A city chef’s upstate experiment.
Zak Pelaccio looks like someone you might see at a Phish concert: stocky, convivial, with a scruffy red beard and unruly curls spilling out from under a multicolored knit beanie. But that appearance belies extraordinary creative talent, the ability to speak in long, eloquent sentences, and a 10-year history of being well ahead of the culinary curve. He was cooking farm-to-table food before that was a thing, doing pan-Asian mashups with pork belly before David Chang popularized it and going deep with the complex, soulful funk of fermentation before any of those flavors made it into the mainstream.
Pelaccio, 39, gained real renown for cooking unpretentious Malaysian-influenced food back in 2005 when he opened Fatty Crab in the West Village. Not long after, he added Fatty ’Cue in Brooklyn, plus a Fatty Crab on the Upper West Side and another in the Virgin Islands. But as time passed, Pelaccio recognized that he required a greater level of independence: “There wasn’t enough of me in there, ultimately,” he says, noting that it took some soul-searching to resist the allure of becoming a celebrity chef. “Now I’m just a partner and occasional collaborator.”
At the end of 2011, Pelaccio and his partner of seven years, Jori Jayne Emde, moved upstate to a post-and-beam barn they renovated on property in Chatham that his parents bought in 2005. The move brought him closer to the farms he’d long worked with, and inspired his new restaurant venture, Fish & Game, slated to open in the town of Hudson just about the moment you read this.
Pelaccio’s exotic preparations have always featured locally grown ingredients, but Fish & Game is more place-based than ever. A laminated map of the region, about five feet square, hangs on a wall outside the kitchen. A star in the middle marks Hudson, and there’s a circle drawn around it: the 40-mile radius from within which almost all the food will be sourced.
“We’re retraining ourselves to do very simple and exclusively product-driven, nose-to-tail food and create a regional cuisine,” he says. “We’re still going to buy citrus, and other things, but whatever we can get from this area we’re going to use,” he continues, eagerly poring over the map. “Without being preachy or full of ourselves about how it should be done, we’re just doing it.”
Off the Menu
Pelaccio’s been sourcing from local farmers for a decade and now that he’s their neighbor, he’s been busy lining up agreements with Hudson Valley growers to grow ingredients for what he calls “very good home cooking,” depending on what comes in the kitchen door each day. “It’s a kind of improvising, free-associating based on the available ingredients and our experiences.”
Diners have the choice of a short meal or a long one but there is no printed menu. Some dishes are large enough to share, and others are the size of little treats. And different tables will get different cuts of the same animal; since each pig has only one heart, only a few people a week might see strips of such a delicacy, quickly grilled and served with a sweet and sour sauce reminiscent of a dish that Pelaccio remembers fondly from Bangkok.
“Anybody who says they’re cooking this way but they’re doing 150 covers and everyone gets [pork] belly, they’re full of shit,” says Pelaccio. “It cannot happen. You might get some neck, and the next table might get shoulder. They may be prepared similarly, with the same accoutrements, or sauce, but the cut will be different.” To diners who only like lamb rack or center-cut salmon fillet, he suggests, “Get over it.”
As the crew breaks down a lamb from Wil-Hi Farms in nearby Tivoli, they treat each piece differently to see which preparations stand out. Each cut gets a distinct seasoning and then is vacuum-bagged and cooked sous-vide. A rack of lamb ribs gets slathered in cooked rice spiked with coriander and chili and then is left to sit out at room temperature for a week to ferment before its final preparation.
Emde, 33, is slim, blonde and energetic, with a quick and contagious smile. “We met at Five Ninth,” Emde remembers, referring to the Meatpacking District restaurant that preceded Fatty Crab, where Pelaccio was the chef. “He hit on me,” she laughs. “It was awful.”
That loving mockery is a hallmark of their longstanding relationship, and it extends to the whole group; these people clearly enjoy working together, and despite construction delays, spirits remain high. The mix of jokey familiarity and serious collaboration makes for an enviable work environment.
Ragging on Emde for using pricey Gegenbauer tomato vinegar to make a gastrique, a sweet and sour vinegar-based sauce, Pelaccio quips, “If you hadn’t used it all, it would be really nice on the lamb.”
“There’s a little bit left,” Emde, who functions as the “co-executive chef” but doesn’t pay much mind to the title, playfully retorts. “You’re an asshole. It made the best gastrique.”
“A 60-dollar gastrique,” puts in chef de cuisine Kevin Pomplun.
“The gastrique would be great with lamb shoulder,” Pelaccio concludes. All nod in agreement, and segue into a discussion of the best way to pickle lamb shanks.
