Unbelievable flavor and vibrant health, bucolic landscapes and thriving farmers—eating locally grown food has too many virtues to count. But putting local food on the table can also be a challenge: first, you’ve got to grow it, forage it, or find local farms that sell it. Then, you’ve got to figure out how to prepare some ingredients you’ve never seen before. Add to that seasonal limitations (especially now, when a ripe tomato is a juicy memory). Lots of us learned to cook by finding a yummy recipe, then driving to the supermarket to choose from identical arrangements of produce so similar and predictable that they could have been produced in a widget factory.
Now imagine trying to run a restaurant serving an endless variety of local food in impeccably composed prepared dishes, day in and out, to dozens of diners a day. There’s a new chef in town, Shawn Radar Burnette. His restaurant, Butterfield (in the recently refurbished Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge) is the first hyper-local restaurant in the area.
We love farm-to-table restaurants that spotlight ingredients grown within a few hundred miles. For Burnette, that’s not enough. At Butterfield, 65 percent of the ingredients have been sourced from farmers and artisans located within 35 miles. This is phenomenal. Everything, including cooking oils and grains, are part of the equation. So far, Burnette is sourcing from 52 local farms and artisans; he expects the list to grow to 150. His goal is to eventually source 80 percent from his own farm.
The menu, which changes daily (sometimes hourly), recently offered succulent autumn delights: twice-cooked broccoli with garlic and candied hazelnuts, sunflower hummus, braised pork belly with drunken cabbage, goat with turnips and smoked tomato broth, as well as a Best of the Garden Salad that includes at least a dozen interesting greens, vegetables, and fruits.
To Burnette, an integral aspect of eating locally grown food is treasuring and cooking every edible bit. This is sometimes called “nose to tail” cooking—for meats this means eating not only the popular cuts of muscle, but also the animal parts that most folks these days don’t think about—the tongue, the feet, the organs, the bone marrow and more.
Extending this concept, when meeting with farmers for the first time, Burnette makes sure to ask them what they need to sell. For one microgreen grower, it was pea shoots that pop up after the first tender harvest is cut, slightly chewier and less sweet than the first growth, but way too good to ignore. Burnette created “Egg in a Nest,” in which a perfectly poached hen’s egg is nestled in a bed of the pea greens, creating a lovely combination of sweet and green, creamy, and rich.
How did Burnette become so impassioned about locally grown food? He reminisces about youthful summers spent with a grandmother in North Carolina, playing for hours in her cool stone larder, lined with shelves lovingly stocked with jars preserving the annual harvest. Restless, talented, and endlessly inventive, Burnette became a touring musician (playing guitar with the band Less Than Treason), impresario (most recently at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn), and general manager at several restaurants.
It was in the midst of raising six kids that he began cooking at home and discovered that he loved it. By 2008, with kids in middle school, it became clear to Burnette and his wife, Cindy, that he had found his true calling. With his family’s blessing, he went from making a six-figure salary to working at the lowest rungs of the kitchen hierarchy.
Burnette’s talent, energy and commitment made an impression, and he was mentored by some of the best chefs in the most interesting locavore and new traditional kitchens on the East Coast, including with Sean Brock at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, at Del Posto in Manhattan, and with Christina Lecki at The Breslin, at the Manhattan Ace Hotel. Soon he was running kitchens and making a name for himself.
Burnette was about to move south again to cook barbecue when a culinary headhunter convinced him to check out Hasbrouck House, whose Brooklyn-based owners were looking for an ambitious chef to offer cutting-edge cuisine. Burnette was intrigued with the grand, colonial-era mansion, but it was the small, 200-year-old stone smokehouse in the back, and the proximity to the Stone Ridge Orchard that made him cancel his flight. It’s a wonderful irony that Burnette’s daring and innovative practice would produce food akin to that offered at the Hasbrouck House in the 18th century.
Ambitious in an occupation that almost requires him to be an enormous egotist, Burnette is surprisingly self-effacing. His drive is fueled with the desire to “honor my family’s sacrifice,” in supporting his career change. And he’s adamant that “my food is about the food, not about me. Glory comes from its brilliant flavor.”
He honors his ingredients with the care that he lavishes upon them, and with his ethos of using every edible bit of every ingredient. He glows with pride mentioning small farms that, in years past, his kitchens have helped support. Burnette is also “shocked” with the quality of the kitchen help he has found locally, and enthuses that his new sous chef Justin McKiddy and the rest of his staff inspire him every day.
The dishes Burnette serves—the pickled beets, the bulgar risotto, the milk cake—may sound humble, but he strives for “Michelin quality fare.” The Butterfield dining room offers fine dining, including a “Taste of the Hudson Valley” meal of eight or more small courses with many cheeses, meats, composed salads and amazing house-made flatbread that changes every day. In the more casual Stone Ridge Club Room, sandwiches, salads, and burgers are served with the same passionate emphasis on excellent quality and impeccable local sourcing. And there are some high-tech tools and techniques used in the kitchen that would take yet another column to describe. (Burnette dreams of an exposed kitchen where one half has the most advanced equipment and the other is without electricity, where heat and light is limited to fire.)
At this point, you might be asking, what does this high-end restaurant cooking have to do with us yardavores? A lot, actually. It shows how beautiful and delicious even the unlovely parts of whole foods can be. It’s confirmation that the food we get from our gardens, and foraged foods that we gather from our meadows, forests and lakes, despite being common and even sometimes free for the picking, should not be taken for granted. And also that the extra money or time it takes to grow and harvest local food can be countered by finding delicious ways to serve every bit.
This column launches a series of profiles with passionate and skilled locavore home cooks. Do you or someone you know have helpful strategies for preparing homemade meals using locally grown food? Spill! Please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist living, working and eating in Accord, NY.