Entertaining Community, One Bite at a Time

Zakary Pelaccio

Zakary Pelaccio › Zakary Pelaccio is chef/owner of Fish & Game in Hudson, New York. Zakary's approach to ...

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Have you ever eaten rack of lamb? A tasty, tender, roasted 4-bone rack of lamb. Have you ever thought about how many racks a butcher can cut from one lamb? Four, if it’s a big lamb. If a restaurant is anticipating selling 100 servings of rack of lamb over a weekend, they’ve bought racks cut from at least 25 lambs. It’s likely that the same restaurant will be selling specific cuts from other animals, such as pork and beef, alongside that lamb.

What happens to the remainder of the animal from which these specific cuts are removed? Where does that meat go? How much time does the farmer who raised the animal have to spend marketing the remaining parts rather than growing or raising more animals?

What happens at those restaurants when no one orders the rack of lamb for a few nights in a row? Is it frozen and thawed and frozen and thawed before it hits your table because the month before, due to a recent Youtube video of a soft, cuddly lamb jumping on a trampoline, there was a sudden rush of  sympathy towards those creatures amongst new-age earth-conscious iPad owners?

Is there a good reason that restaurants have to live with such uncertainty, submissively subjected to the whims of potential customers, as the masochistic whipping post of all business models? Is there any other business that is expected to carry so many perishable items without any guarantee of moving those items? And do consumers really know what their “choices” entail, either ethically or aesthetically, over time? Might even very conscientious eaters be unwittingly contributing to a broken system, in which the “product” is disconnected from the source?

At Fish & Game, we bring in only what we intend to cook for the menu of the week.

These kinds of questions plagued me regularly throughout my tenure in NYC restaurants. The business model, it seemed, was not well thought through–particularly in terms of facilitating either creativity or conscientious consumption. The restaurant industry had become one in which the nightly cravings of fickle consumers influenced the “expert” to the point where it became de rigueur for menus to be populated with 30 or more items. There are over 20,000 restaurants in New York City. Where is all this food coming from? Where is it all going?

This is, in large part, why I left the City, and opened a small restaurant in the Hudson Valley.

Fish & Game runs a single, set menu each night that we’re open. All the meat and produce (and dairy, excluding cheese) that we use comes from the Hudson Valley itself, with a strong emphasis on the products of Columbia County. The seafood comes from the North Atlantic. The menu changes every week, and sometimes even night-to-night, changing with the seasons, and what is available locally.

The idea for Fish& Game was not original. Nor was it high concept. It simply made sense: focus on cooking the highest quality products purchased from our immediate community. And grow and raise some of the products ourselves, on our own land.

It’s winter now. We’re not getting much out of the ground. Many root crops can handle a bit of cellaring and for this we’re grateful. Our pantry, a.k.a the bounty of the valley, is now dominated by a colorful collection of jars, flavors captured in the late summer or early fall that we hope will carry us until the green growths of spring push up from the soil and into our kitchen.

Capturing the flavors of the harvest takes planning. Dedicating oneself to working within the parameters of local agriculture takes discipline. It is no wonder that so few actually attempt to cook this way. It’s hard.  “Local”, “sustainable”, “organic”, even “biodynamic” are nice buzzwords. The trend is much better than “mass produced” or “fast and easy.” But, as with most trends, many people want to participate without realizing what it means to do the work. I myself knew it would be hard, but didn’t realize quite how hard, until a very short time ago.

That said, I’m no martyr. I get a lot of pleasure from this work, and I’ve even come to view the work as a form of hedonism–properly understood. And it is not in my interest to disparage the notion of fanciful dining out, i.e. food as entertainment. In fact, I make my living from it. I do not stand on a moral high ground, nor am I positioned to do so. I am fully aware that no one eats at restaurants because they are battling starvation. Dining out is a form of entertaining, and we each seek out different forms of this entertainment for our own reasons. The crew at Fish & Game is but one small troupe amongst a great number of such entertainers.

