It’s not often you see an entire cow being delivered to a New York City restaurant, but at Brooklyn’s applewood it’s a weekly event. Celebrated chef/owner David Shea does his own butchering on premises, then plays culinary Jenga trying to fit everything in the refrigerator. We recently talked with David about his elegant and inventive cuisine, and his devotion to sustainability and organic wines.
What is your style of cuisine?
We fall back on the term “contemporary American.” We source all of our meats from local farms in Vermont and Maine and purchase whole animals. A big part of what we do relies on local farmers who deliver directly to our door. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have the connections we have. The food itself is as simple as possible. We start with high-quality products and do our best to allow the natural flavors to come through. We try not to burden the plates with heavy sauces or extensive seasoning. When you get something that’s naturally delicious, it makes your job pretty easy.
What inspired your dedication to sustainability?
Laura [David’s wife and co-owner of applewood] and I worked at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn while we were in culinary school. It was this little place that had a self-sustaining garden and greenhouse. Almost every vegetable and herb used in the restaurant was picked that day; there wasn’t a canned product to be found. Laura came in one day from the garden and said, “I just ate some arugula right out of the ground that was still warm from the sun. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat anything else again!” Once you have the freshest, most organic foods, it’s impossible to settle for anything else. The more people we can expose to these kinds of flavors and experiences, the more people will understand how important it is.
You’re known for buying and butchering your own animals, something few chefs do themselves anymore.
Well, it’s challenging just to receive and store them. Every Thursday, Oliver comes in from Vermont and walks right through the dining room to deliver the animals. If dinner service has already started, he covers them with bags; they’re not as pretty as they are delicious. We typically receive three or four whole animals a week, plus a forequarter of veal. Our walk-in is pretty small, so figuring out how to hang them safely until we can butcher them can be like playing refrigerator Jenga. It’s all worth it though, because the quality is insanely good, and we can make anything we want. We can grill, sauté, roast and braise every last bit of the animal and then, when we’re down to the parts other people would never use, we can make interesting and delicious charcuterie, as well as stocks from the bones.
What are your opinions on organic certification?
Organic certification is great, if you can afford it. Most organic farmers are not wealthy people. To spend $15,000 for the honor of the government deeming you “officially” organic is a staggering waste of funds that could otherwise go toward things like paying your mortgage and feeding your family. We buy organic produce for the restaurant because we happen to have a handful of amazing nearby farmers who don’t treat their crops and who do the right thing from start to finish. We don’t, however, insist that our produce be organic. Laura has always maintained that she’d much rather buy minimally treated produce from a local farmer than import some organic version of the same thing from California.
Do you have a favorite organic wine?
Laura’s the wine drinker in the family. She’s got wines on the list that are made from organically grown grapes, some of which she really loves. Her favorite white is the Villa Paulus Pouilly-Fume, and her favorite red is the Chateau Haut-Selves, Graves. Interestingly, there are so many French wines, among others, that are totally organic but don’t advertise it. We may have more than we even know about.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
The menu changes daily, so there’s really no one favorite. I do love braising just about anything, though. We do a four-course tasting menu every Tuesday through Thursday-I cook it and Laura matches each dish with wines.
Anything new on the horizon?
We just opened a retail kitchen supply shop one block from the restaurant called applewares. After a couple of years of constantly having to run into the city for every pair of tongs or new chinois, we decided the neighborhood needed a professional cooking store. The response has been terrific from the neighborhood.
501 11th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Tucked away on the West Village’s charming Barrow Street in New York City is Annisa, an elegant gem of a restaurant featuring contemporary Asian-inflected American fare with skilled, unpretentious service. Helmed by two women, chef Anita Lo (winner of a “Best New Chef” award from Food & Wine in 2001) and her partner Jennifer Scism, Annisa exudes an aura of casual elegance. Soft lighting and white draperies cascade down the walls, a soothing backdrop for the refined eclectic cuisine. The food reflects Chef Lo’s top-flight French training (under the likes of Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy) and her inventive forays into pan-Asian cooking.
While food usually trumps all in my fine-dining memory, what I remember most about my first visit to Annisa was the wine list. Virtually every bottle was either made by a female winemaker or hailed from a winery owned by a woman. Annisa is the Arabic word for “women,” and in an industry dominated by male figures, this wine list was cause for celebration; honoring the contributions, and very existence, of women in the wine world.
In lesser hands, this theme could have been a gimmick, designed to spark conversation and garner press. Or worse, it might have read as a heavy-handed political statement, the kind that can alienate all but the converted. But at Annisa it simply adds another rich dimension to a well-curated and balanced list that would attract attention from serious wine lovers, independent of the abundance of X chromosomes that gave rise to it.
