A chef’s life is a busy life. Beau Vestal’s workday starts around 10 am; he’s usually in the kitchen at New Rivers in Providence, RI, around noon, and he mans a station through the evening’s service, which wraps up around midnight.
Dining at New Rivers, you might glance at the “charcuterie & offal” menu and try the tongue (“long brine, pastrami rub, maple smoke, served warm”) or the Rhody-farmed lamb with mint, aleppo pepper and curry flavors, served with various house-made pickles. On the entrée menu you’ll find roasted bomster scallops with baby chiogga beets, brined and grilled berkshire pork with roasted parsley root and poached yellow beets.
Many of Vestal’s dishes feature local ingredients. Some might even spotlight mushrooms or other foods the chef himself found on a foraging trip with local farmers that day. “If it’s growing here, chances are it’s going to taste good with other things that we get from here too,” he says.
Vestal invited MyFreshLocal to New Rivers for a conversation covering partnerships between farmers and restaurants, foraging for wild beach plants, what rooster combs taste like, and much more.
MyFreshLocal: What’s your connection to local ingredients and local cooking?
Chef Beau Vestal: One of the things we enjoy is celebrating local ingredients and traditions. I’ve been here for about 12 years. I came up here from Florida in 1998 for culinary school. I want to buy the fish from these local waters that was in the water 1½ days ago. Because it’s going to taste better. And because it reflects what we’re trying to do here: Showcase New England.
That’s not to say, if there’s a great ranch in the Midwest who’s doing awesome beef and they have a really nice program, that we won’t source from them – we will.
But most of the people I buy from are my friends: Farmers I’ve been dealing with for the last 10-12 years, who know exactly what I want, they get excited about it just like I do. They call me and say "I’m setting aside a quarter acre for you, I’ll send you a seed catalog, tell me what you want me to grow". It’s kind of a neat chance for us to specifically pick and choose what we have in the restaurant.
I’d rather give my buying power to my friends. There’s an emotional attachment. And I’d rather see our spending dollars get recirculated into the community.
You think my job is hard – farming makes my life look pretty easy. Two years ago there was the whole tomato blight thing; farmers planted what they expected was going to bring them tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, and something beyond their control just wiped it out.
So I always tell the farmers: Whatever you have, we’re going to buy.
How do you discover new local food producers? Do they still knock on your door?
We get tons of people who just knock on the back door, and I’m probably a pretty easy sell, because I think it’s important to get younger people involved especially in farming. So I’m always happy to buy their stuff, and also tell them some dos and don’ts. Like “Don’t come to the back door on Friday at 11 o'clock. You’re just going to shoot yourself in the foot.”
So I’m always interested in shepherding along young farmers and purveyors that are really trying to make a difference and do the right thing. We give them menu placements; we’ll say what farm it is that is supplying an ingredient. That’s going to help them market themselves. [Editor’s note: At this point, as if on cue, a courier or vendor comes to the restaurant door delivering a small package of goat cheese.]
Sometimes people think of chefs and restaurants as the most important spoke in the wheel, but we really are just one of the spokes. If the farmers can’t grow the stuff, I can’t do the job at all. We’re intertwined with those guys.
Tell us about charcuterie and offal. We’ve seen rooster combs, fatback, headcheese, piglet cheeks on your menus.
We started messing around with it a little bit about 6 years ago. We were buying whole animals from a small farm in South Dartmouth [Massachusetts], and finding we had all these bits and pieces left over, so we started making sausages and terrines and pates.
There’s so much newfangled technology out there, molecular gastronomy and the sous-vide machines and foams and powders. That’s great; it’s important for chefs to be thinking forward and trying new things. But for us it’s just as important to do things traditionally.
We go out of our way to find recipes from, say, 19thcentury Britain, and make their version of head cheese. For us, charcuterie is a way to utilize [more of the animal], but also – look, we’re making our own smoked hams and bacons, and it’s just damn tasty!
We hire a lot of young cooks in the restaurant. I go out of my way to show them that you don’t have to use fancy meat glues and that kind of thing. We do things traditionally and they taste just as delicious, if not better.
So I’m kind of going in reverse in time, where a lot of the chefs nowadays are going to the future. It’s just my personal thing.
Foraging is something you’re known for. How do you learn it, how do you make the time, and what does that bring to the restaurant table?