While the cooking is clearly enjoyable, Emde acknowledges the tedious nature of much of the other work. “The reality shows don’t give any idea. We spend so much time on the computer, on the phone.” Indeed, general manager Scott Brenner and bar director Kat Dunn did not move from in front of their laptops all day until it was time for Dunn to work on a cocktail recipe. The first stab at a garnish, a slice of charred lemon hanging limply off the edge of the glass like soggy calamari, is not well received.
A long discussion ensues about how best to capture the flavor of burnt citrus, and the tradeoff between aesthetics and flavor. Pelaccio is insistent about the order of steps: “Char the zest, then steep the juice in it. If not for this, then for something else. We need to try everything, to establish a vocabulary.”
Dunn says that, like the food, all of the cocktails are rigorously analyzed so the technique is flawless and consistently repeatable. “We ended up macerating the tequila sous-vide with [citrus segments] and zest for 90 minutes at 160 degrees, which gave the best flavor. With every step, they ask ‘How did you do it? Is there any other way to get a better result?’ We tried each one six different ways, to see.” She makes another, and Pelaccio says, “This one doesn’t pop like the first one. Learning why is the most important thing.”
Laying the Foundation
Fish & Game is named for the road where Patrick Milling Smith, Pelaccio and Emde’s business partner (and producer of the Broadway version of Once), has his upstate home. “It seems fitting,” says Emde, of the meaty cuisine.
The kitchen staff set up shop while Fish & Game was still a construction site, separated from the rest of the restaurant by zippered walls of construction plastic that shielded the dust (but not the cacophony of the construction, which fought with the music and the constant roar of the vent hood over the grill). The team originally planned for a 2012 fall opening, but construction delays pushed it into May; the kitchen has been built where there was once a driveway, behind the building, and excavation revealed the need for a foundation and steel supports that were not planned for. Pelaccio and Emde took the delays in stride; payroll still had to be met, but they were happy to be in the kitchen.
“We’re anxious, but it’s nice to be in here finally,” Emde said back in February, patting the counter. A week later, they had to move out again; workers were spraying foam insulation, and the team had to decamp back to their home kitchens for a few days.
Running down the middle of the kitchen is a 16-foot-long island topped with a three-inch-thick rock maple butcher block. Overhead, mid-century light fixtures made of perforated yellow-painted metal bought at a vintage store in Philadelphia shine down on the work surface.
One corner is occupied by a large wood-fired oven built of recycled brick, with an adjustable grill grate alongside that raises and lowers with a big steel wheel on the side. Most food spends some time in or on the fire before it sees a plate. Besides the different meat cuts, the team did extensive sous-vide time and temperature tests for all sorts of vegetables so they can cook them ahead of time and then finish them in the wood oven for service, yielding a perfect balance between fire-roasted and al dente.
One of the first things they did upon arriving in the space was to unpack the rotary evaporator, a vacuum still that allows for creating intensely concentrated essences out of almost anything. In a vacuum, liquids boil below normal temperatures—even well below 200 degrees, depending on the pressure—so flavors can be released by gentle heating. Both the distilled extracts and the remaining reductions can be used, depending on the original product.
Early trials at the Fish & Game test kitchen included some of Emde’s hard cider and ginger wine, and Old Overholt Rye, a venerable American whiskey. The rye reduction is for marinating livers for pâté: “You can get the flavor without the alcohol, which cooks it,” Pelaccio explains. And while the cider did not excite, the ginger reduction made Emde shout in delight. The alcohol, boiled off and condensed in another vessel, was less interesting, but seemed well suited to becoming vinegar. Next up for extraction were borage and geranium leaves, grown by Old Field Farm in Greene County, one of several farms currently growing crops for the restaurant.
The day before, the group took apart a pig from Pigasso Farm in Copake, and they’re treating each primal cut differently, exploring possibilities as they did with the lamb. One leg is cured for prosciutto: packed into salt in a plastic tub and lugged to the walk-in. The belly is cured for bacon, some ribs get rubbed and scored and put on the grill—low at first, fat down, then higher up, fat facing up so they baste slowly in the drippings. They stay on there all day. A small chop is quickly cooked in some rendered fat in the wood oven, and the result is as eloquent an argument for pastured meat as anyone could wish for.
The nose-to-tail ethos is visible all over the kitchen: pots of pork fat rendering, the pig skin simmering in water before being dehydrated and then deep fried. Bones, raw or roasted, make stock.
Pelaccio’s relationship to food is instinctive and sensual. His book, published last year, is titled Eat with Your Hands (Ecco), and with good reason. Besides eating with them, he uses them constantly to cook: pushing lamb into a pan to brown the surface, turning ribs on the grill, snatching morsels from the pot of beans and ribs. He also hands food to people regularly to taste, always with a warm generous smile.
