Author Archive | Julia Sexton

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Pork, Salt, Time & Place

Chef Cesare Casella relocates to the Catskills

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEREDITH HEUER

It isn’t a sprig of rosemary that chef Cesare Casella wears in his pocket; his signature accessory is a veritable hedge. When we meet, the greenery is jammed into the breast pocket of Casella’s brown corduroy jacket, its spiky branches causing the jacket’s soft fabric to jut in a conspicuous bulge. As we talk, a scent-cloud of crushed rosemary envelops us, its pineyness smelling of summer, despite the fact that it is now fall. Even as we walk down Hurleyville’s chilly Main Street, an aromatic puff of rosemary occasionally hits my nose, serially evoking (whiff ) Italy, (whiff ) sun and (whiff ) food.

Fragrant boutonnieres aside, no place can be further from Casella’s native Tuscany than Hurleyville, a quiet Sullivan County hamlet nestled among the remnants of the Catskill Borscht Belt resorts. Nowadays, no one is dirty dancing in Hurleyville. The only lingering ghosts of the Borscht Belt’s mid-century heyday are the clusters of abandoned and moldering tourist cabins dotting the outskirts of town. Yet here is where Casella is planning to site his new artisanal butcher shop and salami factory, Casella’s, opening this winter.

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Main Street Revival

Cesare Casella is the latest—and arguably the most famous—of the New York City chefs heading to the Hudson Valley. He is the former chef of numerous critically acclaimed restaurants in NYC, a James Beard Award–nominated cookbook author, the dean of Italian studies at the International Culinary Center and the owner of the import company Republic of Beans, Inc. Casella (and his trademark rosemary) have long made the rounds on national food television, appearing on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Top Chef, Iron Chef and After Hours with Daniel Boulud. Currently, chef Casella is a partner in Giorgio’s Salami, whose products can be found at Del Posto and a variety of high-end retail outlets, including Eataly in New York City and Chicago.

Although Casella confesses that he is a country boy at heart (he grew up in a restaurant family outside the city of Lucca), Casella’s presence here in Hurleyville—halfway between New York City and Binghamton—is still a bit shocking. In his elegant sing-song Tuscan accent, he admits that when he came to Hurleyville, this sleepy hamlet “was a ghost-uh town-uh.”

Hurleyville, previously a center for dairy farming in the region, is currently making huge strides to pull itself from the ashes of the Borscht Belt’s decline over the last 30 years, an effort fomented largely by the presence of the Center for Discovery. According to the center’s president, Patrick Dollard, the many-armed nonprofit is “a care program for kids with complex disease and disability.” Currently, the center houses and cares for more than 300 residents, roughly 50 percent of whom live with autism spectrum disorders. Casella heads up the Center for Discovery’s Department of Nourishing Arts (DNA) based on 150 agricultural acres spread over multiple sites in and around Hurleyville. These are collectively known as Thanksgiving Farm. On this land, the Center for Discovery offers educational and therapeutic programs for its residents. Additionally, the farm yields much of the food that the center serves to its residents and employees—nearly 2,200 meals per day. Thanksgiving Farm also sells some of its produce through the high-end restaurant distributor Baldor.

According to chef Michel Nischan, president and CEO of Wholesome Wave (and three-time James Beard Award winner), Thanksgiving Farm has proven a boon to both residents and chefs. Citing the successes of noted livestock industry reformer Temple Grandin (herself also autistic), Nischan notes that working with animals can “stop the madness” for people living with autism. The idea that Grandin asserts is that people with autism often share an intrinsic comfort level with animals because the two process thoughts on a sensory realm, rather than in a word-based manner. Then, there is the fact that Thanksgiving Farm is raising its organic/biodynamic produce—and, often, heritage breed livestock— on lush Hudson Valley pastures. Laughs Nischan, “They’re just raising really good pigs.” Nischan, who was the executive chef of the Dressing Room (Paul Newman’s farm-to-table restaurant in Westport, Connecticut) until it closed in 2014, notes, “When I was at the Dressing Room, we bought a pig every six or eight days from Thanksgiving Farm. They’re stupendously delicious pigs.”

For nearly a decade, the Center for Discovery has also been extending its influence into downtown Hurleyville. The nonprofit is buying and rehabilitating the town’s dilapidated buildings, then finding tenants like Cesare Casella, whose 210 Main Street factory site once housed the town’s Polish market. The center has also leased 218 Main Street to Hurleyville’s only gastropub, the Pickled Owl. It also owns the site for Wild Turkey Bakery and Market (238 Main Street), which vends products from Thanksgiving Farm. According to Dollard, the Center for Discovery is hoping to make Hurleyville “a really foodie town.”

