Biker Chef: The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts | Elizabeth Field

from Gastronomica 8:2

Summertime in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a sea of polo shirts, khaki shorts, high-end running shoes, and designer sunglasses moving slowly up and down its historic Main Street. Cars from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and points farther afield inch their way through town toward Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshire Theater Festival, Edith Wharton’s Mount, and other cultural venues.

Many of these visitors either stop by or stay at the Red Lion Inn. A rambling, eighteenth-century former stagecoach stop with a long, inviting front porch, it dominates the town, as it does in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting “Christmas on Main Street.” (Rockwell lived and painted here from 1953 until his death in 1978.) As the centerpiece of a quaint New England village, against a somber backdrop of the region’s stately Berkshire Hills, the building suggests an idealized, enduring America, a sentiment that the town and the inn strive to cultivate.

The inn’s old-fashioned dining room, with its velvet room dividers, flowered wallpaper, and red-jacketed servers, could hardly be more traditional. But Brian Alberg, the Red Lion’s executive chef and director of food and beverage, defies expectations. I wanted to find out how he balances the locals’ desire for basic New England fare with the trendier tastes of the region’s many visitors. So one Sunday morning, after breakfast service, I arranged to speak with him.

Alberg strides in quickly and greets me with a firm handshake. He is a buff forty-year-old, with a massive, smooth-shaved head, hoop earrings, deep brown eyes, a tendrilly tattoo on his wrist peeping out from under his sleeve, and a monster beard—a kind of Hell’s Angels–type in immaculate chef’s whites.

EF: What is the restaurant’s volume?

BA: In summer we do about a thousand meals a day. Off season, half of that. Our season is mid-May through January 1. Labor Day weekend is a little slow with people getting back to school, but then it’s the fall foliage crowd, a lot of bus tours. We do a large Christmas dinner. We usually have five hundred for Thanksgiving. It’s fairly atypical for an inn with only 108 rooms to do so many transient meals.

EF: What is the ratio of local diners to tourists?

BA: I think it’s probably fifty-fifty, and more like seventy-thirty in the winter, because our occupancy drops.

EF: Does this mixed clientele pose any challenges, menu-wise?

BA: Well, I still have to maintain the conservatism of being a New England inn … and of being the Red Lion Inn. That entails more basic fare: roast beef, roast turkey, chicken pot pie, that sort of thing. But we have a broader demographic base here—a large number of transients from New York and Boston. This is a huge arts area, with Tanglewood and the Berkshire Theater Festival and all that. We have both hip, young city folks and an older crowd that prefers the traditional, hearty New England fare … an “Indian pudding–type” clientele. It is sometimes tricky to balance these opposite desires.

Red Lion Inn chef and locavore Brian Alberg leads guests on tours of Berkshire farmlands through the Inn’s Roaring Ramble package. Photograph by Kristian Septimius Krogh © 2006. Courtesy of the Red Lion Inn.

EF: How do you balance these needs?

BA: When we do a menu change, we keep three or four core items—like roast turkey and prime rib—that we’ve had for years. Other than that, it’s 100 percent changed.

EF: Is there a common thread that runs through the menu and unites both audiences?

BA: The basic need of both audiences is to be fed with good food. I try to use local and seasonal ingredients, which appeals to both groups. The older generations appreciate the idea of cooking with the local harvests as they did in their youth and as their parents did. The younger generations appreciate that they are getting something that nurtures their bodies as well as the landscape that they travel here to see. It is really cool to see a culinary philosophy that bonds multiple generations at the table.

EF: Where do you begin when you design your menus?

BA: Fresh local ingredients—that’s where I start. What’s in season? What’s available locally? Then there’s writing the recipes and doing training manuals for the staff. We do such a high volume that it’s important to maintain consistency. The whole thing takes a good forty-eight to fifty hours.

EF: How often do you change the menu?

BA: Usually I write two menus a year, one in April-May and one in September-October. Then they get tweaked a little after a month or so. I’ll probably change three or four things, or the accompaniments. For example, in summer when ramps are out of season, I might substitute green beans.

EF: What are some of your more adventurous dishes?

