A few weeks ago, I sat with friends and strangers around an empty table, waiting to be served. Through the window, we had a view of the train tracks that crisscross through Stafford Springs. Soon, the cook emerged from a back room and set plate after plate before us, each better than the last. There were Stafford-inspired cocktails, a signature “Front Lawn Salad,” sweet potato bisque, a creamy potato gratin and root mélange, and the food simply kept coming.
For each of these courses, the cook would sit down with us, sip a “Stafford Mule,” eat, and chat. This was, surprisingly, not a fine dining restaurant. We were in a basement owned by a mutual friend, and our cook was Yaakov Leeser. As experienced as he is as a cook, he is just as dedicated a student at the University of Connecticut, studying microbiology and focusing on food fermentation. Or, as he likes to say, “he’s getting a Master’s in cheese.”
Although this was the first of such dinners, Yaakov promised it wouldn’t be the last for the residents of Stafford. This pop-up-dinner style of cooking is something that is becoming popular with talented, underground chefs, and is something that Yaakov hopes to bring to this area and beyond.
I met with him days later. We drove out to a remote field, another unorthodox place to create a kitchen, and yet that was exactly what he did. We made a fire atop a frozen patch of earth.
Yaakov settled a small, cast iron pan and Dutch oven on the burning logs. Smoke curled around them as he chopped onions, carrots, and celery, then poured stock and chickpeas along with them into the kettle. The smell of smoke and spice filled the air. “Should I add tomato jelly?” he asked me, and before I could ask what tomato jelly was, nodded to himself and emptied the jar into the kettle.
When I asked him when he first started cooking, he gave a wry smile and responded, “I’ve been around food all my life.” A simple, but meaningful phrase he picked up from his grandfather, who owned a bakery most of his life.
“I say that because I realized that my relationship with food, like my grandfather’s, was a bit more intimate than most people would think of. Growing up, my mom had a first edition, signed copy of The Moosewood Cookbook. It’s early farm-to-table, and focuses on moving vegetables to the center of the plate. I worked through that entire cookbook when I was young, pretty much early high school. Oh, wait—cooking fat,” Yaakov said, interrupting himself. Suddenly, he bounded away to his supplies, returning with a knife and a block of boursin.
“Cheese is fat,” he said to himself. It sizzled as it hit the cast iron, and Yaakov smiled. Beneath his years of experience and study, it’s easy to imagine that same look of excitement on his face as he worked through early recipes in The Moosewood Cookbook.
As I helped him stoke the fire, I asked how it felt going from cooking meals for a hundred people, something he has done for years at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, to cooking private dinners for only a dozen or so.
“It’s a mental shift. All of a sudden, I’m not cooking quarts of rice, or cycling eight pans of roasted squash through the oven. Everything all happens at once, which means I can pay more attention to the ingredients. I can go to a farmer’s market, pick individual vegetables, and be really intentional, so that every ingredient I’m serving is equal to the final product.”
When I asked if his studies in science had influenced his work as a chef, he said “Hugely.”
“There are a few chefs nowadays who are food writers, food scientists really. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Alton Brown. Dan Pashman. These guys are teaching you to cook based on their work saying ‘I’ve fried an egg a hundred different ways—this is the best way to do it.’ It’s a scientific, research-driven approach to learning how to cook. It’s not just ‘this is the way my bubby did it.’ Although that is important, because your bubby did it the best way she knew how.”
“The reason I started studying fermentation is because I have my roots in the agricultural side of food. We have a handful of animals that we eat in North America, and only a few more families of plants. But once you start fermenting things, you’re dealing with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of species of bacteria. And the flavors you get go up in complexity and variety from a few species and families to tens of thousands.”
When I asked what he enjoyed most about hosting a private dinner, he said, “Cooking is a fun pastime, but what’s really fulfilling is seeing people dig in. I grew up sitting down with my parents and sister every day for dinner. Usually, we were still sitting and talking long after we’d all stopped eating. That’s the payoff for me as a cook. It’s radical hospitality. It’s telling a group of people ‘You’re gonna sit down, and all you’re gonna worry about is enjoying yourselves.’”
Eventually we talked about the planning of his meals. Although he himself is not a vegetarian, he mainly cooks vegetarian cuisine, for health reasons as well as those of ecological sustainability.
“I suppose it’s harder to grow a cow than to grow a corn,” I joked.
“Well, that’s it,” he said. “To grow a cow, you grow an acre of corn. But instead of that acre of corn feeding a hundred people, it’s going to feed a cow, and then a few people will get fed by the cow. But you’re serving much lower quality food to much fewer people.”
We sat back as the fire crackled before us. Dead husks of corn littered the ground, and small, almost fluorescent green buds sprouted through the ice and mud. Suddenly, it seemed fitting that Yaakov Leeser should choose to create a cooking experience out of a spent cornfield.
“So,” I asked him, “what do you want to do in food? And how does it tie into the way you view the food world as a whole?”
“That’s a big question,” he said. “I want to help people figure out what food is, I guess. Food isn’t something that comes out of a package, it’s the skilled combination of very good ingredients…I want to move the vegetable to the center of the plate, and move that vegetable from a distant field to a local field. I want to help make local, seasonal, fresh food popular again. What I want to do in the food world is democratize it. I hate that word, democratize, but I like what it means. I think that’s better for the health of the planet and for the people eating the food.”
When the cooking was done, we extinguished the fire and returned to the familiar basement in Stafford to eat with friends. The food was, once again, incredible, and I look forward to my next meal with Yaakov Leeser.
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