A few years ago, while trout fishing on the Neversink River in the Catskills, I was introduced to a man named Piscator, and I named a dish after him.
The protagonist of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Piscator teaches us about the pleasures of life through the simple act of fishing. He prepares meals for himself and his apprentice from the day’s catch, perhaps some foraged vegetables, and dairy bartered from the local milkmaid. I envied Piscator’s simple life. Still, I found it comforting that hundreds of years later I could fish in much the same manner with a fly made from animal fur and feathers, a weighted line, and a flexible rod. But it saddened me that the similarities in our lives ended there. We have lost the simplicity Piscator enjoyed, and with it we have lost our connection with nature.
Photograph by Galen Zamarra © 2006
I grew up with nature in the small surf town of Santa Cruz, California. As a child I was spoiled not with cars and toys but with an appreciation for the ocean, redwood forest, and mountains. As a community we were very protective and respectful of our environment. When I moved to New York City as a young chef, that connection was lost. It wasn’t just that I had traded the redwood trees for the “concrete jungle” or the pristine Monterey Bay for the polluted Hudson. It was that the kitchens of the top restaurants ignored the natural laws of seasons and variety. Tomatoes, corn, and berries arrived by truck every day, every month. They were uniform in size and color; they were also flavorless. Consistency of product was what interested the chef, not its unique or inherent qualities.
The dream of many chefs is to study under the masters in France. So I went there, as many do, to learn techniques and recipes from them. To my surprise the greatest lesson I learned was a respect for food origins, varietals, and heritage. Vegetables, wines, and cheeses were named for the town they came from. Paris, like New York, is a big city, yet the kitchens and chefs there had a much stronger connection to nature.
Foraging in the forests of Laguiole, France, with Chef Michel Bras, we gathered frais des bois (wild strawberries), mushrooms, and bronze fennel. We picked little yellow flowers from the hillside and infused oil with them, which Bras served with beef that had grazed in the same fields. Besides being a great chef, Michel Bras has an encyclopedic knowledge of food. Like a botanist he can point out the various wild plants to harvest; his true genius, however, lies in the kitchen. Even though he is considered one of the best and most influential chefs in the world, it was his natural approach to food that intrigued me most. Everything about Bras’s food, from the basic ingredients to the design of his restaurant, creates a link from plant to animal to chef to the ceremony of a meal.
Back in the Catskills I wanted to re-create this act, this natural link of chef taking what nature has given us and preparing it for others to enjoy. I decided to create a dish with my trout and foods from the surrounding area. The brook trout caught in the Neversink River, wild ramps and watercress harvested from the surrounding fields, cream from Ronnybrook dairy, and eggs from Elihu Farm were not just the ingredients but the inspiration for my new dish: Trout Piscator, a roulade of trout stuffed with a mousse of smoked trout and ramps, poached and served with a salad of pickled ramp bulbs and wild watercress, garnished with trout roe.
Trout Piscator has been a signature dish on my menu at Mas since we opened in April 2004. For me it represents our philosophy. The French word mas can be translated to mean “farmhouse” or “cottage.” We mean it to be a home connected to the land, where at the end of the day the family comes together and enjoys the food from the environs. We buy our foods from local farmers and producers according to season and prepare an elegant meal. We hope to educate people about the natural beauty of food and to share the pleasures of the land.
Because it is illegal to use wild trout in New York State, the trout I use in the restaurant comes from Eden Brook Fish Farm, which raises its fish in a tributary of the Neversink. I list the farm on the menu because I want people to know where it comes from, how it was raised, and that it means something to me. I can change the dish subtly with the season. The mousse can be made from ramps, nettles, or spinach; the salad can have onions or apples in the fall. It is a dish that can be on the menu at different times of the year but vary with what is available seasonally. It’s a dish that Piscator, if he were alive today, might make himself.
In a recent popular magazine a major food critic declared that one of the worst food fads was the “slow movement” of listing food origins on the menu, “as if anyone really cares where Klingmans Farm is.” I don’t think people do care, but they should. When did we begin to take for granted all the hard work that goes into a meal, from farmer to chef to table? How did consumer apathy erode tradition to the point that food is now regarded as just a necessity of life, not one of its delights?
My most important lesson to my chefs is to put as much passion and attention into the food you cook as you would while eating it. I hope that the diners eating our food aren’t merely filling their stomachs. I hope that they have come for something more profound than can be attained through the simple act of eating. They’re sharing this moment with others in a minor celebration of life and its pleasures.
These days, in my New York City kitchen, I feel a direct connection with nature. It is the inspiration that drives my menu. It is important for me as a chef and ultimately a pleasure for all of our guests at the farmhouse.