Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm – The Chef Charmer

Trailblazing farmer Rick Bishop has caused city cooks to swoon for twenty-five years.

rick bishop

Photograph by Scott Gordon Bleicher

It’s easy to miss Rick Bishop’s tiny, tentless six-foot table amid the stands 10 times as large at the Union Square Greenmarket. But on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, look hard, and you’ll see a sign that reads “Mountain Sweet Berry Farm” and Bishop’s weather-beaten burgundy van. They will lead you to an unpretentious display of some of the market’s most highly coveted produce, and to the trail-blazing farmer who played an early, critical role in getting city chefs to cook upstate ingredients.

Bishop, 51, is a tall, energetic engine of charisma, a powerhouse who friends say can work a backbreaking14- hour day, party until 2:00 a.m. and show up bright-eyed at 6:00 a.m. for breakfast, with gas in the tank. “In many ways he resembles a Viking,” marvels WD~50 chef Wylie Dufresne, “with leathery hands, a bone-crushing handshake and this infectious nature.” Bishop is also fiercely focused, at once the fastest talker you’ve ever heard and the best listener you’ve ever met.

His customers include the top toques in town— from Per Se, Hearth, Jean Georges, Blue Hill and many more—all celebrated for their techniques and talents, but they’ll likely tell you that the real star is Bishop, the soil science wizard who can grow just about anything and pack it full of flavor.

This time of year his cult offerings include wild foods Bishop forages near his 35-acre Catskills farm: fiddleheads, watercress and especially ramps, the wild allium that appears overnight on mountainsides and menus each May. Snapped up by the case, Bishop’s ramps will soon top pizzas at Otto, add zing to chilled soup at Telepan and appear sautéed aside striped bass at Gramercy Tavern. Bishop has been tracking the wild delicacy for decades—in recent years he has started using Google Earth to locate prime patches—and many a chef has hit the Catskills to tag along, including David Chang’s whole Momofuku crew. I Trulli chef, Patti Jackson, who forages ramps with Bishop each spring, raves, “Rick’s a master, he knows all the plants around him, and every bend in the river.”

Bishop found his calling early. When a grammar school teacher told the story of the first Thanksgiving, he recalls, “I was fired up about planting corn the way the Indians taught the pilgrims: Bury three fish and put in three seeds, one for the crow, one for the Indian, and one for the worm.” He stripped three corn kernels off an ear from his neighbor’s field and buried them with three catfish. Giant stalks shot up—but they didn’t match each other. His neighbor explained that the kernels were from a hybrid ear, resulting in different genetic expressions. (Unlike heirloom varieties, hybrids are a cross of dissimilar parents. The seeds, only good for a single crop, must be reordered from a seed company each year.)

“I was totally intrigued,” recalls Bishop, his eyes alive with the memory. “Hybrids! I started looking at seed catalogs, learning about botany and planting a bigger and bigger garden until there was no more lawn.”

Bishop’s father, a truck driver, and mother, a seamstress, had tried homesteading, but their dreams of living off the land did not pan out. (“We practically starved to death,” recalls Bishop.) To supplement the family income, Bishop dropped out of ninth grade to cut cordwood. It was not fun, but he says with a shrug, “It’s what makes you who you are, you know?”

By the mid-’70s, Bishop had taken charge of the family garden and begun selling produce to local organic stores. He immersed himself in Rodale Institute literature—including the groundbreaking periodical Organic Gardening—and bought his own laboratory for soil testing. A lifelong obsession was born.

By chance, the man who owned the land was a chiropractor interested in the theories of renegade agronomist, physician and healer Dr. Carey Reams. The chiropractor took a liking to the talented young Bishop, buying him books and even sending him to Reams’s seminars in Virginia. Reams believed ardently in the importance of enriched soil as the basis for health-giving food. One of his mottos was, “Farmers are the best doctors in the world.” He became Bishop’s mentor, instilling in him the belief that to grow for flavor, you had to build up your soil—and that high-quality produce would sell itself.

A Minnesota-based Reams devotee in search of a soil science expert offered to double Bishop’s salary to lure him to the Midwest. To his surprise, Bishop was working 13-hour shifts six days a week at a lumberyard and pulling in a hefty paycheck. The memory still makes Bishop smile.

Bishop, who had gotten his GED, studied biochemistry for three years at Minnesota State, and was accepted into his dream program at Cornell’s agriculture college, where he enrolled in 1982. But Cornell, like every agricultural school at the time, was all about “efficiency, higher yield, and shipping characteristics,” says Bishop. “No one was concerned about flavor.”

Putting his faith in what Reams had taught him, Bishop bucked the prevailing dogma. While college curriculum focused on crops able to withstand machine harvest and long-distance transport, Bishop believed produce’s true selling point should be its taste. The market soon proved him resoundingly right.

In 1985, Bishop took the Greenmarket by storm, selling a then-unknown strawberry variety called the Tri-Star. The fruit is tiny and delicate—the opposite of tasteless supermarket behemoths, and all wrong for industrial production—and retains all 51 aromatic compounds of the wild strawberry. It is, in other words, indescribably delicious. In an era when Union Square was better known as a place to score illicit substances, the Tri-Star was another type of mood-enhancing product, one that lured a different class of clientele: chefs.