Dollard’s plan is not exactly a moonshot, entrepreneurially speaking. In nearby Monticello, Indian billionaire Dr. Subhash Chandra is behind a $90 million Ayurvedic spa, resort, yoga and wellness center under construction on the site of the Borscht Belt icon Kutsher’s. Less spiritually minded plans are afoot for another Borscht Belt landmark in Monticello, the Concord. In 2014, New York State’s Gaming Facility Location Board granted permission to Empire Resorts to build an $800 million complex complete with casino, 18-story hotel, indoor-outdoor water park, conference center, cabins and hiking trails on the Concord’s former grounds. Casella (and the town’s other frontiering tenants) are betting that these two projects alone will funnel well-heeled tourists through Hurleyville’s newly rehabbed Main Street.

It is a surprisingly collaborative process
between chef and government. As
Casella describes it: “They test; I taste.”

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Pig in Place

Casella’s occupies a modest red-painted frame building at 210 Main Street. Its tiny, white-tiled storefront will serve as a butcher shop selling housemade salumi and fresh heritage-breed pork and pork sausages. Though Casella has also been associated with beef—his connection to the Center for Discovery began when a friend suggested he move his lone heritage breed Tuscan Chianina cow to Thanksgiving Farm—the theme of Casella’s in Hurleyville is decidedly porcine. The real action at Casella’s will be glimpsed through a glass panel behind Casella’s rustic retail shop tables, both of which were hewn from locally sourced lumber. Here, Casella will operate a small-scale salami factory with the noble—and somewhat moonshotty—aim to re-create the salami of Casella’s Tuscan childhood under the USDA’s most stringent control. Casella envisions that this small factory, which is slated to open in January 2017, will act as a proving ground for a much larger operation nearby.

“Today in the U.S. you can find great salumi, great salami. But what I wanted to create was in my memory from when I grew up in Italy, to create the same flavor. To do that, I need to start from the pigs and then work my way up.” He continues, “The problem is that the pigs here, they are smaller than the ones in Italy. There, you have pigs that are 400 pounds. At this moment, it’s very difficult to find the right pigs.” Obviously, Casella has explored buying Thanksgiving Farm pigs “whenever they have them,” but that program’s meat production is primarily allocated for the diet of its residents and employees.… Read More

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Line Up

Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg plants its banner in Kingston

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 PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROY GUMPEL

Brooklyn, Manhattan, Los Angeles and … Kingston? If that grouping sounds jarring to you, then you haven’t been paying attention. In that, you differ from Jonathan Butler, who has been paying very close attention to the Hudson Valley. The most recent outpost of his Smorgasburg market at Hutton Brickyards in Kingston opened this past August, to great fanfare and astounding crowds, and will run each Saturday through October of this year (and, no doubt, will return next spring).

Butler, who is co-founder with Eric Demby of this mini-empire of culinary and craft, has a trio of New York City markets—Brooklyn Flea (debuted in 2008), Smorgasburg (2011) and Berg’n (2014)— and all embody what may be the perfect storm of Millennial aesthetics. The markets function like modern town squares built into the industrial remnants of the city; they’re the places where all things vintage, handmade, artisanal, locally grown and Instagrammable are celebrated and consumed. In Williamsburg, Smorgasburg attracts up to 10,000 visitors on each Saturday and Sunday. The market has earned almost 70,000 followers on Instagram and has been geo- and hashtagged in nearly 93,000 posts. Even if you don’t accept that social media is the contemporary version of word-of-mouth, Smorgasburg is a juggernaut. Its success is so profound that, this past June, Smorgasburg exported its Brooklyn chic to Los Angeles, the organization’s first West Coast outpost.

Hutton Brickyards, the location of Butler’s Smorgasburg Upstate, is a sprawling industrial compound, positioned on the western banks of the Hudson River, whose site was chosen in the 1870s for a miraculous confluence of natural features. Not only did Kingston’s soil offer the rich clay deposits necessary for brickmaking, but nearby lay ample firewood for the brickyard’s kilns and a high-speed conduit—the Hudson River—to the southern brick-hungry market of an expanding New York City. Currently, the 10-acre site still bears the soaring, rusted structures of industry (Hutton was operational until 1980), but its frontage also offers expansive views of the river. For modern purposes, Hutton Brickyards has two other merits. It is centrally located in the increasingly hip Hudson Valley, and Kingston’s star is still ascendant.

