The Alvah Stone and Hungry Ghost Bread bring taste of the Valley to NYC
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 18, 2017, by
This past Wednesday, a group of local chefs and bakers presented a dinner showcasing the best of Pioneer Valley food at the historic James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village. On the menu were several unpredictable pairings: okra fritter and pickled watermelon rind; dry aged ribeye and tater tot; peach shortcake and Thai basil.
But the most inspired pairing of the night may have just been the presenters themselves: David Schrier and Jessica Pollard, married chefs at Montague’s The Alvah Stone (tucked away in the picturesque Montague Mill building); and Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei, bakers and owners of Northampton’s Hungry Ghost Bread on State Street.
Schrier and Stevens are, in particular, an interesting study in contrasts. Originally from Montreal, Stevens, who went to Hampshire College in the ’80s, is the musical and perpetually flour-caked bread maker who’s been known to lead paganistic puppet parades through the streets of Northampton.
Originally from Tampa, Florida, Schrier, also known as “Chef Dave,” is the impressively bearded, self-described former “fat kid” who grew up eating pizza, and then delivering it, before ultimately making it himself alongside “ne’er-do-wells and marinara stained tong bangers,” as he writes in his bio.
Schrier met Pollard, a pastry chef who’s originally from Turners Falls, in Brooklyn while they were both working at the popular Radegast Hall & Biergarten. The couple later moved to the Valley and eventually teamed up with Leverett-based hospitality developer and operator Howard Wein. In 2014, the group opened The Alvah Stone, where they now specialize in making authentic American food from local ingredients. Along the way, Schrier and Pollard worked at Hungry Ghost as pizza maker and pastry chef, respectively.
So when Stevens and Maffei started thinking about possible partners for a showcase dinner at the James Beard House, the chefs at The Alvah Stone were a natural choice.
“It’s a no-brainer, the food is amazing,” Stevens said on a recent overcast day, sitting in the herb garden outside of the bakery, along with Schrier and Maffei. He took a bite out of a hunk of bread as he spoke, wearing a ponytail, an apron and a good amount of flour.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Schrier later said of the invitation. “You’re not going to get many chances to be able to go to [the Beard House] and cook, whether you live in New York or not; it’s still a challenge either way, so it’s really cool.”
“Aside from representing the Pioneer Valley,” he added, “we’re a family at the restaurant, so being able to go and produce and accomplish this feat, it’s just really big for us.”
It was a rare meeting between the head chef and bakers; they all work around the clock, so they had been using every spare moment to orchestrate the dinner. (Wein, the owner of The Alvah Stone, also planned to attend.)
The James Beard Foundation — named for the legendary American chef, cookbook author, teacher and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement — regularly hosts showcase dinners at the Beard House, located in the former townhouse of the famous chef, to highlight the work of cooks around the country. In the week before their event, Stevens said that he expected about 50 guests. Prices for a seat are $135 for Foundation members and $175 for nonmembers.
In a separate event, the Beard Foundation also gives awards — in categories ranging from food journalism to best restaurant and chef — that some have nicknamed “the Oscars of the food world.” This year, Unmi Abkin of Coco & The Cellar Bar, in Easthampton, received a nomination for Best Chef: Northeast.
Hailed by culinary magazines like Saveur, Hungry Ghost has been nominated several times for a James Beard Award (the owners were semifinalists for 2016 Outstanding Baker), but they haven’t made it to the final round… yet.
Think of it this way: If the food Oscars were the real Oscars, they’d kind of be like the Leonardo DiCaprio of baking. “I’d never had bread that good or anything like it,” Schrier said. “It is a really special and unique place.”
Despite some basic differences between the collaborators — Schrier jokes that he has to spellcheck “hors d’oeuvres,” while Stevens is fluent in French — they’re part of a mutual admiration society that also includes a long list of Valley farmers, growers and other purveyors.
For example, the team used wheat, spelt and rye flours grown and milled at Four Star Farms in Northfield; IPA from Building 8 Brewing in Easthampton; dry-hopped blonde ale from Honest Weight in Orange, New England-style dry cider from Headwater Cider Company in Hawley and Cabernet Franc from Black Birch Vineyard in North Hatfield. Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland supplied the bulk of the vegetables, while River Rock Farm in Brimfield provided the beef, and BerkShore, serving both the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley, supplied seafood. Flowers, arranged for table centerpieces, came from Wingate Farm, in Hinsdale, New Hampshire.
Also represented were Warner Farm, Yard Birds Farm, Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Mapleline Farm, Old Friends Farm and Czajkowski Farm.
As for the menu, the chefs and bakers built it around locally sourced ingredients — back in the spring. “We had to come up with the menu in May for August,” said Schrier. “You have to think in the future three months — what’s going to be available?” Corn and husk cherries came to mind and made their way into the chilled corn soup, thanks to Warner Farm, for example.
“I’m just thinking about what’s around right now, and everything is going to be dictated by that. What’s around, and how do we use it? Everything’s going to start with vegetables for me,” Schrier said. “Use what’s fresh, and use what the farmers want you to use.”
Just don’t call it fine dining. “We try to avoid that stuffiness at all costs,” Schrier said, “both in service as well as in the food itself.”
In the days leading up to the dinner on Wednesday, the plan was for Schrier and Pollard to stock a U-Haul with the necessary ingredients for their meal and head down to the city along with The Alvah Stone’s current sous-chef, former sous-chef, bar manager and general manager.
Meanwhile, Stevens and Maffei would be loading up their Volkswagen with flowers as well as fresh loaves: about 21 loaves of Lammas Beet Bread, nine loaves of rye, 60 half-sized loaves of Hat Trick Bread for takeaway gifts, and a half-dozen bags of spelt crackers.
Both the chefs and bakers see the dinner as a chance to bear the Pioneer Valley flag and show New Yorkers what our food scene brings to the table. And while the team isn’t in it for the fame or glory, if the showcase dinner gets them a little extra attention, then great. “A little bit of glory would be nice,” Stevens conceded. Maffei said that, for her, the dinner is partly about “reminding New York that we’re up here.”
Hungry Ghost’s offerings were to be incorporated into the appetizers and five-course meal in subtle and sneaky ways. There would be sourdough in the udon noodles and in the broth of the chilled-corn soup, not to mention something called a “sourdough condiment” served with the beef course. In addition, brown-butter cornbread would be served with pork shoulder, and a sesame spelt cracker with raw scallop.
The evening was titled “Lammas: Celebrating the Pioneer Valley Harvest.” Lammas is an August harvest festival and also a type of ancient wheat that was used by the pilgrims, said Stevens, who planned to use lammas wheat from Lazy Acres Farm in Hadley. (Hence the Lammas loaves, their title offering.)
Was the meal meant to be an homage to the first Thanksgiving?
Stevens spread out his arms. “Every meal is a thanksgiving if you do it right,” he said.
Maffi agreed: “Breaking bread together — that’s the essence of life.”