BA: Butter-and-fennel-poached shrimp with celery-root cake, saffron-vanilla sauce, and Riesling-poached leeks. Rosemary-encrusted lamb loin with sautéed kale and Le Puy lentils.

EF: Are these dishes popular?

BA: Yes. However, I have to confess that based on the amount of turkey we go through—2,100 tons a year—every day is Thanksgiving at the Red Lion Inn.

EF: How do you make some of the plainer dishes, such as grilled pork chops, roast turkey, and roast prime rib, shine?

BA: Simple is simple—roast turkey and prime rib are what they are. I don’t mess with them. I just make sure the popovers are light and airy and the cranberry sauce is just tart enough. The pork chop has a little more latitude for play because the accompaniments can be a little more imaginative. For example, the starch is a warm potato salad where we toss the potatoes together à la minute with fresh watercress, shaved red onions, and aged sherry vinegar, so it has a sharpness and crunch to it.

EF: Have you introduced anything new since you came on board three years ago?

BA: I do a Sustainable Dinner menu on Sundays and Mondays, and a daily Sustainable Breakfast menu.

EF: What’s on that?

BA: Eggs raised by the Hancock 4-H, Berkshire Mountain peasant breads, my own smoked bacon. There’s a broken-yolk sandwich, mushroom hash with poached eggs, local yogurt, local and organic granola.

EF: Where do you source your core ingredients?

BA: I actually raise pork. If I can’t keep up with the demand, I buy from North Plain Farm, in Great Barrington. I get greens all year long from Ted Dobson at Equinox Farm in Sheffield. We get apples from an orchard in Richmond and maple syrup from Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. I use High Lawn Farm in Lee for milk and butter. I have a couple of farmer friends from Dutchess County and Columbia County [New York], whose products I use. Last year I bought 1,500 ears of corn, the last of the crop. We shucked it and then froze it for later use.

EF: How did you use it?

BA: Every which way. Last year we bought the 4-H club’s grand-champion steer from the Big E fair in West Springfield. We had a dinner here for a bunch of agricultural representatives from the state, where we served part of that steer. I did sweet corn Bellini cocktails for an appetizer. It’s kind of cool in the middle of winter to get the taste of corn.

EF: Tell me about the pigs.

BA: I usually have three to five pigs at a time. I raise ‘em six or seven months to about 240 pounds. They’re slaughtered in Canaan, ny, but I do all the butchering here. We smoke our own bacon here, and we make our own sausages. I dabbled with hams a little bit, but they didn’t come out the way I wanted them. For the most part we have fresh pork all the time.

EF: Which breed do you raise?

BA: I try to use all heritage breeds; I’ve been kind of sticking to Berkshire pigs.

EF: What are their characteristics?

BA: The meat tends to be a little bit darker. It’s not “the other white meat.” It’s got a bit more flavor in it. I like the idea of taking what was once a dying breed and bringing it back.

EF: And fish?

BA: That’s a problem. I try to buy wild king salmon, and we’re using this Brazilian catfish called pintado that’s really nice. We get dry sea scallops, shrimp. For the most part you just try to go with reputable vendors. You don’t get salmon from Chile.

EF: What percentage of the fresh food that you buy is local?

BA: It varies, but I would have to say around 30 percent. Last year I wrote checks for $850,000 to local farmers. You might not see 30 percent on the menu, but from a dollar standpoint that’s how it is.

EF: What is your favourite culinary season in the Berkshires?

BA: Fall … hunting, fishing, root vegetables, cold nights, braises, harvests …

EF: Is there a strong sense of community among local chefs and growers?

BA: Yeah, there’s an organization called Berkshire Grown, which unites farmers and producers with restaurants. There are so many growers and producers—I work with only a handful, probably about ten local people. But all the restaurants kind of work together to make it happen. Plus, if I’m serving fresh heirloom tomatoes, the next guy has to have them just to be competitive. It’s because of competitiveness, it’s because people care about the environment, but everyone’s really getting into sustainability.

EF: Has this movement toward sustainability changed local people’s attitudes toward food?

BA: I moved away from the Berkshires in my late twenties, and I’ve always wanted to come back here. I swear that this is probably one of the best culinary regions, bar none. I mean, you’ve got sixty restaurants in a twenty-mile radius and forty-five of them are good. Where else are you gonna find that? And because of the clientele we get now, everyone wants to be green, everyone wants to be sustainable. It forces us all to be that way.

