The New Chef at Champney’s at the Deefield Inn is Loving Country Cooking
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 7th, 2015, by Hunter Styles.
Chef Ameer Whitmyer started work at Champney’s during one of the worst snowstorms of this year. He looks back on that dinner shift in February as the night he knew that his new place of employment — located at the Deerfield Inn at the center of Historic Deerfield — was going to be a good fit.
“Our parking lots were closed, and everything was shut down,” he says. “Still the innkeepers came to meet with me. They said that because of the bad weather, servers and bartenders were spending the night at the inn. That was one of my first real impressions of the culture here — being an old inn, you cherish that always-welcome attitude.”
That’s been the Deerfield Inn’s history since 1884, he explains. There is always something to eat. There is always a cup of tea. And if it storms, they’ve got room for you upstairs.
Champney’s serves three meals a day, seven days a week. A few months after the snowstorm, and still fairly new to his role as head chef, Whitmyer tells me that the position is a great match. He leads and supervises all things food here, from the complimentary breakfast for inn guests to the dining room’s sit-down dinners and bar fare to catering for the inn’s frequent indoor and outdoor banquets and events.
Whitmyer and his staff work in a recently renovated kitchen and restaurant space, both of which were damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The inn took a beating that year, he says, but high spirits were quick to return, and service is running smoothly.
“The new kitchen is amazing,” he says, “and everyone who’s here really wants to be here. We have a lot of experience from around the area, all focused here. I really view this as the dawn of it all. It’s great for us to get the ball rolling again.”
Small-town New England life suits Whitmyer, who moved with his family up to Deerfield to take this job. He did his previous kitchen work down the shore in Red Bank, New Jersey. That town, a short ferry ride away from Manhattan, is full of upscale casual restaurants, and he says he enjoyed the chance to “cook for the critics.”
But after several visits to western Massachusetts over the years, he knew he was ready to move up when the position opened at Champney’s.
“I love it so much here,” he says, referring in particular to the proximity and friendliness of the local farms he now works with.
Champney’s hamburger meat, for example, comes from Yazwinski Farm in Deerfield, as does the beef bone needed to make French onion soup.
“The farm is within walking distance of the restaurant — you can count the number of doors down the street,” he says. “I walk over there, I see happy cows roaming the pasture, and I think: every chef would want to do it this way — to feel this connection.”
Whitmyer describes his style as diverse. “I like to cook a little bit of everything,” he says. Which is good news, because the inn has offered several core mainstay items for a long time, which a new chef wouldn’t want to erase.
His mission, then — in addition to offering new specials on seasonal menus — is to refine those signature meals in inventive ways.
The changes aren’t all glamorous. Some are quite simple. Whitmyer has been tweaking the recipe for pizza dough, for example. Another subtle upgrade: a new gluten-free cornmeal crust that lends a lighter, crispier texture to the fish and chips, the calamari, and the fried oysters.
Dinner entree items at Champney’s typically run from $10 to $30, with lunch between $10 and $17.
Even comfort food can offer fun little challenges, Whitmyer says. For example, he describes the restaurant’s strip steak entree. The meat comes from southern Vermont and is served with porcini potatoes. The kitchen dehydrates the mushrooms until they’re brittle, then pulverizes them and mixes the powder in with the potatoes and butter. Then it all goes back inside the cooked potato skin.
“So it’s creative and interesting to look at, but it’s still a steak and potato dinner, you know?”
Whitmyer is also proud of his pork poutine. That shredded pork gravy is made with all-local meat — “really earthy and rich” — and served over hand-cut fries with local cheese curd. “That’s been a really big hit.”
Champney’s has also cooked up an open-form seafood ravioli, based on a recipe that Whitmyer perfected back in Red Bank. That entree features one large, unsealed layer of handmade ravioli pasta topped with a mix of ricotta, garlic and spinach. On top of that is another layer of pasta, then a layer of seafood that includes jumbo shrimp and seared scallops, then some sauce, a little basil oil and a fried basil garnish.
