It is opening night at Cook & Brown Public House. The tables are mostly full but there is space in the room and people are murmuring quietly, contentedly. Walking past the wide windows facing Hope Street, it’s hard to tell that yesterday those windows were covered in brown butcher paper and the bar was just a wooden frame. But inside there is a lingering smell of new paint and sawdust. The waiters, who are warm and attentive, are also a little bit flushed. The chefs are still getting used to a kitchen that’s been ready for only a day, cooking dishes they’ve never made before.
The plates come out of the kitchen in a steady stream: turnip soup with bacon lardons, baked eggs with lobster and shitakes, white wine braised lamb shank with green farro and fennel puree, olive oil-poached fish with clams and green herb sauce, crispy fried quail with a shaved vegetable salad. Just about everything comes from small producers in New England. And a week or two from now, just about everything will have changed.
The menu at Cook & Brown is what chef-owner Nemo Bolin calls “super seasonal.” It is never the same for long. Bolin cooks simple, high quality New American food, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients that are from as close by as possible. The dishes change from day to day based on the season and on what produce is available from farmers that week. There is some framework—there will always be at least one vegetarian option, one seafood of some sort, probably one option for every kind of meat. There will always be a salad, most likely some kind of soup. Exactly what composes those dishes depends entirely on what’s fresh from nearby farms. But keeping up with constant change will be a challenge. It takes skill and experience to come up with a menu every day, especially when that menu relies on what produce is available, and what’s available in Rhode Island isn’t always a whole lot.
Bolin is an experienced chef and has been in the restaurant industry for 16 years. He started out his career at L’Etoile in Martha’s Vineyard, where he grew up, and has worked in some of the most highly regarded restaurants in both Boston and San Francisco, including Craigie St. Bistro and Rubicon. For at least five years, he told me, he’d been thinking about opening his own restaurant. But it never seemed like the right time until he and his wife, Jenny, moved to Providence in 2008. Just as they did, the economy tanked, and though he asked every good restaurant in town, no one had the money or the opening to hire Bolin. Finally, Bolin says, Jenny turned to him and said “Let’s just do it.” A year later they bought the restaurant at 959 Hope St. In January they had been there just long enough to gut it. When I first met them they sat with the sous chef, Adam Mir, in the middle of an empty dining room, perched on bar stools above bulging garbage bags, construction tools and stacked chairs. They would open in just six weeks.
In that time, the Bolins had to manage all the usual chores and negotiations of opening a restaurant, from getting licenses to hiring staff. “All those things that you don’t think about, or you do but not really, everything takes a few hours,” Bolin told me. “Some days it’s overwhelming.” Especially when planning for the most important part, the food, involves a whole lot more than placing an order with Sysco.
GATHER THE INGREDIENTS
Cook & Brown will join the handful of Providence restaurants already subscribing to the slow food ethic; La Laiterie, New Rivers, Local 121, and Chez Pascal all rely on local ingredients and feature seasonal menus. These seasonal menus can change anywhere from once every few weeks to once every few months. Bolin wants to take Cook & Brown a little farther—the menu will change much more frequently. Other locally-sourced restaurants have a few set producers whom they buy from, and who are often the same for many restaurants. Bolin is interested in exploring new options. He wants to find different farms with interesting varieties. “We don’t want just the same stuff you can get at Whole Foods,” he says, “it should be better, more diverse.”
Around here, crops are fleeting. Asparagus season, for example, is only a few weeks in early spring. But that’s what Bolin likes about New England. “The seasons are really seasons,” he says. If something’s only available for a short time, that’s fine. While it is, “you get as many as you can, and then you can say ‘let’s focus on this, let’s use this up.’ It gets you amped up in the kitchen.”
Most restaurants want to be able to count on getting produce consistently. It can be dangerous not knowing what they’ll get from week to week. But with no fixed menu to maintain, Bolin and Mir say that that kind of irregularity will just inspire them. As they set out to find suppliers, that inspiration is what they’re looking for more so than the large supply and consistent availability that most restaurants require. Such an approach will take more work, and it runs a greater risk of falling short. It’s easy to be inspired by produce in the height of summer, less so by the potatoes and squash of winter.
But for now, at least, both chefs are confident that finding good farmers will mean finding good produce, regardless of the season. “We want to be able to have a dialogue with farmers,” says Bolin. He talks about how, for a long time, most restaurants have been entirely disconnected from the farms that supply them. Many restaurants get all their food from one big company. Sometimes it’s the same company they get their equipment or linens from. What’s available is the same all year round. “And they try to sell that,” Bolin said, “like it’s a good thing.” If these companies are pushing a certain item, he said, most likely it’s because they need to get rid of it. At Cook & Brown, he says, “We want farmers to be telling us what we should get, not just because they’re trying to sell it, but because they’re really happy with it.”