“I wanted a focus, but I didn’t want to limit myself, and I haven’t,” says Scism. “There are tons of wines to choose from. We take way less than half of what we taste.” And the selection process is a two-way street. “Some of our wines are highly allocated. With Maya, from Dalla Valle Vineyards in Napa, we had to apply, submit menus and show our wine list to see if we were worthy.”
A good wine list fulfills several criteria: a suitable range of varietals to please different palates and marry with the menu; a variety of geographies to highlight regional styles or an emphasis on local relationships between the wine and cuisine. It offers a range of price points (in proportion to the type of restaurant) and should include some accessible wines that most diners could recognize as well as more unusual wines to encourage discovery.
Colin Alevras is the chef, sommelier and proprietor (with his wife, Renee) of the Tasting Room: a tiny, much-admired restaurant in New York City’s East Village. Their menu changes daily, featuring seasonal and mostly organic dishes, paired with an ever-growing cellar of more than 300 wines from North America.
Your restaurant has a great selection of organic wines. Was there a particular winemaker who sparked your interest?
Nicolas Joly at Coulée de Serrant, in the Loire Valley in France. He inherited an estate that’s had a vineyard since 1300 or so. His wines are unique and really good and different. He’s been at the forefront of biodynamics, which was invented by Rudolph Steiner.
He is, and Joly was going to this biodynamic extreme. Once I tasted the wine, I was like, ‘Wow, fantastic. What is this guy doing?’
How is it different from other wines?
People banter about terroir, and letting the place and time express themselves in wine, and Joly was really trying to get that, and more. He let the wine express itself atypically; off-dry or kinda sweet. Unlike most people who have a certain stylistic ideal they’re working toward.
‘A Pinot Noir has to taste this way.’
Yeah. ‘Is this typical of that place?’ And therefore, ‘Is this the terroir expressing itself?’ But it’s also people manipulating the wine to get those results.
Including using flavored yeasts.
Especially in Burgundy, where they can add sugar, acid, tannins and reverse osmosis and a blend of all this other stuff in there. They’re working for this mythological ideal, which doesn’t really express what the true terroir is; mainly because it may not be that interesting. Growing organically or biodynamically, you have to be ready to chalk it up to ‘Well, this year wasn’t so great.’ You have to suck that up. It’s not always going to be ‘The Greatest Vintage of the Century.’
And that’s the risk.
It’s always a risk. Winemaking is one of the riskiest businesses I think there is, next to underwater welding or cleaning out nuclear reactors. When they talk about terroir and the soil expressing itself, you’re also talking about a place that’s had a single monoculture crop for 1400 years. Which changes the soil and the subsoil. It changes the environment. So when the Burgundians say, ‘This is the only place to grow Pinot Noir,’ well, they also helped create it by only planting that. And so after a thousand years, yeah, the soil is different. And now maybe Pinot Noir expresses itself best there or not, but you know, it just expresses itself the way it is.
There’s a difference when you take rootstock from Europe and plant it here.
Now, people are much more willing to accept that ‘this is Burgundian but it tastes like Sonoma Coast.’ And that’s okay. Within that one grape variety, there’s probably twenty or thirty recognized good clones that people propagate. You’re limited. People go for diversity by planting five or six different clones, and grapes are weird because they mutate naturally very rapidly.
And nobody, as far as I know, except for Joly, actually propagates new wines on their own roots and sows grapes in the vineyard. Most people will pick a rootstock and they’ll take a cutting from a vine, and they’ll connect that to a rootstock, and then you can even change from red to white. You can have a different root trunk, and usually you buy those from a nursery or someplace else. You don’t make them. Which is totally insane as far as commercial agriculture goes, and looking for consistency. But he’s okay with the mutation. He also happens to have a vineyard with a 700-year history that he can bank on, and he’s got a name which can kind of finance himself. So, it’s a brand of a guy who’s not a subsistence farmer. You know? I just don’t want to make it too romantic. He’s still getting top dollar for his wines.
Is Joly’s vineyard organic?
No. Post World War II, they started dumping a lot of phosphates and other chemicals and fertilizers and nitrates into the ground, trying to increase yields and trying to be ‘modern.’ It screwed up a lot of wineries and a lot of great vineyards.
It takes a long time to work that out of the soil. Which is what biodynamics is about.
I’m attracted to the extreme looniness of biodynamics. ‘We’re goin’ on moon cycles and tides.’ It’s like homeopathic medicine for agriculture.
So there are all different levels of organic agriculture?
