Savour What They Sow at The Perennial Chef
By Eileen Weber
This restaurant closed, in both locations, in March 2012.
If you think you know organic food, you don’t know The Perennial Chef. With locations in Bedford Hills, NY, and Ridgefield, CT, the shop boasts fresh ingredients exquisitely prepared for their gourmet take-out and catering menus.
Fairfield Green Food Guide popped in for a taste this week to see what all the fuss was about—and there’s fuss for good reason. A significant portion of the ingredients they use are organically grown in their own garden and greenhouse. Other ingredients that haven’t been grown personally are purveyed as locally as possible.
Chef Michael Williams, whose culinary background includes the French Culinary Institute in New York City, works with his sister Leslie and their business partner, Françoise Jarry. While Françoise can thank her French upbringing for her knowledge of good food to bring to the catering side of their business, Michael and Leslie had a different experience. Growing up in Seoul, South Korea before moving to the U.S., the brother and sister team have been surrounded by good food for as long as they can remember. But it was Michael who took it to the next level by going to cooking school.
“I’m a good cook,” said Leslie. “But there’s a big difference between being a good home cook and being a chef. Michael is a chef.”
His culinary training and classic techniques were evident in the perfectly seasoned sampling of foods we tasted. There was just enough salt to flavor, but not so much as to overwhelm the other ingredients or be the first thing you taste. Hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and chicken are tenderly tucked into salads, paired with homegrown herbs, or simply served by themselves. They serve fresh salads that any self-respecting vegetarian or vegan would salivate over: Corn salad; black bean salad; or tomato, cucumber and feta with just a hint of dill. Pastries are made daily—and you must try the macaroons. Their menu changes weekly to accommodate the seasons. If it’s growing right now, it’s on their menu.
The gazpacho was bright, fresh, clean and quite refreshing on a hot day. The chef’s pedigree was evident in the neat brunoise of cucumber, carrot and bell pepper that flecked the tomato base. The salmon cakes, made from sustainably farmed fish, were plump and succulent with an even fish to vegetable ratio and no added filler or breading. The main ingredient for the goat cheese tart—goat cheese from Rainbeau Ridge’s sustainable farm only 15 minutes away in Bedford Hills– was combined with seasonal vegetables and baked into a delicate and flaky crust. The chicken under brick is to die for! The concentration of flavors was intense.
Ratatouille and green beans rounded out our tasting selection. Each side dish was well executed and, frankly, provided pleasant surprises in terms of freshness and quality. But much of that comes from their philosophy that you are what you eat and what you should eat is fresh, healthy food.
Leslie Williams spoke at length about the preservatives and contaminants that many of us eat without realizing it. Much of what we buy at the supermarket contains genetically modified products. That, she said, is why she’s convinced severe food allergies are environmental.
“I’ve never seen so many allergies,” she said. “I’m convinced it’s the pesticides and the GMOs. It all adds up in your system.”
And that’s why they grow almost all of their own vegetables and compost the food waste. With 16 varieties of lettuce, endive, Asian cucumbers, over a dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes, herbs and edible flowers, Swiss chard, and kale, you can taste the freshness. And, they’ve just started raising their own chickens for eggs. Now it’s just a waiting game until the chickens lay them.
But while they make every attempt to accommodate different tastes and dietary needs, not everything they use is 100% organic or home grown. They purchase as locally as possible, but in some cases they must buy in bulk. “We go through something like 80 pounds of onions a day,” said Michael. “We couldn’t possibly grow them ourselves because we use such large quantities.”
As he sees it, they must have a practical approach to their business. Organic foods are expensive and that cost, ultimately, ends up getting passed on to the customer. With 1,500 square feet of space combined between the garden and their greenhouse in Bedford Hills, growing their own produce seemed like the more logical choice. The greenhouse allows them to grow vegetables and herbs year round.
“People are becoming more health conscious,” said Michael. “When we grow the food ourselves, we know where it comes from and we can guarantee it’s organic.”
When they use other fresh products like cheese or produce, they like to get to know the local farmers. They not only have a relationship with Rainbeau Ridge, but farms in the Hudson Valley as well. Although Leslie takes charge of growing the food, she doesn’t consider herself a farmer but more of a large-scale gardener. “I have too much respect for farmers to call myself one,” she said.
So the next time you find yourself heading up Route 33, stop off for a quick bite. You’ll be glad you did. If you can’t make it before fall hits, check them out during Farm-to-Chef week, from September 18 through the 24, when they’ll be featuring a special menu showcasing the seasonal bounty of CT Grown.
The Perennial Chef in Ridgefield is located at 449 Main Street. Parking is ample, but making the left turn into the lot at the traffic light is taking your life into your own hands (no left turn signal!). Instead, turn left before the light as you approach The Gap on your right side. The store in Bedford Hills is located at 25 Depot Plaza. Ridgefield is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Bedford Hills is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They are closed on Sundays.
For more information about The Perennial Chef Farm, please visit their blog.