EF: Do you do any other community-based work?

BA: I teach with the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington. We teach at-risk students in a culinary arts program. It’s an eight-week program. We plan a menu, which we break down into sections. The first Monday, it might be salad dressings and salads, the next Monday, starches. Last year we did a ratatouille, a risotto, and a poussin. So they learned those, and a dessert, and how to put them all together. At the end of the fifth week the students cook the full menu for themselves and for us. It’s so cool. This year we’re also trying to start a culinary internship program. The Red Lion’s owners have another restaurant, Jack’s, in Housatonic, which is only open from Mother’s Day until Halloween, the opposite of the school year. I thought that if we could get it open from November to May, we could use it as our venue for the new program. We went to Monument Mountain High School, and they totally bought into the idea, so it looks like it’s going to happen this November. The first year it’ll be considered an internship program. After that we’ll have a licensed teacher on board, and it will be an accredited school.

EF: Do you think some of these kids will go on to work in restaurants?

BA: Oh, absolutely. I have three who work with me now. One works at the salad station three nights a week, one does prep work, and one does special functions with me. The guidance counselors have told us they’ve seen so many changes in these students. They’re kids who they thought would drop out, and now they’re so excited and so different in school. I started working at fourteen, and I loved it.

EF: What was your career path?

BA: I started as an apprentice at L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, New York. The owner was a classically trained French chef; he wanted me to go to France when I was fifteen, but I said no. So I worked there for a couple of years. I ended up going to the cia at seventeen and was out by nineteen. I worked as a sous chef at a couple of places in the area. Then I went to the Underhill Inn, also in Hillsdale, which was small and eclectic and really neat. I did two-year stints at the Egremont Inn and the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, ma. Before I came here, I worked at a couple of four-diamond resort properties in Connecticut. Since I’ve been here, I’ve done three dinners at the James Beard House in New York.

EF: You’ve been content to be a small-town chef in the Berkshires. Why didn’t you chase celebrity in the big city the way many other chefs do?

BA: I enjoy too many country things to settle in the city. The important thing to me is to be well-respected as a cook and as a mentor. Glamour is cool, but if it comes my way … it’s a bonus.

EF: How has your style evolved?

BA: It’s gotten simpler. I think simplicity is elegance. I like people who will tell you the way it is; it’s the same thing with my food. I don’t want to guess what something is.

EF: Can you give an example?

BA: Grilled king salmon with edamame puree and carrot-cumin salad. Each ingredient stands on its own, but when all are eaten together, the sweet-spicy carrot salad complements the high-fat salmon, and the silky texture of the soybean puree enhances but doesn’t hide the other flavors.

EF: I’ve heard you do motorcycle day tours?

BA: Yeah, I do farm tours six or eight times a year. It’s called the Roaring Ramble. You get a room, dinner, and breakfast at the inn, plus a day tour with me. We just take our motorcycles and go to New York state, where we tour the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company and other farms. We start at ten and we’re back by three. It’s just a cool ride.

EF: What kind of bike do you ride, and what’s its appeal? Are there any similarities between being a biker and being an executive chef?

BA: I ride a Harley. When you ride, you are with the environment, not just passing through it. The appeal? Freedom. My fiancée likes that I ride, though she isn’t too quick to hop onto the back. The similarities are the stereotypes: bad boy, tyrant, etc. All totally passé!

EF: I’m fascinated by your tattoo. Could you tell me about it?

BA: [lifts sleeve] This is just a design I drew. It has roots and it has grapevines. The tattoo guy I go to did one on my shoulder with morel mushrooms and grapevines, and he carried it onto my arm.

EF: Do you have others?

BA: [proudly] Yes, a lot. I’ve got a Celtic design here on my calf [he lifts up his chefs’ pants to reveal a sinuous tattoo in deep jewel tones]. There are others, not all foodie.

EF: They’re beautiful.

BA: Thanks.

EF: Who would you want to play you in a movie?

BA: Umm … [pauses a long time]. Dennis Hopper. I identify with everything about him.