Yes, and grape-growing is an unusual kind of agriculture, because it’s a monocrop, but it’s in perpetuity. It’s not like you’re planting an annual. Grapevines have, in theory, hundreds of years of life depending on how old you want them to get, but you’re not planting every year. It’s unusual in that regard, where yield doesn’t equal greatest quality/value. You’re not looking for the maximum, or the prettiest. There’s a complexity in there that has to be achieved in a very specific environment. And there are a lot of efforts to promote biological diversity within that vineyard, but you’re still pretty much planting the same thing. It’s still vitis vinifera.
Your cooking relies, predominantly, upon organic ingredients. Has this influenced your approach to wine?
Definitely. I think that organics in all forms ultimately yield better tasting, more interesting things than stripped-down, industrial agriculture, which gives you a very uniform product at the expense of flavor and individuality. Therefore in wine, it follows suit that an organic one would be much more interesting.
Even as a small restaurant, we have 15,000 unique customers a year, so even if they’re only buying one thing, we have that collective buying power. We could just buy anything we want, because it’s the right shape and color, and not worry about where it came from, but there’s a responsibility for me to spend that money in a conscientious way.
We support several families and farms who are doing this. We spend close to a quarter of a million dollars a year at the farmer’s market. Some people might think that’s overpaying, but it’s trying to find things that are as good as they can be. Whether it’s worth it or not is up to the people who come back for dinner.
And they do.
Yeah, and they keep coming back. Even if people don’t understand what happened at the farm, or what happened with that winemaker, why they did that, they taste it. We feel the evidence is there.
It’s not just the idea of a dish.
Right, it’s the thing itself. And, in turn, I get to support the people who work here, and all of the farmers we buy from, and the wineries. I’m not interested in giving my money to a big corporate giant. They don’t need my money. They’ve got enough.
Has the experience of buying at the greenmarket and your relationships with the farmers changed your approach to buying wine?
It’s the same as with farmers, except they have one crop that comes out once a year. You have the horse you back in the race, and the ones you don’t. You have to make a decision somehow. It’s not as if there isn’t a lot of really yummy wine out there, it’s just you have to say no to somebody. We say no based on geographical location, and then practices. We’re all-American, so we’ve set this somewhat arbitrary limit on ourselves that we only sell domestic products.
We put our money back into farms that create a good product and who do it in a responsible way. This is a long-term thing. We hope it continues, and what’s the best way to make it continue? If you choose something based solely on price, then you have to disregard practices.
That’s the ‘fast food’ way.
Exactly. ‘I want the cheapest potatoes.’ No, I think I can buy the best-tasting potatoes we can get, and hopefully convince people that they’re worth what we need to charge, because they’re better. Even if they don’t really understand, they go, ‘Wow! That was really good!’ And we go, ‘Well it was good because these guys are doing the right thing.’ But they don’t have to understand.
Do you promote the organic wines differently from the other wines on your list?
Primarily, no. We don’t promote them any differently. We note it on the wine list if the winemakers make a note of it themselves. I think that ‘organic’ has kind of gotten a bad name, like ‘health food.’
It’s a negative word?
Yeah, it is. I think if you told most people ‘You should buy this because it’s organic,’ that’s not what they’re interested in. They want it because it’s the best thing they can afford, or the tastiest thing, or the thing that’s going to make them happy.
But it’s interesting because a lot of wines which are organic and biodynamic don’t have it listed on a label anywhere. You wouldn’t know it unless you did research and found out about it. And especially here in the States, now that the government has finally issued national organic guidelines, it’s made it extra worthless. You know, it’s certified by the government, but is it good?
I think you could sell wine if you said, ‘This has so many pesticides on it, it’s gonna kill you, but it tastes awesome.’ People will go, ‘All right, pour me a glass, I don’t care.’ You know? ‘I had a hot dog yesterday, what do I got to lose?’
Do you see an increase in organic and biodynamic farming affecting the restaurant industry?
None of us were sold into culinary slavery. None of us were sent to trade schools as kids to go work in this business. We chose to do this, and a lot of the people who are farming and growing food and making wine didn’t grow up in this environment, they chose to do it. And they’re looking at ways to do it so that their kids can do it, whether or not they want to is up to them. But it’s at least viable, and they don’t want to poison their kids to make a buck. Like, ‘I’m not going to spray this stuff or even have these chemicals around if it’s poison.’ You start to say, ‘Why are we spraying?’ Well, because somebody said it works, but what are we actually trying to do? And I think organics, in the long run, are economically more viable. It makes sense to spend more money building up your soil than tearing it down and reducing it to nothing.
And then falsely building it up again with chemicals.
And hopefully in the long run, produce a better product. Which people have proven to be true. If you grow it well, it does taste better. That’s all there is to it.
What are some organic food and wine pairings that you particularly enjoy?