The clearest illustration of his touch came with a lamb shoulder. Rubbed lightly with salt and pepper, he browned it well in a large iron Staub Dutch oven, poured off the fat and threw in an onion, unpeeled and halved, a bisected head of garlic, carrot, celery and a few whole red chilies. Lidded, this went in the oven for hours—“at least four,” he offers—and sat for a while next to the stove while various processes were discussed, decided and implemented. At one point he reached over and lowered the heat and afterward remarked, “That’s the sort of thing you can’t teach. I don’t know why I did it just then, but I knew it needed it.” Meltingly tender, deeply flavored and ostensibly easy, it was the center of the “family meal,” a.k.a. staff dinner, that evening.
The following week, a different shoulder treatment—cooked sous-vide and then finished in the wood oven, slick and tender and intensely fragrant with herbs—gets dunked in a fondue that chef Pomplun whipped up: heavy cream, grated sheep cheese and a glug of sherry. The rich, tangy sauce doubled down on the comfort food texture while offering a sharp, nutty counterpoint that amplified the meat flavors to extraordinary effect. The fermented lamb ribs, now a week old, come out of the combi oven, where they have steamed for hours, and get finished on the grill. A few go in the oven to see if it makes a difference. They’re seriously funky, almost cheesy, but not quite complete.
Pelaccio whisks a bit of lemon juice and oil into the steaming juices, dunks in a rib, and the meat is suddenly in sharp, delectable focus: finished.
“I would probably just serve a few of these on a plate with the vinaigrette and some herbs,” he says, when asked about presentation. A deceptively simple dish, since by the time the ribs reach the diner they will have undergone fermentation and two or three cooking methods.
The plates for Fish & Game were thrown by a friend in Amagansett, in food-flattering white and off-white. “They have energy to them; they’re very cool,” says Pelaccio. Until the flatware was delivered, the kitchen staff ate with their hands.
As winter softens into spring, more vegetables arrive, both as overwintered roots and new sprouts, and the kitchen staff is visibly thrilled. A few weeks before opening, Emde is at work making “abacus beads,” sticky dumplings that look like fat orechiette, but out of fresh-dug parsnips instead of the traditional taro root. A delivery of baby greens from Common Hands Farm comes in—mizuna, radishes and a spicy mix—and she eagerly tastes them, grabbing more to toss with the beads and the ground pork sizzling on the flat top. Chef Pomplun is working on a milk-poached salsify dish, finished in the wood oven, with brown butter and hazelnuts and a generous strewing of sunflower sprouts and red-veined sorrel. A loaf of his brioche, a golden cloud of butter and egg with just enough flour to give it shape, sits on the end of the counter with a knife nearby, steadily getting shorter as the day lengthens.
Emde also makes leeks, roasted in the hot ashes at the edge of the fire, then peeled and dressed with anchovy vinaigrette and salt-cured egg yolks shaved thin like bottarga. Pelaccio bangs out a spontaneous combination of olive oil cake, candied carrots, and fresh cheese that tastes at once ancient and modern: simple flavors, but straddling the sweet/savory line in a contemporary fashion. While some dishes, like the salsify, are firmly codified, it’s still only temporary; all the combinations are subject to change as the seasons progress and the ingredients shift. That adaptability is the governing principle of the place.
The dynamic here seems like a band rehearsing for a gig; Pelaccio is the clear leader, but everyone’s input is expected, even encouraged.
“In the past, I would collaborate, but mostly I had ideas and people executed them. Now I sort of hang back; I want them to stretch their legs and find their own voices. Jori and I have been cooking together for years, and a lot of what I was doing came from her.” Emde is a prodigious preserver; jars of vivid vegetable pickles line shelves over the counter, vinegar ferments in carboys on the floor, and homemade Cynar ages in oak barrels under a table. The couple tends a large garden in Chatham where they grow food for themselves and the restaurant, and they plan to expand it. Fermentation in all its forms will be an ongoing process, and the various preserved foods will find their way into many dishes. The large I-beam over the opening into the dining room serves as a shelf for quickly multiplying jars of condiments.
Reflecting on their decision to try a new, highly personal approach to cooking, a hybrid of high-end refinement and down-home accessibility, Pelaccio returns to the reason he opted out of the franchise model.
“Good cooking takes time, it takes love and attention. A lot of the restaurant business is not like that. But you are in a service industry, and your job is to make people happy.”
Emde comes over; she wants to make a vitello tonnato–type thing but with lamb belly and anchovy, using her homemade Worcestershire sauce. Everyone weighs in with possible permutations, ideas fly. Pelaccio pauses. “Fuck it—let’s just cook Asian food.” Emde responds: “You’d make everybody happy.”
Pelaccio smiles. “Yeah, except the people in this room.” •
Peter Barrett, a visual artist and food writer in the Hudson Valley, writes for Chronogram and Edible Hudson Valley and blogs at acookblog.com. He vows that this is the first of many awesome articles he will write for Edible Manhattan.