Summer Road Trip
by Margaret LeRoux
Road trip! Summer is the season to escape the city and explore beyond the boundaries of the Mass Pike. head west to Central Massachusetts; it’s an easy drive and there are lots of options for diners seeking a locavore experience.
Armsby Abbey, Worcester
When Alec Lopez and Sherri Sadowski opened Armsby Abbey three years ago, their aim was to serve the best craft beers in the world and, along with them, food as good as the brews. no matter that they opened during the height of a national financial crisis, beer fanatics from Worcester and beyond welcomed them with open arms.
There were 80 people waiting outside the day the taps were installed. Three years later the gastro-pub is packed on weekends and its reputation has soared to the top of the beer universe. The Abbey is rated among the top beer bars in the country and its menu, crafted from local ingredients, is just as popular as its brews.
“We found that Worcester was starving for good food,” said Sadowski. “We expected that food would represent only 20% of the operation; it quickly became 50%.”
The Abbey serves an eclectic menu: farmstead platters of cheese from vermont, Connecticut and Westport, Massachusetts; housemade pork rillettes and rillons; artisan pizza topped with free-range Thai-spiced chicken; and raita made with yogurt from the Narragansett Creamery. Sandwiches feature grass-fed roast beef on focaccia baked by the Abbey’s pastry chef and garnished with local horseradish in crème frâiche. Among a handful of desserts is “bieramisu,” homemade sponge cake soaked in Berkshire Coffeehouse Porter and Illy espresso liqueur.
Virtually everything on the menu is sourced locally and seasonally, which is easier than you’d think in the summer, said Lopez and Sadowski, who sought out small, area farms and established relationships with them. Several days a week they or members of their staff drive about eight miles to Berberian Farms in Northborough for vegetables and salad greens. Fresh-picked fruit for jams and garnishes come from tougas Farms, also in Northborough.
It takes time and effort, Sadowski said, “but now people are coming to us.” When overlook Farm in Rutland had an extra 40 pounds of carrots and garlic, Lopez was happy to oblige. Last year the Abbey started getting tomatoes and greens from the Dismas house Farm in Oakham, a 35-acre farm where former prisoners get a fresh start by growing fresh vegetables.
“The Dismas house Farm is now growing 20 varieties of heirloom vegetables for us, including tomatoes, corn, squash, potatoes and onions,” said Lopez. The farm is building a small greenhouse he hopes will eventually increase in size to supply the Abbey with greens during the winter.
It’s during those long months of winter when the Abbey’s focus on local ingredients becomes a challenge.
“What we’re trying to do here is a complete anomaly,” Lopez acknowledges, “but it’s a great opportunity to educate people. When they ask why there are no tomatoes in winter and the sides are cabbage salad and spelt, we can explain why.”
Both Lopez and Sadowski grew up on farms, though in different hemispheres. his family’s land was in San Juan, a small town in Argentina’s wine country.
“Everything we ate came from our farm or a friend’s farm,” Lopez said. “A guy from the local bakery came by every day on a bicycle with baguettes.”
Sadowski’s fondest memories are of picking berries on her grandparents’ farm in Rhode Island. She and her brother had a farm stand all summer where they sold tomatoes and corn.
The couple both worked on the corporate side of the food industry as well as the service side. They met as bartenders and renovated a seedy drinking spot aptly named the Dive Bar. After weaning the bar’s customers away from mass-produced beer to craft brews, they set their sights on expanding the gastro-pub model with the Abbey. So far, they have exceeded their projections almost every month since opening.
What’s ahead is a big expansion to create more seating and give the place a real kitchen. Lopez and a staff of seven chefs have been working in a space “so small, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “Most chefs would turn away if they saw our kitchen.”
Included in the expansion is a new bakery, Crust, which will open a couple doors down from the Abbey. In addition to artisan bread, there will be organic coffee and homemade pastries sure to be welcomed by employees of the nearby Worcester County Courthouse and students at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Heath Sciences across the street.
B.T.’s Smokehouse, Sturbridge
Chef-owner Brian Treitman sets a high bar for sustainable practices at BT’s Smokehouse in Sturbridge, a funky little joint with a great big fan base of barbecue fanatics.
Treitman sends all the meat grease and vegetable oil he uses in cooking to a rendering plant for recycling. Cups, plates, utensils and takeout containers are biodegradable. For months, he’s been trying to track down a compost company to pick up food waste so local farms can use it.