It started off 7 or 8 years ago, as a way to get the hell out of the kitchen for a day! I was lucky enough to know some farmers in Westport and South Dartmouth who were way into it. So I would go to their houses and go on walks in the woods. It started off with wild greens, and evolved to the point where I’m comfortable with about 25 or 30 mushroom varieties. Obviously I always choose things I’m sure of. It’s one more way to represent the natural surroundings of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
If it’s growing here, chances are it’s going to taste good with other things that we get from here too. It gives the food that sense of time and place. We only get certain mushrooms in certain weeks of the year. It’s a short time window and really sort of a special thing.
I equate foraging to fishing. There’s a thrill of walking around in the woods and not knowing whether you’re going to find anything. And then suddenly you walk around a tree and find a huge patch of Chantarelles or Maitakes.
Most days that I am in the woods in the morning, I’m bringing it back to the restaurant that day, and it’s being put to a plate six hours later for a guest to enjoy. It’s a pretty neat thing.
And it’s kind of expanded from just doing woodland foraging to doing things like beach foraging. There are tons of wild beach plants we’ll use in a seafood dish. There’s an inherent minerality and brineyness to them just because of their proximity to the water.
How much tougher is it to design a menu with locally sourced items in the dead of New England winter?
It is tougher, but farmers have gotten really creative with their greenhouse projects. Winter in New England? A lot of root vegetables. A lot of turnips, potatoes. But we make do.
It’s more challenging but our venue reflects what’s going to be around. We’re fortunate enough that our clientele has come to expect that if they come here in January, they’re not going to find strawberries. They’re just not.
Providence is an extremely competitive restaurant scene.
Yes but there are six or eight of us who are really tight friends. Matt [Jennings] from Farmstead [farmsteadinc.com], Matt [Gennuso] from Chez Pascal [chez-pascal.com], we’re all good friends. Yes we compete for the same clientele, but we’re all busy. Our ideologies are similar, but it’s different food.
If you walk down the street in Providence, you can walk into a restaurant on probably every single corner. But it’s very supportive. We’ll share information about a new meat purveyor. If we’re having trouble with a recipe or technique, we’ll ask each other and help each other. It’s very friendly.
You have fiddleheads on the menu…
In the Spring, yes.
…and rooster combs. Somebody’s going to walk in here and eat something for the very first time.
And that’s exactly why we do it. It’s their first encounter with something. An experience that they have never had before, that they can store away in their bank of food memories.
I mean, do I love rooster combs? No. But are they interesting? Yes they are.
For someone to have their first experience with these foods … A rooster comb is a pretty interesting texture – it’s like a chicken flavored gummy bear.
Fiddleheads are the same thing – not only are they a sign of spring, but they’re unique and tasty and they’re fun. Beautiful to look at, and have this flavor full of Spring.
What’s something you love to cook?
I love to cook vegetables.
A lot of people associate me with the pig and the pork stuff and the charcuterie, and I love that stuff too, but I love to cook vegetables. Again we’re so lucky with the farmers we have locally, what they’re bringing me is stuff I never would have imagined in terms of quality.
So we treat vegetables with the same amount of care as great meat – we’ll use our best pans, our best spoons, and really coax the flavor in the same way that you would with a steak or a pork chop.
And something you love to eat?
For me, simple is better. Simple and seasonal. Late july, early august, maybe a sliced tomato on a piece of bread, ripped basil, with salt, pepper and olive oil.
In the wintertime, it’s probably stewed white beans with pork belly.
It’s also mood dependant and situational. I’m just as happy eating the best fried seafood at a fried seafood shack as I am eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. They’re different experiences, but neither is more or less gratifying than the other.
About the 50 VOICES OF LOCAL FOOD series
Food is simple, but food systems issues get complex very quickly.
So while easy slogans have their place (“eat local food!”), it’s valuable to dig in and understand considerations of health, environment, regulation, economics, and more. Ultimately that’s how the smartest and best decisions can be made, both for individuals and for the food system at large.
That’s the thought behind 50 Voices of Local Food. In this series MyFreshLocal will talk to people engaged in local food in many different ways. Farmers, chefs and restaurant owners, lawyers, legislators, artisan producers – name a segment of the food system and you’ll find those folks in 50 Voices series.
Like what you’re reading? Join the MyFreshLocal email list to keep up to date with our weekly newsletter. Join now! (We promise not to spam you. We’re good people.) Also check out MyFreshLocal's campaign on IndieGoGo!