I don’t know that any of my food and wine pairings would be invalidated because they weren’t organic. That’s sort of like me telling people certain wines go best with bearskin rugs and fireplaces. You know, I don’t know if that counts as an organic food and wine pairing. Get me some Switchback Petit Syrah and a fireplace and you’ve got the perfect match. I don’t know if that’s organic. The bear was organic. Fur, fireplace, big monster red wine that’ll stain your teeth purple. Works for me. I think that’s my best organic pairing right there.
Do you tend to choose organic wines for your own drinking?
I would say I do. There’s a certain list of people whose wines I’m a fan of, and most of them are organic and/or biodynamic, so in a broad sense, yeah. But I wouldn’t rule everybody else out just because they weren’t. I definitely have a modern/ironic sense of organic and health food in that part of me that feels I should eat junk food to maintain my resistance to chemicals. I think that most of the people I’ve ever met who are exclusively anything, regardless of what it is, are inherently unhealthy. They’re so hypersensitive to anything, it’s like ‘Shut up, man, eat it. Or not. But stop telling me it gives you a sinus headache. I’m not really that interested.’
Visit The Tasting Room’s website at www.thetastingroomnyc.com.
New York magazine took over the Puck Building in downtown Manhattan for its annual “Taste of New York” event on November 6. The 700 guests sampled dishes from 40 celebrity chefs, and all for a good cause. “Everyone had a ball, and a lot of delicious food and drink,” said Serena Torrey from New York magazine. “Most important, we were all able to help City Harvest achieve its mission of feeding over 260,000 New Yorkers every week.”
Among the culinary stars that night was Food Network’s Bobby Flay, who knows where to shop for organic wines in New York. “You’ve heard of Appellation, right?” he asked, referring to Scott Pactor’s Chelsea wine store, dedicated to organic and biodynamic wines. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto had no similar recommendation, but flashed us the “victory” sign when told about our magazine.
Standouts among all the fabulous bite-size tastes were Buddakan’s Tuna Spring Rolls, from chef Michael Schulson, and Beacon Restaurant’s Wood Roasted Baby Lamb Chops with Black Olives and Lemon, from chef Waldy Malouf.
Abandoning the small-size concept altogether was Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, with its heaping Pulled Pork Sandwich, The Little Owl’s Gravy Meatball Slider and Brgr’s All-Natural Angus Beef Burger with Apple-Smoked Bacon, Sweet Onion Marmalade and Roquefort.
On the other end of the spectrum was the simplicity of Dan Barber’s Vegetables on a Fence, consisting of multicolored cauliflower grown at his Blue Hill at Stone Barns farm.
Guests were also treated to numerous wines and cocktails. Flatiron Lounge served up some great New York Sours and Juniper Breezes, while Pegu Club mixed up their Applejack Cobbler and flame-induced Intro To Aperol drinks.
Of course, one could have ignored all the food and drink and gone just for the desserts. Top choices for the sweet tooth were Le Bernardin’s Sheep’s Milk Yogurt Panna Cotta with Quince, Fig, Ras el Hanout and Basil Seed, and the One-Bite Chocolate Lollipop from Wallsé
“I had absolutely no restaurant experience whatsoever when I began,” says Deborah Gavito of Counter, a self-described “Organic Wine & Martini Bar Vegetarian Bistro,” in New York City’s East Village. “I wanted a sleek and sexy, but affordable, vegetarian restaurant. When I discovered that the world of biodynamic, sustainable, and organic wine was so vast, it was only natural to have a wine bar as well.”
The combination has been an undeniable success. Counter has been praised by The New York Times, won an “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine, and named one of the city’s best restaurants by New York magazine; proof that a pursuit of excellence can sometimes replace experience, even in the cutthroat restaurant business.
Gavito was selling pastries and bread at the Union Square Greenmarket when, excited by her success, she decided she wanted her own restaurant. It took five years of location searching before she was able to open up Counter in 2003. “You fall, and you fall, and you fall on your face again. But you just keep getting up and going on. It’s just something I wanted to do, so I didn’t mind the difficulties.”
Gavito remains modest, but the extensive wine list at Counter reveals that her instincts and palate have come a long way in three years. Alongside selections from the world’s major wine regions are a few wild cards thrown in the mix, such as the Viñedos de los Vientos, an obscure dessert wine made from the tannat grape from Uruguay. The wide variety is the result of Gavito’s own taste buds. She went in blind, bought what she liked, and hoped for the best.
Counter even instituted its own “Rebel of the Month” program to highlight winemakers who, like Gavito, “think outside the bottle.” Not surprisingly, her first selection was Tony Coturri of Sonoma’s Coturri Winery, a winemaker known for his uncompromising and individual style.