The Culinary Institute of America–trained chef makes all the sauces, even his own ketchup, from scratch. he uses local, organic produce seasonally in the salads and sides accompanying platters of ribs, chicken, pork and other house specialties. He even smoked tofu for a barbecue burrito that was a big hit with the Smokehouse’s vegetarian fans.
In the two years since Treitman opened BT’s Smokehouse, he has developed a loyal following in the Sturbridge community. A couple of them provide him with bluefish for smoking from their party boat cruises. “They used to throw the bluefish back; now they bring them to me,” Treitman said.
The chef uses a handcrafted mixture of spices to rub grass-fed beef and chicken before smoking it up to 14 hours over local apple wood and hickory. The result is melt-in-your-mouth, authentic barbecue flavor.
If only he could find an affordable source for local meat.
“Meat is difficult for me,” Treitman explains. “I go through 2,000 pounds of pork shoulder and 20 to 30 cows’ worth of beef brisket in a week. There just aren’t enough local sources that are affordable.” Treitman notes that although his beef comes from Kansas, it’s grass fed and he buys through a local butcher, Arnold’s Meats, in Chicopee.
A full rack of beef ribs at BT’s Smokehouse is $28. The sad irony is that the price would be double if he used local meat. “My customers aren’t going pay that much,” he said. When he caters pig roasts, Treitman gets local pork from Azuluna, a premium livestock project based in Grafton, Massachusetts.
Treitman’s appreciation for local ingredients started with his culinary school internship at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley. “I learned what a difference it makes in the end product,” he said. From there, he cooked at restaurants in California’s Napa valley, where the bounty of local ingredients is astounding. “The mushroom lady would bring us 20 different varieties that she had gathered herself,” Treitman said. Another guy would drive up with his station wagon full of heirloom tomatoes.” Treitman developed a taste for barbecue when he and other chefs would get together on their days off.
Back home in Massachusetts to open a restaurant of his own, Treitman perfected his barbecue skills in a roadside shack next to the Brimfield antiques fair. Last year he moved operations to Sturbridge, where his tiny Smokehouse seats 16. A 700-pound-capacity smoker supports a lot of barbecue takeout.
Treitman gets much of his produce from the Pioneer Valley Growers Association.
A friend who has an organic farm in Easthampton, Mountain View Farm, grows cucumbers for him and he’s connected with Silvermine Farm in Sutton for organic corn and tomatoes. The hot peppers for his spicy hot sauce come from Zgrodnik Farms in Hadley.
Al Maykel Jr. grew up in the aisles of Worcester’s oldest natural foods store; his parents Al and Maggy Maykel founded the living Earth in 1971. When he and his sister Celeste opened a restaurant next door, they didn’t have to search for a supply of organic produce. The senior Maykels’ Living Earth Organic Farm in Rutland offers a seasonal variety of produce for the store and for Evo, the restaurant operated by their son and daughter.
Maykel, a Johnson & Wales graduate, learned to cook at the Living Earth’s Café, famous for its vegan fare, fruit smoothies and vegetable juice. When he opened the new restaurant—the name stands for American Dining Evolved—the café’s customers were slow to warm up to it.
“People expected us to be vegetarian or vegan,” Maykel said. “We’re so much more than that.” There are plenty of vegetarian options and tofu hasn’t disappeared from the menu, but EVO’s sophisticated décor, its sleek bar with a waterfall sculpture and menu featuring Kobe beef burgers could hardly be more different from the café. Maykel also gets beef from Adams Farm in Athol; the Kobe beef comes from Colorado. Eggs for the weekend breakfast menu are from cage-free chickens.
In the three years since opening, Maykel has tweaked the menu. Ironically, the chef said he hasn’t gotten a lot of inquiries about the source of ingredients. “Our customers didn’t go for high-price entrées and sauces,” he said, “so now we offer middle of the road options and more sandwiches.” he also simplified some of the prep work and presentation.
“When we first opened we offered a salad topped with pankocrusted baked goat cheese. The number of steps involved in making that became too cost prohibitive,” he said. “Now we serve a mixed green salad topped with crumbled goat cheese; it’s easier and less expensive for us to prepare and it’s healthier.” true to its name, EVO is evolving.
Isador’s Organics, Oxford
Main Street in Oxford offers the scenery of an authentic New England small town. It’s wide and tree-lined; houses have big green front lawns. Isador’s, a deli and produce market, is tucked away in the rear lot of 250 Main Street. Once inside, make your way past shelves stocked with local honey, maple syrup and a cooler where glass bottles of whole milk from a nearby dairy have thick layers of cream on top. At the back of the store, a deli counter is stocked with grass-fed meats and free-range poultry. A walk-in cooler holds boxes of organic produce; in summer it’s supplemented with vegetables from neighboring farms. Seating is limited to a small counter with four stools, so take your sandwich, soup or entrée outside to the gazebo and picnic tables.