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Feeling the Pulse

Butler is no stranger to surfing upcoming hotspots. His first commercial venture was a website called Brownstoner.com—it tracks Brooklyn real estate and was there at the borough’s most recent boom. (Butler recently sold the site.) He admits, “You never really know when something is going to big up. After Brooklyn had its boom, it was like, ‘Well, duh. Of course: You’ve got this beautiful place with beautiful housing stock and it’s so close to Manhattan.’” He continues, “But you’ve got a similar thing in upstate New York. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and very accessible to New York City. And the housing stock is pretty incredible.” Of course, the best opportunities go to early adopters. “I feel like it’s still pretty early in Kingston. It’s not Hudson. And it’s much more interesting for me to get in early and have an impact than to go to Hudson where Warren Street is pretty much done. But, you know,” he laughs, “in a very nice way.”

“What we’ve been successful doing—and this is going back 10 years to when we started Brooklyn Flea and then Smorgasburg—is to give a center to a movement that is already palpable,” says Butler. “And I think that over the last, say, five years or so, there have been increasingly interesting things happening in the Hudson Valley region, food-wise. What we’re doing in Kingston is similar to what we did with Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg; we’re trying to create a single spot where a visitor can go and get a pretty good snapshot of the scene.”

At its debut in August, Smorgasburg Upstate hosted 20 food and drink vendors (including craft breweries), plus a variety of traders in what Smorgasburg Upstate’s site calls “a curated selection of handmade design, vintage clothing and antiques.” The stalls are primarily located outdoors under large, open-sided coverage comprised of the remaining brickyard structure. Says Butler, “The great thing about this plan is its sight lines. From all over the site, you have incredible views of the river. Hopefully, we’ll be hitting the perfect balance: pretty well hedged against the weather, but it’s still gonna feel like you’re outside.” Butler anticipated three or four thousand visitors at Smorgasburg Upstate’s debut; the first week exceeded his expectations by about double.

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A Place to Stuff your Face

Take a look at any upscale supermarket, and you’ll see the same story. More and more of its coveted real estate—floor space formerly devoted to, say, produce—is being converted to sneeze-guarded steam tables that hold hot, prepared food. The same goes for farmers’ markets, where, increasingly, wood-fired pizza trucks and barbecue rigs are shouldering up next to farmers. Smorgasburg is the ultimate expression of that trend. Says Butler, “The first year of Smorgasburg Brooklyn, we tried to put a farmers’ market in the middle of it and no one, no one wanted to buy lettuce. His takeaway? “Smorgasburg is more a place to go and stuff your face than to buy your weekly produce.”

Given this—and the fact that Kingston already has a thriving farmers’ market on Saturdays (“and the last thing I want to do is cannibalize their business”)—Butler’s stated intention for the market is to showcase Hudson Valley–grown foodstuffs in the dishes of his vendors. “I’m more interested in finding ways to integrate the Hudson Valley farmer supply chain with the Smorgasburg vendors than I am in competing with the local farm stand.” At its debut, fewer than 10 percent of Smorgasburg Upstate’s vendors will hail from Butler’s Brooklyn markets. Instead, the dishes featured at the market will overwhelmingly be created in the Hudson Valley by Hudson Valley chefs.

The curation of the prepared food vendors at Smorgasburg Upstate includes such regional brick and mortar mainstays as Santa Fe, Bread Alone and Terrapin, as well as less established locals like Raven & Boar and PAKT. When considering the selection process, Butler heard from Hudson Valley residents that great Asian food is scarce in the region. Both of the Brooklyn food vendors that have committed to Smorgasburg Upstate will sell Asian food. “We’re trying to have some stuff that’s fun and Instagrammable, but, at the end of the day, it’s pretty accessible stuff.” This “Instgrammable” offering comes in the form of the Ramen Burger, a whimsical creation by chef Keizo Shimamoto, that consists of a fried ramen cake wedged into a stacked burger—an invention that has garnered formidable queues throughout Brooklyn.

Here is the power of something like Smorgasburg. When Keizo Shimamoto introduced the Ramen Burger at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn back in 2013, the dish became an immediate media sensation.