There was a point, years ago, when I had an idealistic, fleeting notion that perhaps the role of chef was more profound–that we were making a statement with what we cooked and how we did so. Perhaps some of that is so. If you can sort through all of the noise, some very bright people are communicating some sound ideas about our relationship with food and the food system. But I came to realize that my way of contributing to that conversation had to be based on a return to the materials, ingredients, and processes themselves–and the pure pleasure I derived therefrom. Only then could I begin to articulate and sift through my otherwise inchoate thoughts about “the system” of food production, let alone share them with others in my community.

Upon renewing my commitment to the work itself–and the pleasure I took in that work, it eventually struck me that if I focus on practicing that which brings me pleasure I will in turn bring greater pleasure to those around me, particularly if part of the pleasure I derive in my practice derives from others in theirs. Hedonism in this sense both presupposes and facilitates community. It is not only non-identical to–but in fact inimically opposed to–“choice”-driven production and consumption. Call it what you will. What was transformative for me is that I strove to make sense of my work, from how I use fire to how I purchase ingredients, to how I present my vision to the patron. Working through and clearly articulating the philosophy that runs the engine behind the entertainment. Fortunately, when the time came to further pursue these ideas by putting them into further practice I found myself in the company of a few like-minded people, and we set to task.

The steps we took thus involved what may at first glance seem like two opposing ideals: presenting dining as entertainment, while simultaneously embracing the possibility  that a customer comes to a restaurant to discover our food myths, not to impose her own. At Fish & Game, we are the curators of the evening’s experience; we determine what will be served and how it will be cooked.

To establish our own mythology (read: a culture of cuisine and the lore surrounding it) we had to set our own parameters. Any rigorous practice (spiritual, physical, aesthetic, what-have-you) tends to have “constitutive constraints”–parameters that both constrain and enable that practice. Ours are geographic: we rely on the Hudson Valley and the North Atlantic for our seafood. All mythologies are born out of the earth, sky and water–and when we conjure our flavors, fire is our most important tool. We are developing a cuisine of our region, informed by what grows well here, and what we brought to the party from our past lives. My Hudson Valley cuisine may be vastly different than my neighbor’s, but so may be our life experiences. Our hope is that this could also be an interesting proposition for diners.

Accordingly, at Fish & Game, we bring in only what we intend to cook for the menu of the week. We buy whole animals and integrate the different cuts into the dishes as needed, so that nothing goes to waste. At the end of the meal, the customer is presented with a menu so she can be reminded of what she ate over the course of the meal. What diners at Table 1 receive may in fact be slightly different than that served to the diners at Table 2, as the muscle groups of an animal offer us limited quantities and come in different shapes and sizes. What we don’t have is a lot of extraneous, marginally fresh product hanging around to accommodate the diner who may or may not come in and who may or may not want one thing or the other.

There are many talented cooks opening restaurants these days. The dining public has more options than ever before. Perhaps more and more of the public will respond to the idea of choosing a restaurant in order to discover a given chef’s mythology, rather than to show up and attempt to choose-your-own-adventure. In this sense, it might be useful to think about dining out as akin to going to a show. A member of the audience doesn’t ask to omit obscenities from the script of a Broadway show. Nor does one offer his version of the desired set list when going to see a concert (though I’m sure we’ve all encountered the guy in the front row shouting the title of one song, over and over again, to the annoyance of both performers and the rest of the audience). Nor, however, is the artist in a solipsistic bubble in which she only considers her own preferences. The art is both inspired by and at the service of the community that fosters it. But not on the model of “choice”-driven production or consumption.

Perhaps a shift such as this could be both ethical and pleasurable. Perhaps it could allow for more focused and conscientious purchasing habits on the part of the restaurant, thus minimizing the burden of a large perishable inventory, while allowing chefs to inject more varied mythologies into the fray, more personality, and therefore both greater community and … greater entertainment.

Can you see the wisdom of this article by Chef Pelaccio? Tell us what you think.

Photo credit: Catherine Waage