of the calendar year: September and October, the shoulder season, when our lands and seas are at peak bounty. We enjoy the last of the tomatoes and corn and welcome the first fall squash, wild mushrooms, and foraged greens.
In recent years, the corner of New England where I live has become a center of activity in the movement toward more local, seasonal eating. This notion of “farm-to-table” cuisine is no longer new, of course; it has almost become the stuff of cliche. But I would argue that our approach–our efforts to shorten the distance between the grower and the plate and our commitment to supporting our neighbors–is more earnest and earned. Here in southern New England, relationships between farmers and chefs are closer than most. This area is home to some of the best food and farms in the country–I’m convinced of it. This is the way food should be made–with respect and love, and a great sense of place. To celebrate the love of food and the land we share, we invited some of our favorite neighboring producers to my mother’s backyard in Little Compton, Rhode Island, on a warm September weekend, when late-afternoon sunlight dappled the trees and the breeze carried the aroma of a smoking grill. Each of our guests has had a hand in the success of our restaurant, Farmstead, in Providence, Rhode Island, and they all have great stories to tell. I’ve always felt that the best chefs are more than skilled technicians; they’re storytellers of a sort, people who take raw ingredients and tell a tale, through composed dishes, about what the land is offering that week. Because of farmers like these, I try to tell better stories, every year.
We started the evening with a glass of sparkling wine from Westport Rivers’ vineyard, with owners Bob and Carol Russell offering the toast. Joining them was Steve Ramos of Bristol, Rhode Island, who is such a vegetable guru that my cooks race to greet him whenever he shows up at our back door–whether it’s with a delivery of baby carrots aligned like multicolored soldiers, each one scrubbed clean with a toothbrush, or tomatoes separated by variety and color, a rainbow spectrum from his two-acre parcel.
Eva Sommaripa of Eva’s Garden in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts (see Yankee‘s July/August 2013 issue for more on her farm), is an almost mythical figure–known by all as the eccentric matriarch of sustainable farming in New England. Speaking with Eva on the phone as I place my order is one of my favorite moments of the week. She seems to have a deeper and more intense relationship with her land than most of us ever experience with our closest family.
Living in a coastal community, we’re also blessed to know fishermen such as Steve Arnold, whose vessel, based out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, brings us beautiful scup, squid, flounder, bluefish, and, in season, the majestic, silvery-skinned striped bass. Steve is a cofounder of Wild Rhody, an organization that provides completely traceable seafood to restaurants, letting me go online and track each entree back to its origin by way of an identification tag. In the early days of my restaurant, Steve would send me morning text messages listing what was coming out of the water in real time. Sipping coffee at the breakfast table, my toddler son on my lap, I’d hear what was flopping on the boat’s deck and begin planning that day’s menu.
Our local food treasures aren’t limited to land and sea; they’re also in the air. Jim Hamann is an apiarist whose bees provide liquid gold. I buy every last bottle of his delicately floral spring honeys and his mahogany-colored fall nectar, which gets its hue from knotweed and has an almost beerlike flavor. We serve it alongside our artisanal cheese plate, but also braise vegetables with it, put it in vinaigrettes, and spoon it over vanilla ice cream.
My wife, Kate, is the house baker at Farmstead, and her rustic cobblers overflow and ooze with the best local berries and stone fruits. She tops her creations with cream from Arruda’s Dairy in Tiverton, Rhode Island, whipped to soft peaks. Lately, Kate has incorporated unusual herbs into her desserts: lavender, rue, angelica, and lime balm among them. Two of our favorite herb growers are Matt Tracy and Catherine Mardosa of Red Planet Farm in Johnston, Rhode Island, just four miles from the west side of Providence.
Matt and Catherine are the ultimate urban farmers: dedicated to providing fresh foods to the Greater Providence area through their CSA (community-supported agriculture) operation during the summer months. We meet with Catherine every February and peruse the seed catalogue over coffee to plan for the growing season ahead.
We love this dynamic–and it’s just another example of why national publications such as Travel & Leisure have called Providence one of the best food cities in the country.
Around our table that evening I also saw friends such as Patrick McNiff of Pat’s Pastured, a pasture-based meat producer in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and Dan Geer, whose 70-acre horse operation, Rising Phoenix Farm in North Smithfield, produces gorgeous corn, heirloom beans, eggplants, and peppers on 3 of those acres. Dan proudly fancies himself “the Pepper Farmer,” and he has mastered late-season breeds like ‘Wonder Bells’, ‘Chocolate Beauties’, and the ‘Dulce Rojo’ peppers that we buy to produce our own smoked and sweet paprikas. Dan is also the king of “side projects,” grinding his own corn for our polenta. Add to that the flint cornmeal from Kenyon’s Grist Mill, Rhode Island’s oldest manufacturing business, and suddenly we have everything we need, right here around this table.
So the next time you ramble down the one-lane roads that crisscross southern New England, slow down, peek over the stone walls, and pull into the drive of that small farm with the dilapidated barn. You may just find nirvana in a cornfield, or inspiration by way of a self-serve vegetable stand with a coffee can for dollar bills.