Not only was the burger covered in countless city and national publications and websites, but, so far, it has been hashtagged in some 45,000 Instagram posts. Given each poster’s network of followers, that impact is vast. For a start-up food business, Smorgasburg offers a huge platform for a comparably miniscule investment. Says Butler, “Take somebody who thought he made great fish tacos 10 years ago, and, you know, he had his friends taste them.… Read More

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Rethinking the Restaurant

Resourcefulness and enterprise
feed local appetites

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Curbside service at Market North

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROY GUMPEL

David Chang is doing delivery. This fact alone should tell you that something is afoot in the restaurant world. Maple, Chang’s meal delivery service (in which he is both major investor and chief culinary officer), launched in Manhattan last spring, with a commissary kitchen overseen by an ex– Le Bernardin chef. Chang, winner of a couple of Michelin stars and countless other accolades, heads the Momofuku Group, an octopus of food enterprises that includes an international roster of restaurants and bars (plus, a sandwich joint, a sweetshop and the food enthusiast quarterly Lucky Peach). With Maple, Chang is dipping into a sector of the restaurant industry in which, historically, food quality has been sacrificed in the name of economy and quick transport. Of course, Chang is sourcing excellent ingredients and employing a cutting-edge app that calculates travel distance but also factors up-to-the-minute traffic conditions. Chang is not alone: Throughout the dining world, elite restaurateurs have found unexpected ways to expand while staying true to their culinary ideals.

At Market North in Armonk, the recent offshoot of Restaurant North, chef Eric Gabrynowicz and owner Stephen Mancini have done Maple one better. Not only does their app (Market North, powered by ChowNow and available on iTunes and Android) enable customers to order delivery, but Market North will also bring orders out to cars. Says Stephen Mancini, “So, you’re running errands in town, and you have three kids in the back of the car. You don’t want to find a parking spot and get everybody out of the car. With our mobile app, you can place your order and we’ll run it out.” Gabrynowicz adds, with surprising enthusiasm, “There’s a comments section on the app where you can enter, say, red Audi, license plate number X. Pickup in the back.” Like Uber, the Market North app retains their customers’ credit information. No cash need be exchanged in the transaction.

The Market North app is so streamlined that it is virtually idiot-proof. Once customers have logged into the service, they can choose their pickup (or delivery) time within a range of ASAP to up to one week hence. Then, users click through 12 menu sections that include coffee and tea, baked goods, breakfast dishes, soups and bowls, sandwiches and wraps, food to go, house-pressed juices and so forth. There are more than 130 menu options available; the service also offers a virtually endless choice of delivery/pickup times within Market North’s business hours, 7am to 6pm, 7 days per week. What surprised Gabrynowicz most about how customers use the app were the five-minute pickup orders. “We found out that people order on the app so they can walk in and find their coffee ready to go.”

But curb-side pickup? As convenient as it may be, it has the unfortunate tang of a very similar service offered by Applebee’s. It’s jarring to remember that Market North’s mothership is Restaurant North. That restaurant’s general excellence and staunch, Hudson Valley–sourcing snagged Gabrynowicz multiple James Beard Award nominations (and one of Food & Wine magazine’s “People’s Best New Chef” awards). Does Gabrynowicz, who soared through the hierarchies of several of the kitchens in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, feel compromised by running delivery? Not at all. “I feel like it’s an opportunity,” he says.

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Chef Eric Gabrynowicz of Market North showing
off the culinary bounty of their new concept shop

Throughout the dining world, elite restaurateurs
have found unexpected ways to expand while
staying true to their culinary ideals.

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In Store

We’re sitting in Market North, part café/part gourmet shop, which is located just across Main Street from Restaurant North. It’s an airy, stylishly minimal space whose most remarkable feature is the La Marzocco espresso machine that Mancini had enameled in luminous cerulean blue. Mancini—a rabid fan of the Italian soccer team Forza Azzurri—was careful to reproduce the precise hue of the Italian team’s jerseys. This is the sort of detail-oriented obsessiveness that runs through both of his businesses.

Market North is currently stocked with a variety of local products— Captain Lawrence beers, Sycamore Farms jams, Cocktail Crate mixers and the famed mustard/relish mix used by the venerable Walter’s Hot Dog Stand in Mamaroneck. By the shop’s door (in prime, grab-andgo real estate) there is a refrigerated case loaded with Market North’s proprietary bottled juices and smoothies. Here, clinical-sounding names for smoothies (“P1,” “J3”) belie their wholesome ingredients. “P1” is a blend of coffee, vegan protein, toasted almonds, almond milk, coconut water and organic quinoa; “J3” contains kale, spinach, romaine, celery, cucumber, basil, jalapeño and lemon. In addition to these, you’ll find some shelf-stable items like spice mixes, seasoned bread crumbs and the gluten-free flour that Gabrynowicz formulated for use in North’s popular gluten-free pastas and baked goods.