This was during what Bishop calls the “French revolution,” when “Daniel [Boulud] and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] were coming to town.” The Gallic advance guard flipped for the berries, which conjured up the fraises des bois of their homeland. Suddenly, Bishop’s answering machine was filled with French accents, he recalls, channeling their voices: “‘This is Didier,’ ‘this is Pierre,’ ‘this is Thierry,’ all ordering flats of Tri-Stars.  The tiny berry still draws huge crowds when they’re harvested in late summer. While picking up his weekly allotment last September, Otto chef Colan said flatly, “they’re the ultimate, the best strawberries you’ll ever find in New York.”

The Tri-Star is a simple example of Bishop’s one-two approach: search the world for extraordinary seeds and grow them in the richest soil you can create. But the beloved berry may not even be Bishop’s most famous crop. That prize likely goes to the fingerling potato.

Chef David Bouley became one of his earliest champions (though Bishop claims he couldn’t sit down at Bouley’s four-star eponymous restaurant for ages because he didn’t own a suit). Impressed with Bishop’s extraordinary crops, he visited the farm with Joël Robuchon and food writer Patricia Wells in tow to show them the source of his produce (Bishop had no idea who they were) and recalls combing through seed catalogs with the young farmer and making watercressand-trout salad with ingredients they foraged together.

But it was Bishop’s Ruby Crescent fingerling potatoes that Bouley fell for hardest.

So flavorful were the tubers that Bouley invested upward of $20,000 so Bishop and his then-wife Franca Tantillo (who now has her own stand, Berried Treasures, at the market on Mondays and Fridays) could develop certified Peruvian potato seed stock and build up the soil used to grow them. Three years later Bishop was harvesting over 20,000 pounds of the coveted fingerlings just for Bouley.

“Then madness happened, and now there are fingerlings everywhere,” says Bouley of the subsequent craze. These days the chef faces stiff competition for Bishop’s produce. “I get as much as I can” from Mountain Sweet Berry, he says with a laugh, but “all these young whippersnappers, guys who used to work for me, now they’re there too early.”

That Peruvian fingerling marked the beginning of Bishop’s custom collaborations with chefs; since then, he has applied his horticultural magic to more special-request crops than he can count.

Daniel Boulud insisted that one of the potatoes Bishop was growing was not “the true la ratte” of his hometown Lyon—so Bishop got his hands on a Lyonnaise potato to plant here for him.

Bill Telepan first met the mountain man when he was souschef at Gotham Bar and Grill in the early ’90s. (“He was a brilliant farmer and had all this energy,” the chef recalled recently.) At Telepan’s behest Bishop planted scarlet runner beans, and the chef hasn’t grown tired of them yet. Today he serves them at his eponymous Upper West Side restaurant; each September he stocks up, painstakingly freezing enough to cook all winter, rather than buy inferior incarnations when Bishop’s fields are full of snow.  Cesare Casella (now of Salumeria Rossi) also requested shell beans—he brought Bishop a whopping 19 heirloom varieties from Italy; Bishop dedicated two acres to the rare pulses, which the chef dubbed his “republic of beans.” (Casella also had Bishop grow Canestrino tomato seeds from Lucca, as well as wild arugula that’s worlds away from anything you’ll find in the supermarket.) Dufresne jumped at Bishop’s offer of some wild greens called “branch lettuce,” cornering the market one season. He also counts on Bishop for a regular supply of pine needles, which he uses to infuse oil, or for pesto or spaetzle.

“He listens to chefs, and he’s always coming up with new ideas, pushing the envelope, says Hearth’s Marco Canora, who himself suggested that Bishop offer “a pu-pu platter” of different color fingerling potatoes. The mix turned into a hit for Bishop.

When longtime customer Dan Barber of Blue Hill wanted Bishop to grow celtuce, which tastes like the love child of a union between celery and lettuce, Bishop’s wife, Nicole, tracked down the seeds, just as she did when Michael White returned from Italy requesting spigarello broccoli. Bishop’s crop of the crucifer is so good that White advocates a “less is more” approach of braising it and serving it with “a few shavings of [ricotta] salata and cracked white pepper.”

Per Se’s kitchen requested sunchokes with fewer knobs and more surface. Bishop delivered. “They’re beautiful,” says Eli Kaimeh, Per Se’s chef de cuisine. “We do a tournée cut, like a torpedo, braise them in olive oil and lemon juice with truffles; it’s really elegant.”

The farmer clearly loves collaborating with chefs and agricultural innovation. But sometimes the requests can border on the obsessive.

Canora, for example, requested that his potatoes be exactly an inchand- a-half long.

When Kurt Gutenbrunner’s wild arugula was not the precisely requested four inches in length, the Wallsé chef gave Bishop a ruler as a half-joking rebuke.

