Ralph Gardner Jr: Family Meal

Jun 15, 2019

Let me stipulate that the food was sublime, the service to match when we were invited to Blue Hill at Stone Barns last week by my older daughter Lucy and her fiancée Malcolm St. Clair as thanks for throwing their upcoming wedding.

The reason I’m stipulating that is because the cuisine at one of the world’s finest restaurants, if not secondary, wasn’t the main reason we were there. It was to see our younger daughter, Gracie, a Blue Hill cook, in action. 

Gracie has worked there for two and a half years now and her stories, on the rare occasions when we get to see her because she works twelve, if not fourteen, hour days five days a week, are engrossing. 

The restaurant’s standards and expectations for its staff are absurdly high and by all accounts Gracie, who is currently a fish cook, occasional expeditor and runner, has risen to them.

That’s another thing: I’ve learned lots of “back of the house” terms that have become part of Gracie’s and now our lexicon. 

Her progress is all the more impressive because she never attended cooking school. I believe it was Adam Platt, a friend and New York magazine’s food critic, who described working at Blue Hill as the equivalent of going to Harvard for cooking.

Without the tuition, room and board. As a cheapskate, I find Gracie’s success sweetened by the fact that it hasn’t cost me anything.

For those who are unfamiliar with the restaurant, it’s located at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester on eighty bucolic acres that used to belong to the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills.

Blue Hill was started in 2004 by Dan Barber, a visionary not only as a chef but also as a thinker about the environment and not just about how to sustain it but also how to make it taste great. Dan also recently started Row 7, a seed company designed to make food delicious from the ground up and as a response to the sway of industrial seed companies such as Monsanto.

Working there doesn’t mean just learning how to make beurre blanc but also being treated to talks before “service” by cutting edge farmers and other environmental educators.

If not quite as much a role model as Dan, or Blue Hill’s chef de cuisine Bastien Guillochon or Adam Kaye, Gracie’s mentor and Blue Hill’s former culinary director, I like to think I served as a small positive influence.

I’ve been cooking since I was a child, mostly because my mother didn’t cook – she once tried to boil an egg and typically forgot to add water, with predictably catastrophic results – and I realized early on that if I wanted to eat something tasty I had to make it myself. 

We knew we were onto something, that Gracie might have found her calling, when, all of eight years old, she surprised us with her first meal – balsamic glazed salmon with a lemon parsley pasta. Indeed, my mother thought it hysterical that any member of her family could be a professional chef. She only wished her parents, equally inept cooks, had been alive to witness the phenomenon.

We also knew from Gracie’s stories about Blue Hill, that for all its majesty, its secret lies in spontaneity and freshness. When you sit down – the meal takes approximately four hours – you’re presented not with a menu but a small booklet. It announces that day’s ingredients fresh from Stone Barns’ surrounding fields, greenhouse, forest or cellar that will go into composing your -- in our case on that particular day – 25-course meal.

And it’s not even as if every table gets the same food. That’s a decision made from moment to moment based on the availability of ingredients and the inspiration of the chefs and their intuition about the tastes, desires and personalities of the guests at any particular table.

For example, our nineteenth course (the portions are blessedly small) after such delicacies as cabbage sushi; and dreamy liver and chocolate that tasted like the most ethereal terrine you’ve ever tasted; as well as a delicate white asparagus slaw with silver hake; and tender, rare pastured duck thigh and pea crepe -- was green eggs and ham created by Gracie in a nod to my affection for Dr. Seuss.

That’s the kind of experimentation and fun that manages to flourish alongside the restaurant’s adherence to freshness and flavor. 

I don’t know whether it’s because the meal is such a marathon and the staff fears you might develop phlebitis from sitting in one place so long but somewhere during dinner you’re served a course elsewhere in the complex. 

For us it was a desert of sourdough starter ice cream and apricot jelly (known as bread and jelly) in the buzzing kitchen followed by a second dessert – 100% whole wheat chocolate cherry bread with milk jam and a side of chocolate truffles – in the farm’s former, artfully repurposed, manure shed.

Gracie has been consistently embarrassed over the course of her life when we dine out and even remotely inconvenience a waiter. So she was mortified when Dan briefly stopped service and mobilized the entire kitchen for a photograph with us.

Even more gratifying that the food or service was witnessing the esteem and affection in which our daughter seems held by her peers. And, of course, that we know we’ll be able to count on her to make Thanksgiving dinner in perpetuity.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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