While Market North offers the bling of a high-tech app (and the cachet of much critical praise), other local restaurants have also rejiggered their businesses to offer retail components. This past winter, Duo Bistro was in the midst of renovating its Kingston space; the restaurant’s redesign, which greatly expands the space into the corner lot, will include a market that chef/owner Juan Romero calls “The Pantry.” Here, Romero will offer for retail many of the local products that he uses in his kitchen. These will include the aforementioned shelf-stable products (and the breads he bakes in the restaurant), but, also, the Pantry will offer the fresh meats and dairy products Romero buys from local farms. Romero hopes that having an additional sales platform at the Pantry will enable him to make more adventurous choices on Duo’s menu; what he doesn’t sell in his bistro can be repurposed at the Pantry.

Both Market North and the Pantry represent the struggle of modern restaurateurs who are increasingly squeezed by the business’s tight profit margins. Currently the industry is undergoing a revolution prompted, in part, by mandated hikes in minimum wage for tipped workers in New York State. This is compounded by increased competition in the industry and always-rising real estate prices—factors that leave many restaurateurs in an untenable position. Luminaries like Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer have eliminated customary tipping within their restaurants; essentially, this rewrites the curriculum that most restaurateurs have learned on the job, in business school or at the Culinary Institute of America.

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Mimosa on tap

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Says Mancini, who earned a business degree from NYU (while simultaneously acting as the youngest beverage director in a Zagat number-one-rated restaurant, Meyer’s landmark Union Square Café), says: “The thought process behind the market is to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that we currently can’t take advantage of at the restaurant. We saw a chance to diversify while staying true to our DNA. Here, we’re able to serve responsibly sourced ingredients, to continue to move in a direction that we feel is important to our food system but make it more approachable to the masses.”

While Market North bears a full liquor license, there is no bartender on staff. North pre-mixes its cocktails, which are either served bottled—or, in the case of mimosas—tapped from a pressurized Cornelius keg (Scott Vaccaro of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Elmsford taught Mancini the kegging technique, which is more commonly used for beers and sodas).… Read More

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Tortilla Curtain

Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa
gambles on artisanal corn tortillas

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Photography by Andre Baranowski

Number 1-3 Bridge Street is an anonymous low building in the kind of spookily underpopulated, light-industrial neighborhood of Yonkers where you might find yourself nervously driving while looking for someplace else. The factory stands about a block from the east bank of the Hudson River, and it has a checkered culinary past; it was once a Dunkin’ Donuts commissary that cranked out sticky-sweet Boston Kremes and Strawberry Frosted doughnuts by the thousands. The building’s most striking exterior feature is a twobay loading dock through which a river of donuts once flowed.

Yet, despite the building’s lack of exterior glamour, its new resident, Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa, which is set to open this spring, is revolutionary for these parts. It’s angling to be the largest nixtamalizing tortilla factory in the NY-Metro region.

It would be fair to ask yourself, what exactly is “nixtamalizing?”

Nixtamalization describes a 3,500-year-old Meso-American process of cooking and soaking dried corn in alkalized water to make it both workable as a dough and suitable for consumption. Historically, the alkalinity was provided by slaked lime—calcium hydroxide—which was gleaned from potash, itself made by leeching water through wood ash. The Aztecs used limestone-rich lake-bed sediment, but nowadays, the calcium hydroxide is made from burnt limestone or seashells. It’s sold at many Mexican-American markets as “cal” or “cal mexicana.” Cooking the corn in a cal solution softens the hard skins of the dried kernels and allows them to more freely absorb water, but the real benefits of nixtamalization are farther reaching than that. In history, the process of nixtamalization was key to maintaining the corn-reliant Meso-American diet. The technique frees up niacin bound in the corn to make it digestible to the human body and in turn more nutritious; it also supercharges the corn with calcium.

