It’s just a few hours before dinner service at The Federal Restaurant & Bar on Friday afternoon. Inside, white linens are smoothed over tables and polished flatware is set in order of use. Outside – just feet from his kitchen door – Executive Chef Michael Presnal meanders down the rows of his restaurant’s lush garden. Super sweet 100s spill out from the top of their cages, growing in clusters next to plump heirloom tomatoes. With a stainless steel bowl in hand, he begins to pluck rich gold and crimson fruits, they will serve as his culinary inspiration for that evening.
The Federal – with proprietors Mike, Ralph Santaniello and Jonathon Reeser – digs deeper, offering fresh pickings integrated with white linen elegance. For over fifteen years the three have been serving innovative “new American” cuisine, most recently tilling their soil to create contemporary crafted dishes with the freshest ingredients.
Each has incalculable food and beverage experience, having worked in all facets of the industry for decades. Ralph got his start when he was just 9, helping at his parent’s restaurant – Amedeo’s – in Holyoke. While he explored additional career alternatives as an adult, the excitement of managing his own restaurant brought him back to food. Mike and Jonathon both received formal training at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, prior to cooking at some of Martha’s Vineyard’s most renowned restaurants. Mike successfully opened his first restaurant – Alchemy – “the island’s hottest restaurant,” where he was Executive Chef from 1999 to 2002. Wanting to move back home to start a family, Mike returned to Western Mass where he and Ralph envisioned bringing a sophisticated contemporary restaurant to the Pioneer Valley.
“Mike wanted to replicate what he was doing on the Vineyard and I wanted to get a new restaurant going, so we did it together,” remembers Ralph. “We started talking and looking for places and when this building became available – we jumped on it. This location has an incredible history of being a family-owned restaurant, exactly what we are, we loved that [history] and have spent the past fifteen years renovating, little by little.”
Constructed as a private residence by Samuel Converse in 1862, its Federal-style architecture inspired the building’s namesake. In the early 1900s, it served as an elite private club and then a public restaurant later in the century. After the property had changed hands a few times, the guys stepped in, working ever since to refurbish its classic elegance. They’ve updated nearly every inch of the infrastructure – from plumbing to electricity – and have methodically renovated each dining space.
While the interior is an experience, with more exciting improvements to come, these culinary entrepreneurs have differentiated themselves with what’s growing outside their door. Their ever-expanding garden includes tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, arugula, herbs and potatoes. A sprawling mint plant provides bright flavors for artisan cocktails, while indoor micro-greens provide a nutrient-packed complement to dishes. Having the chef’s garden has allowed their culinary creativity to soar.
“Fresher is always better, growing from seed to plant and then to the restaurant is a huge difference,” explains Mike. “We get more excited about using fresh ingredients – something we have grown – the final product is always better.”
“We staggered the plantings three weeks apart, so we have a constant harvest – and when the tomatoes come, they come fast,” says Chef de cuisine, Jonathon. “What we don’t immediately use on plates, we pickle, dry or preserve, which will bring garden ingredients into the colder months.”
“More and more people are looking for local ingredients; they want to know where their food is coming from,” says Ralph. “What’s more organic than chefs growing and picking their food? It’s the most natural thing.”
On this particular day the garden-inspired menu features house-made charred eggplant ravioli – with creamy burrata, piquillo pepper romesco, hazelnut brown butter & garden basil – as well as scallops ceviche – with garden tomatoes, crab claws and avocado mousse. Ralph says the restaurant’s menu is perpetually evolving, with artful plates designed to showcase what’s fresh and in season. Months like August bring a bountiful harvest with 15-20% of produce growing just beyond the kitchen door. Supplemental items are then sourced locally, like from E. Cecchi Farms, for example. No matter the source, each dish is defined as “elevated comfort food,” where ingredients speak for themselves, brought to life through strong Italian and French influences. Drinks also receive particular attention, with freshly muddled herbs, picked just before service.
“We like to keep our food fresh, simple, and local when we can,” says Ralph. “We take classic cooking techniques and food flavors to deliver something unique - we don’t overdo anything. Mike does a great job of creating clean flavors, having the quality of the ingredients be the center of the plate.”
While The Federal is certainly deserving of a special occasion, the atmosphere is sociable and warm; a sentiment derived only from being a true family business. On any given day family members are there to help – from Ralph’s dad who helps in the garden to his mom lending a hand with the books – each plays an integral role in their success.
“In our family, everything revolves around food. When we’re together, we’ll be eating lunch and talking about what’s going to be made for dinner – we all cook and love food,” says Ralph. “I love what we do here, I honestly do. I love being with my family, but also part of a team. It’s always an exciting challenge – that build up to nightly service, those crazy few hours where everything is nuts and then after having a beer with the boys in the back – but there’s nothing better.”
Back at the garden, Mike finishes the day’s harvest and prepares for the chaotic, but organized dance of dinner service. Spilling from his bowl are fixings for a Caprese salad, stuffed squash blossoms and red wine braised short ribs. The air is super-charged as the chefs chop, cut, slice, whip, grate, and grind a haul of crisp spoils for impeccable dinner presentations. Imagined with strong vision, each fresh-picked masterpiece serves as a delicious culinary escape – one that can only be cultivated from a chef’s garden.
135 Cooper St, Agawam, MA • thefederalrestaurant.com • (413) 789-1267