Isador’s is a hub for area vegetarians and vegans. The deli’s glutenfree soups are among its most popular items. Deli staff patiently explains to newcomers that the turkey slices come from a roasted breast and the salads are made in-house. For customers not so savvy about some of the unusual vegetables, chef-owner Justin Szóstakowski identifies gnarly brown sunchokes and suggests how to prepare them— “peeled, sliced in soups”— and a offers a critique: “They have a subtle flavor, like artichokes.”
Szóstakowski, who grew up in Oxford, started Isador’s five years ago as a produce market. He’d worked at a seafood market and restaurant and his goal was to expand to a similar operation. At first he called dozens of farms in the area, looking for produce, only to find that many of them were bed and breakfast operations. Gradually he’s found several local sources for produce and products sold in the store. Hebert honey in Oxford, for example, and Coopers Hilltop Dairy in nearby Rochdale.
Szóstakowski gets much of his organic produce from Albert’s Organics, a national distribution company, supplemented seasonally with produce from neighboring farms. He added a deli and its popularity inspired him to start offering nightly dinner specials, partnering with a local package store to offer a discount on wines to accompany them.
“It’s good for both of us,” Szóstakowski said. “Oxford is more a beer town, so it boosts wine sales a bit.”
Isador’s focuses on local marketing with daily twitter feeds and community events. Szóstakowski sponsors chili throwdowns to raise funds for a local effort to supply schools in the area with fresh produce. A vegetarian buffet he served to raise money for Dismas House resulted in a source for free-range eggs from the Dismas House Farm. The lucky folks who live within a 25-mile radius of Isador’s can have a 10-pound box of organic produce from the store delivered to their homes once a week. Or they can go to the website and add items from Isador’s online shopping list.
Nancy’s Air Field Café, Stow
At Nancy’s Air Field Café in Stow, farm-to-table literally means go out the back door and harvest. Starting this summer a working farm of 25 acres adjacent to the café and air field is supplying the menu with heir loom vegetables and herbs. Eventually there will be fresh pork too; farmer Bob Stanley is raising a few pigs.
On summer and early fall weekends, a Café Market featuring produce, cheese and other local specialties operates in the parking lot. If chef-owner Nancy McPherson gets her way there soon will be a woodfired brick oven turning out loaves of bread and pizza. Her husband, Don, owner of the air field and manager of the café, is adding a couple of beehives to supply the café with fresh honey.
If it sounds like a locavore’s oasis, that’s exactly what nancy has in mind. “We have all this land,” she said, gesturing towards the 300-acre field where hay once grew. The café started as a diner, run by Don’s mother. It served pilots and locals who drove out to watch small planes land and take off from Minute Man Field, owned by the McPherson family since 1966. When Nancy took over the kitchen in 1996 after her mother-in-law retired, she expanded the menu with local cheese, produce and herbs grown in her garden. “I drove all over the place looking for local ingredients,” she said. (Check out the café’s website for a long list of her sources).
Nancy even uses a local knife sharpener who does the job by hand. Another neighbor, Pilot Grove Farm, supplies lamb for the café’s popular Berbére burger. Don, who’s also a pilot, sometimes flies out to Ashfield to pick up a few gallons of maple syrup from South Face Farm for the café’s signature maple balsamic dressing. “We’ve flown lobsters down from Rockland, Maine, on our way back from visiting my sister,” Nancy said.
Although she has no formal culinary training, Nancy’s travels in the Middle East, Europe and a stint at the Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie in Paris gave her an appreciation for local ingredients. When she returned to the United States and tried to recreate ratatouille, she found it hard to find eggplant. “That was the beginning of my gardening and culinary journey,” she said.
“I’m on a crusade to get people to eat local,” she continued. “I’m fanatic about kale; I use it in soups, omelets and herb butters. Last Father’s Day I featured it in omelets at brunch and when I ran out of kale halfway through the afternoon, there practically was a revolt.”
One Love Café, Worcester
When Venice Fouchard moved to Worcester eight years ago, she couldn’t find a restaurant that catered to Jamaicans like herself. The lack of calaloo, achee and curried goat prompted the enterprising chef and fashion designer to open her own eating establishment. One Love Café is in the city’s eclectic Main South neighborhood where Fouchard presides over a tiny open kitchen and a cozy dining space. Come between meals and you may find the owner stitching one of her creations.