Of course, tortillas are nothing new to New York. We New Yorkers have been happily eating tortillas in this part of the country for decades, and many of those tortillas have been made by local factories. But as many California transplants are eager to point out, when it comes to delicious tortillas, New York trails far behind the West. In Western states, which have older and more established Mexican- American communities, fresh, nixtamal tortillas are relatively easy to find. In fact, elements of La Milpa de Rosa’s production equipment were sourced in California, Texas and Illinois. But, here in New York—excepting a tiny sliver of the local market served by small, artisanal purveyors (like Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens)—corn tortillas are made with Maseca, a convenience powder closer to a mix than a true culinary process. Using Maseca, one simply adds water to form masa, the dough from which tortillas are made—easy, but far from delicious. New York’s corn tortillas may be formed and cooked locally, but the vast majority come from a mix.

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“There’s something wrong
with a tortilla
that can sit on a
shelf for a month.
Those tortillas
completely lack the fundamental

qualities of the fresh product.”

NIXTAMAL TAKES OFF

In the center of La Milpa de Rosa’s factory floor lie two steely 10- foot basins that bear a remarkable resemblance to giant bathtubs. This is where the dried corn will be cooked and soaked in “cal” solution. There’s also a washer that will remove most of the corn’s pericarp, or seed coat (some will remain in the masa and add texture to the finished tortillas). The star piece of machinery in the factory is a $30,000 grinder whose soul is actually quite primitive; it’s a lava stone mill used to crush the nixtamalized kernels into masa. After grinding, the masa will either be sold raw for home use or it will be transferred to a press and cooker that terminates in a long conveyor belt. Here, the hot tortillas will travel down the belt, cooling before being packaged for sale. Then, they’ll be wheeled off to the loading dock where Boston Kremes once reigned.

It’s a risk. La Milpa’s tortillas—which are made with organic, non- GMO corn—will cost more than the commonly available Maseca, or conventional, tortillas. The difference in price (which has yet to be set) will be about $1.25 more per one-pound bag of 32 tortillas. Despite the premium, La Milpa’s owners are gambling that customers will pay more for better quality: “Basically, the difference between a fresh, nixtamal tortilla and a Maseca tortilla is like the difference between a freshly baked baguette and a bag of Wonder Bread,” says owner Chris Vergara. “They’re softer, more pliable and aromatic. Fresh nixtamal tortillas have a warm, sweet aroma and a cleaner, more precise corn flavor. Maseca tortillas are a distant second to the real thing.”

The debut of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa is fortuitously timed. The factory’s owners, Vergara, Jason Steinberg and Kevin Landwehr, began seriously planning their nixtamalizing tortilleria early in the spring of 2014, a few months before the term “nixtamalization” became a culinary buzzword. In September 2014, the hallowed Danish chef Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s Noma, was seen nixtamalizing corn for an article in The New York Times about a taqueria that he’s planning to open. And in New York City, chefs Alex Stupak and Enrique Olvera both championed nixtamal at their trendy new restaurants, Empellón Al Pastor and Cosme. At Cosme, which debuted in September 2014, Mexico City transplant Chef Olvera showcases nixtamalization by subjecting carrots and parsnips to the technique. Given the recent hoopla, the ancient process of nixtamalization is positioned to join the pantheon of currently fetishized, new/old culinary techniques: fermenting, smoking, pickling and curing.

SHELF UNSTABLE

The germinating idea of Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa occurred over a meal. Vergara—who is the executive chef/owner of three Westchester restaurants (Meritage in Scarsdale, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson and Harper’s in Dobbs Ferry)—happened to come across some substandard tortillas. “My staff and I were eating a family meal of tacos at one of the restaurants. And I was talking about how the tortillas that we were eating weren’t that good—they were all tough and leathery, and they cracked and ripped,” recalls Vergara. “I was talking to one of my Mexican cooks and he was saying, ‘You need to get the tortillas that are made from real corn, the nixtamal ones.’”

“I said, still eating my taco, ‘Okay, then why don’t we just get those?’ That’s when he told me, ‘You can’t. No one makes them around here.’”

“As soon as we began to seriously talk about the factory, the process started to get a lot of heat in the press,” says Vergara. “You know, Enrique Olvera was coming to town with Cosme, and Alex Stupak was opening up Al Pastor. Rene Redzepi was running around the world trying to eat tacos. It kinda blew up.”

The distribution of fresh tortillas has inherent challenges. Once cooked, the fresh tortillas—just like any unpreserved bread—have a limited shelf life of only a couple of days. That’s why commercial tortillerias commonly extend the life of their bagged tortillas for weeks, if not months, with various preservatives and fungicides. A recent look at the ingredients listed on a randomly selected bag of locally made tortillas yielded not only corn but cellulose gum, potassium sorbate, methylparaben and propylparaben.… Read More

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