Bolin wants to know what the farmers are excited about, since that’s usually a sure indication of what’s good. He’s willing to buy tomatoes from one farm, greens from another, all depending on who does what best. He’s also interested in heirloom varieties and unusual vegetables, things like cardoons. “Ever heard of a cardoon?” Mir asks, “most people haven’t.” A cardoon is celery-like stalk that tastes like an artichoke. “That should be the test for farmers we talk to,” Bolin joked. “Ask them if they know what a cardoon is.”
He also wants to find foragers, people who will go out and find not just wild mushrooms but other wild edibles as well: ramps, autumn olives, and fiddlehead ferns. All the better if it’s stuff customers have never heard of, or never tried before. “It’s a good time to be opening a restaurant,” he said, “People care more about what they eat. A lot more people are getting interested in this kind of food.” Bolin plans to cook food that he thinks tastes good. Ideally, he says, he will create popular demand more so than he will cater to it. With entrees costing $20-$30, the success of the restaurant will depend on people agreeing with Bolin’s taste. Given that some of the fundamentals of his approach are to keep it simple and “use lots of butter,” success seems likely. But even he admits that he doesn’t know whether people will like something like salt cod fritters. He may yet have to contain his own preferences to keep the customers satisfied.
ADJUST TO TASTE
For all his foodie idealism, though, Bolin is still realistic. “I’m not naïve,” he’s careful to point out, “I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 16 years. It’s not just about good intentions. A lot more is involved than cooking good food and being nice. It’s a business.” Working with so many small farmers requires more work and negotiation. “The dilemma is, farmers are small business owners as well,” Bolin said. They can only produce so mu
, and they have other customers to supply. “Do we get every single carrot? No.” It helps to build relationships with farmers before they start planting. They’ll be more willing to plant more, and more diversely, if they know they’ll be able to sell it. If nothing else, the advantage of a changing menu is that if one item runs out, it can easily be replaced with something else. Working with small farms means that getting the produce can sometimes be a problem. Many small farms don’t have the resources to deliver regularly. In Rhode Island, where there isn’t a huge network of farms, restaurants quickly have to turn to farms in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or farther. Even for those that do deliver, Providence is out of the way. That’s starting to change as more farms and farmers markets crop up in Rhode Island, but for now Bolin needs to work out who can deliver, whether it’s possible for some farms to piggyback on other delivery trucks, and when it might be worth it to drive out himself to pick produce up. Being reasonable is especially important for a new restaurant hoping to be successful, and Bolin is careful not to lose sight of practicality. He’s not willing to give up profit or the quality of his food for the sake of being local. “We don’t want to preach. It’s about striking that balance.” Bolin says, “There are no olive trees or lemons around here, but we’re gonna use those.” Some sustainable ingredients, like grass fed beef, are just more expensive. While starting out, Bolin can’t afford to serve that all the time. He’ll have to budget carefully, either serving it occasionally or buying cheaper cuts and relying on skill to prepare them well. When he’s still unsure of how many customers they’ll have, he’ll also have to buy smaller animals, to make sure he can sell everything before it goes bad. In New England, sometimes what’s in season is not a whole lot. In all those cold, grey months between late fall and early spring, pretty much all that’s available are root vegetables, winter squash, and maybe some hardy greens like kale and cabbage. In the late winter, when root cellars are dwindling and spring crops have yet to be planted, how local can the restaurant stay and still produce food that people want to buy? It’s a question that Bolin and Mir will have to answer with experience, and it may very well mean that some produce has to come from a little farther away. But they’re keeping the food as local as possible, and for now, even in the bleakest season, Bolin doesn’t see the limitation as such a bad thing: “It’s a good time to be opening. The fact that there’s not a lot available forces us to keep it simple. It gives us a chance to start out slow.” ____________ Just hours before service on opening night, Bolin changed out of the work clothes he’d been wearing since January into a new white chef’s jacket. He shaved off the beard he’d been growing for the past six weeks. There were dark circles under his eyes. But he and Mir were cooking. They were, like he said, starting out slow. The menu was a little bit shorter than they hope it will be eventually, and they were taking their time to make sure everything was just right. By the smells and the murmurs and the clink of silverware in the dining room, it was. Now, two weeks later, they’re in full gear. They’re looking forward to asparagus and ramps, and plan to start curing meat pretty soon. MARGUERITE PRESTON B’11 is helping Cook & Brown search for farms and foragers.