The café’s tiny space “spoke to me; I love its intimacy,” Fouchard said. There are only eight tables and you’re welcome to bring your own beer or wine. One Love Café is wedged between Gilrein’s blues bar and the Artichoke Co-op, a handy source of ingredients, where Fouchard gets much of her produce. She also uses the co-op’s organic chickpeas in fillings for roti. One Love’s back door is just a couple steps from the back entrance to the co-op, very convenient when the chef unexpectedly runs out of an ingredient.
Not many of her customers ask Fouchard if meat or vegetables are local. “They’re more interested in whether the food is kosher or halal,” she said. One love’s goat curry is locally sourced; the meat comes from Overlook Farm in Rutland. The farm is run by heifer Project International. In summer, Fouchard has access to produce at a farmers market on Main South and last year a one-acre community garden opened on Oread Street, a block away from the café. It’s farmed by neighborhood teenagers under the direction of the Regional Environmental Center. Fouchard said she was delighted to have access to the garden and is looking forward to more garden bounty this summer.
The People’s Kitchen, Worcester
At the People’s Kitchen in Worcester, when Chef William Nemeroff serves local beef, he said he can tell you “how the cow was raised and what it was fed.” That’s because the chef has forged a friendship with the cow’s owners. Jim Talvey and Jane Carbone raise Rotokawa Devon/Angus cattle at their Double J Farm in West Brookfield. The cows are grass fed and grass finished without hormones, antibiotics or grain in their diet. Nemeroff buys a whole cow at a time and does his own butchering and dry aging in the restaurant’s coolers.
The People’s Kitchen prime rib roast priced at $27 “is an unheard of bargain,” he said. Nemeroff’s years of culinary experience—he graduated from Johnson & Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, and previously owned Cedar Street restaurant in Sturbridge—taught him that Central Massachusetts diners “won’t pay $42 for beef, no matter how good the quality.”
That’s the dilemma for chefs outside a major metropolitan area who want to reach the locavore crowd. It’s a challenge to establish relationships with local sources that can provide enough to meet a restaurant’s needs. At the same time, there is strong resistance to pricing that reflects the quality of products like grass-fed beef. Worcester has a longstanding reputation for frugality; it will take a major effort to convince most customers of the value of eating local if it means a bigger restaurant check.
“There are a lot of good small farms,” Nemeroff acknowledged, “but I need bigger quantities than most of them can provide.” For example, the People’s Kitchen serves more than 20 pounds of cheese in a week; not too many local dairies can supply that amount.
“It’s great that local sources are starting to pop up all over,” said Mike Covino, owner of the niche hospitality group that includes The People’s Kitchen and four other Worcester restaurants. “The challenge is for us to find them and for them to find us. The missing link is the refrigerated truck that could pick up at the farms and deliver to us.”
For now it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. Nemeroff, who commutes to the restaurant from his home in West Brookfield, said he’s found some of his local sources at farms he passes along the way. “At the People’s Kitchen we print new menus daily, so we have the flexibility to use what’s available on a given day,” he said.
The People’s Kitchen doesn’t claim to offer all-local ingredients. “We follow an artisanal approach,” Nemeroff explained. “We’re committed to handcrafted products, whether we buy them or prepare them inhouse.” A recent menu offered Kobe beef, “certainly not local, but premium,” the chef noted. For fish, “we depend on our fishmonger. If it’s day boat scallops, I can tell you the vessel they came from, but we’ve also featured spearfish flown in fresh from Hawaii.”
Covino emphasized that buying local is a challenge he’s committed to, “but we’re not buying local just to make a marketing statement. If it offers value and differentiates us from the competition, that’s what drives our decision,” he said. “When we can get local, if it’s great and we can get excited about it, we’ll offer it.”
144 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01608
392 Main Street
Sturbridge, MA 01566
234 Chandler Street
Worcester, MA 01609
250 Main Street
oxford, MA 01540
Nancy’s Air Field Café
302 Boxboro Road
Stow, MA 01775
One Love Café
800 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
The People’s Kitchen
1 Exchange Place
Worcester, MA 01608
Margaret LeRoux is a freelance writer from Central Massachusetts whose appreciation for local food has prompted many road a trip and lots of memorable meals. You can read about her adventures in eating and other activities at www.margaretleroux.com.