“The chefs,” says Bishop, “bust my ass,” but they know he’s up to the challenge. In turn, they reward him with their undying loyalty and admiration. Corton chef, Paul Liebrandt, marvels at Bishop’s consistency and his “detailed, very precise growing.” He is partial to Mountain Sweet Berry Farm’s pristine, peppery sylvetta, a type of wild arugula that he might use to make a savory financier or wake up a dessert sorbet.

Not everyone in line at Bishop’s Union Square stand is a chef. Stockbroker Ernie Raab, who tries to buy most of his food at the Greenmarket, says “the real tip-off” to how good Bishop’s produce is is the fact that a line can form as early as 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday. “People wait 20, 30 minutes,” he notes.

Bishop says the secret to his success is in the soil. In keeping with Reams’s credo, he builds his fields up with “a ton of compost” as well as soft rock phosphate, an ocean mineral called “aragonite,” granite dust and a slew of other minerals. He even uses a device called a “refractometer” to take Brix, or sugar, readings of his produce—the more mineralized the soil, the more flavorful the produce, and the higher the Brix reading—that help guide soil mineralization and irrigation patterns.

“There’s a compelling argument to be made that he’s a chef, and he’s writing a recipe before I start writing mine,” says Barber, (who himself has experimented with innovative soil enrichment, famously dusting a row of carrots with powdered almonds). “He’s the kind of farmer who makes chefs like me look better than we are,” continues Barber, explaining that behind Bishop’s rough exterior is a man with an uncanny understanding of flavor, or as he puts it, “a gastronome with a very educated palate.”

Despite these accolades, Bishop is inclined to deflect attention away from himself. When first approached about this story, he suggested that instead of focusing on “the romance of farm-torestaurant relationships,” Edible Manhattan cover the hard realities that face small farmers: when “Kenny Migliorelli’s irrigation line breaks at 2:00 a.m.,” he wrote in an e-mail, or the time “John Gorzynski’s fields were ravaged by flooding, or the endless disease, weed, bug and worm damage that organic farmers must battle.”

Indeed Bishop has deep roots in the agricultural communities upstate that go beyond his own farm. His first “real job” was with a New York City Department of Environmental Protection program to help dairy farmers implement watershed-friendly practices. Next he worked as an agricultural economic developer, increasing access to humane slaughterhouses. And for the past three years, he’s been marketing director at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. HVFG co-owner Izzy Yanay describes Bishop as a cross between Steve Jobs and Indiana Jones: a brilliant marketer and adventurer who crisscrosses the country to educate customers and culinary students, and can run every other employee into the ground.

“Rick is a very unusual individual,” says Yanay. He can go a week without sleeping and not even feel it…his energy is limitless.” On one marketing trip, Bishop was running late to the airport and crashed his car. “The vehicle had completely disintegrated,” reports Yanay. “It was lying in pieces in Queens, but Rick somehow made it to LaGuardia and on his flight.”

It’s not just high energy that keeps Bishop going; sheer determination and ingenuity play a part, too. Years ago, Dufresne recalls asking a then-long-haired Bishop, who would show up at midnight to deliver his produce, “Aren’t you tired?” Bishop explained his method of staying awake on the three-and-a-half hour drive from the city to his farm: “I roll the window up on my hair. That way, if I nod off, it’ll wake me up.”

Bishop says he’s able to hold it all together because of the people he works with. His talented crew of half a dozen Guatemalan workers are like family. Wife Nicole is in charge of sourcing seeds; she and their daughters Micaela, 15, and Allie, 18, also work the stand at Union Square.

When he’s not seeking out rare seeds or explaining that there is such a thing as humane foie gras, Bishop snowboards down vertical mountains, hang glides for hours at a stretch, climbs rocks and flies planes. This is on top of the multitasker’s “more than fulltime job” with HVFG, which funds his central passion, farming.

What Bishop would really like to do—if he ever finds five minutes between projects—is help young farmers get established. “I learned more from other farmers than I ever learned at college,” he says flatly (although he hastens to add, “college, the Internet, it’s all great.”) His advice to fledgling farmers: “Build up the soil, source the seeds, build relationships with chefs and farmers markets, grow good quality and be optimistic. I’m so optimistic I’ve run out of gas more times than I want to admit. You’re not going to get rich doing this, but you know what? There’s a satisfaction, and good eatin’ and it’s constantly changing. And,” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “there’s snowboarding in the winter.”

Although Bishop’s chef sales are such that he could give up selling to the public twice a week, he says that part of his business is “the best feedback and the best reward.” Chefs may rave, but Bishop says the greatest satisfaction is when little old ladies taste his Tri-Stars and say, “‘This is how a strawberry is supposed to taste. Now you’ve got it, sonny!’”

It seems there’s virtually nothing he can’t grow—so it comes as a surprise when, asked if there are crops he has yet to conquer, Bishop immediately replies, “Mâche! I love it, but it evades me. I grow a lot of things but I can’t get this mâche thing down!” With a note of certainty, he adds, “I’m going to figure it out, though.”

Newsletter

Categories

Tags

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance journalist who writes about health, food, arts and culture. Her advice to other food-loving parents: Think twice before you introduce your 12-year-old to Kobe beef burgers. Photo Credit: Jennifer Rowsom