“We try to make ourselves an eclectic foodie destination that uplifts and builds on those tavern comfort favorites,” Whitmyer says. “I think that’s always the culinary mission, even in the highest of restaurants. We want to translate that, too, even though we’re a tavern.”
Throughout Whitmyer’s vision, freshness is key, from the daily-made vegetable stock all the way to the pastries made in-house. The restaurant grows fresh herbs in the small kitchen garden out back. And Whitmyer says he collaborates with local farms as much as possible.
“We’re not the largest hotel or restaurant, but we do a little bit of everything,” he says. That means feeding local residents but also those who have come to visit Historic Deerfield. “We get quite a mix of people staying at the inn. Many of them are foreigners who have come to experience old America and old New England. We do weddings. We do wine tastings. We really run the gamut.”
Such breadth fits the playful, inviting personality of this chef, who says he is just as likely to be found working the omelette station at a buffet here as he is to be found doing the books in the back of the house.
“Working in a restaurant was the first job I ever had,” he explains. “Those early years cooking on the line, you just had to go, go, go. But over time, you find creativity in it. You embrace who you are. It’s primal, and it’s exhilarating.”
And after getting that big move out of the way, Whitmyer has found it easy to settle in, meet local farmers, and stock his menu with skillfully made homegrown favorites. “You wake up, you stop by the farm, knock on the backdoor, cut some asparagus, and serve it that day,” he says, smiling. “Amazing. You can’t ask for better than that.”
Chive Roasted Faroe Island Salmon
For the chive butter
½ pound unsalted butter
½ cup roasted garlic puree
1 cup fresh chives
1½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Zest of one lemon (about ½ tablespoon)
For the garlic smashed potato
3 pounds red bliss potatoes
2 cups heavy cream, heated
¼ pound unsalted butter
1 cup peeled garlic
salt and pepper to taste
For the brocollini
2 pounds brocollini
½ cup salt
Water for blanching
½ cup vegetable stock
A few grinds of black pepper
For the fennel
One small bulb fennel
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ tablespoons salt
For the salmon
4 7-ounce steaks skinned and pinned
Allow ½-pound of butter to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice chives as finely as possible and reserve.
Trim the top of the fennel and cut the bulb into wedges from root to sprout. Toss fennel wedges in olive oil, salt, and pepper until well-coated and -seasoned. Cook at 350 on a wire rack until barely cooked through, approximately 10 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Wash potatoes and cut to evenly sized pieces. Simmer with garlic in enough water to cover. Cook until fully tender.
Strain and smash together potato, garlic, ½-pound cold butter, hot cream, salt and pepper. Potato skins and a few chunks are OK — just make sure the garlic has cooked until fall-apart tender stage and it will mix in nicely.
Place the room temperature butter in a stand mixer with paddle attachment. Set mixer to low and incorporate the rest of the chive butter ingredients. Stop mixer occasionally to scrape down sides and not allow butter to warm. Taste for seasoning. Scrape out of mixer, chill, and reserve.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. And salt incrementally until water tastes like a well-seasoned soup. Simmer brocollini in salted water until barely cooked through, approximately 3-5 minutes, then plunge it directly into ice water.
Place a large heavy, oven-proof pan (such as cast iron) on a medium flame and allow it to heat with a small amount of neutral oil. Place salmon steaks skin side up on the hot pan. Give each steak a generous dollop of chive butter, coating all exposed sides. Place the whole pan in 350-degree oven and cook to desired doneness. I suggest a finished internal temperature of 130 degrees, which is flaky and rosy inside.
Gently remove salmon from the pan with a flexable spatula and invert onto a plate showing a crusty side up.
Bring vegetable stock to a simmer and warm the brocollini in it.
Remove the hot brocollini and rest it on a clean kitchen towel to absorb excess moisture.
Place potatoes and brocollini on the plate with the salmon.
Warm fennel in the oven and add it to the potato.
Finish with a small amount of remaining chive butter and more fresh chive.
Hunter Styles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.