By Analiese Paik
I often tell friends that our final meal during a Portland vacation two years ago – organic Mexican food made from locally sourced ingredients – reset my bar for measuring the quality and maturity of Fairfield County’s growing local food movement. Why do we have to drive 45 minutes to Boxcar Cantina in Greenwich for local, organic Mexican food? Aren’t more eaters interested in a cuisine so deserving of protection and awareness that it was added to UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010?
Happily, we’re now one step closer to achieving the incredible diversity of cuisines found in Portland’s famous local food scene. Tierra has just opened at the Old Town Hall on the Post Road in Westport and fans of Mexican and other Latin cuisines will rejoice. A casual restaurant embracing the mi casa es su casa (make yourself at home) philosophy and local, seasonal ingredient sourcing awaits. “Come as you are. We want our dining room to feel like an extension of your living room” said Chef and co-owner Sue Torres during our meeting at the Westport Farmer’s Market last week.
It’s only fitting that Torres and her husband, Chef Darren Carbone, who both received their formal training at the Culinary Institute of America, met at the James Beard House while preparing a Day of the Dead Dinner. Torres and Carbone were raised Italian on Long Island, but have strong Latin roots. Torres’ father is from Puerto Rico and Carbone is originally from Colombia. Both rediscovered their Latin heritage through food and are now sharing it with our community at Tierra. A Spanish word with many different translations, tierra means land, earth, soil and one’s homeland. “When we met, we both realized that we had been raised the same way: white on Long Island. We began acknowledging, exploring, and embracing that part of our culture and heritage that was lost” said Torres. “We’re going back to the basics of who we are and where we came from and putting it on a plate.”
“At Tierra we’ll be exploring each [Latin] country. For example a small town in Cuba has an African influence. Mexican food has influence from France and Spain. There’s a big range of where we can take each country” said Torres. Chef Darren Carbone worked as the Executive Chef at Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia for two years, one of acclaimed Nuevo Latino chef Douglas Rodriguez’ many restaurants. “I don’t need to go far to find really food and showcase it as Latin” said Carbone. “The only thing you’re limited by is your mind. Douglas taught me that.” It was at Hamersley’s Bistro under James Beard Award winning Chef Gordon Hamersley that he learned to cook vegetables with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients. “It was all about the vegetables” said Carbone.
Torres’ food memories are so strong that the smell of tamales steaming at Arizona 206, where she worked as sous chef right out of culinary school, evoked memories of her grandmother. “My grandmother was a very fast cook. She could always have dinner ready in 40 minutes” said Torres. She would prepare traditional Puerto Rican dishes for her family including pernil, maduros, tostones, arroz con gandules, chicken, and pasteles, a dish that resembles tamales. This amazing cook was also a great educator and the first woman superintendent of schools in Puerto Rico.
Torres was most recently the chef and co-owner of Sueños in Chelsea, a Mexican food favorite that she closed in March, after a successful 11 year run, in order to focus on new projects. She showed me the Union Square Green Market ordering app on her smart phone and mused at how far they’ve come since the days when she’d trek to the market on foot to shop for Suenos. Torres and Carbone have been walking from Tierra to the Westport Farmers’ Market each Thursday to buy vegetables and other local foods, and want to grow their relationships with our farmers. Fort Hill Farm and Riverbank Farm are currently supplying the restaurant with greens and radishes, epazote is coming from Two Guys from Woodbridge, and they’ll soon tap into the power of cropups.com. Begun by farmer Dina Brewster of The Hickories in Ridgefield, cropups.com is an online marketplace for restaurants and other buyers to conveniently source food from local farms, many of which use organic growing practices.
“I want to do a pig roast every month. I need a pig that can fit into a caja china” said Chef Darren Carbone as he excused himself to see if Aradia Farm could supply the restaurant. “Whole pig is done in many different preparations depending on the country” said Torres. “The pig is the main attraction and the co-stars are the accompaniments, like rice and beans, plantains and peach mojo.”
Chef Carbone dashed off to make purchases from farmers before the market closed for the day, returning cheerfully with his finds. As he headed towards Beltane Farm’s booth, Chef Torres said “He’s going to make cajeta flan.”. He returned with a handful of goat cheese, but no goat’s milk for the cajeta. “We’ll have to make it next week. He’s sold out.” How’s that for a local ingredient-driven menu?
Chefs Torres and Carbone redefine the word productive: in the last 8 months their first child was born, they opened a beach bar in St. Thomas, and then opened Tierra with their business partners. A fine dining establishment in St. Thomas is next.
The Vetri Foundation for Children’s Great Chefs Event in Philadelphia on June 9 and 10 will take both chefs away from the restaurant while they cook for a cause alongside other top chefs. The bar at Tierra will be open for small bites on June 9 and 10 and will serve two special cocktails using apples for the Vetri Foundation and lemons for Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Table service returns on Wednesday. Proceeds from the sale of these two drinks,which continues through Sunday, will be donated to the Vetri Foundation to bring awareness to and support children’s cancer research and healthy meals for kids.
Tierra at the Old Town Hall (lower level)
90 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880