It’s 6:45 AM. The fog is thick and heavy, and the grass is soaked with the Adirondack morning dew. As I walk through the row of tall white pines, the crops, our crops – all of the vegetables that I, together with the students from the summer semester Culinary 260 (The St. Regis) class – planted during the early summer, are slowly becoming visible through the dense fog.
This is my third semester being involved with The St. Regis Class. First I was a student in the class during the Fall 2015 semester and now, the Fall 2016 semester is my second semester working as the Chef Instructor’s assistant. I was honored to be offered this position, based on the work that I did in the St. Regis during my time as a student.
The St. Regis is a very special and important class. This became clear to me shortly after I started as a student. When I began to understand that the premise of the class was centered around the source of the products we would use and serve, I was eager to jump head-first into the program. We would be sourcing most of our food from local farms and dairies, and visiting many of these farms, not only learning about the products themselves, but also about the farms and the farmers who produce them. Sustainability and responsibility – that is the future of the culinary industry.
Today, the informed diner – the people who are spending money for a dining experience – are more interested in knowing that their food was responsibly sourced and sustainably produced than they are in getting fussed over. Or having extravagant food sculptures and perfect tourne cuts on their plates that were produced by wasting 20 to 30 percent of the fruit or vegetable, which incidentally may have been grown god-knows-where by god-knows-who. The informed public in modern times is far more impressed by a chef who understands the importance of sustainability and who not only sources their foods and products responsibly, but also has a healthy understanding of where and who that food has come from. It is important that we as chefs, prepare food with the same passion and hard work that the farmers put into producing the ingredients.
The St. Regis prepares students to not only know, respect, and understand the foods that we use and where they come from, but also to prepare menus based on the availability of locally-sourced products. Also, we learn both to create refined dishes of great quality, and also to apply these skills practically. Each semester, the students in the St. Regis class operate a full-service restaurant serving an exciting and modern menu based on foods grown and produced right here in our local region. Many people talk about doing things sustainably and responsibly, but few can walk the walk in the way the St. Regis Cafe does. Between the food and products that the St. Regis sources from local farms and dairies, and the food that we grow ourselves in our gardens, we are executing menus that are up to 90 percent local.
This morning, as I arrive at Gould’s Garden in order to harvest fresh vegetables that we will be served in the St. Regis Cafe later this afternoon, I think about how lucky I am. I survey the beautiful vegetables that the students have planted and cared for throughout the summer, and now into the fall, and feel lucky not only because I am gaining valuable experience, but also because I am experiencing a little piece of my dream.
I have always dreamed of owning a restaurant and inn on a farm, and of harvesting vegetables each morning from my gardens, and creating dishes and menus based on my freshly-picked produce. In the St. Regis I am getting to experience a piece of that dream and I am continuing to learn, each day.
As I walk around the garden, pride swells within me. Not only did the class that I am working with plant many different types of vegetables, but together we cared for those vegetables and produced a bumper crop that we have been featuring on our menus. I gather my baskets of zucchini and the patty pan squash that will be grilled and served as one of our entrees today, and I look across the garden at the raised beds that are brimming with colorful healthy heads of lettuce and rows of hearty dark green and purple kale. The lettuce and kale did especially well this season, and thinking of new and creative ways to use all of our kale and lettuce became an exciting challenge. Traditionally, that is how great dishes, recipes, and entire styles of cuisine are born: Creative people taking foods and products that are available locally and seasonally, and presenting them in such a way that elevates their quality while respecting their integrity.
Working in the St. Regis Cafe has by far been the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my time at Paul Smith’s College. I have realized how valuable the St. Regis experience is during recent employment experiences in the private industry. My knowledge of and familiarity with seasonal, local products has helped me immensely when I was able to demonstrate creative and efficient applications. I credit my time at the St. Regis for some of the great employment offers that I have had lately. Last winter break I worked as the chef at a historic Inn in Essex, NY, and that led to an offer to return after graduation as their permanent “Head Chef.” The offer was very flattering, and it felt good to know that I had made such a good impression by working hard, but I also know that I have a bright future ahead of me, and at the time it was still a long while before graduation; I was not ready to commit to anything, then.
On this chilly late September morning as the growing season nears an end – I’m wandering through Gould’s Garden, as I have done on many mornings over the past several months – caring for, inspecting, and harvesting our vegetables. This morning is a little bit different for me. This morning my pride is even greater and more intense as I gather all of my vegetables. I am not only experiencing a little piece of my dream through my job at the St. Regis, this time I am actually preparing to live my dream; unfolding and coming to fruition in real time, right now, before my eyes. Because of what I feel is the knowledge and experience that I have gained at the St Regis, as well as the hard work that I have done, I have recently had an amazing opportunity present itself to me: I was asked to take over ownership of a successfully operating restaurant and catering business at a beautiful Inn on a working farm in Westport, NY. After I graduate, I will be going to my own restaurant, on a beautiful farm, and I will build my dream.