Chef Jorge Vallejo in Residence at Stone Barns – Pocantico Hills, NY
"What do Americans eat when they eat out for dinner? That’s the question that inspired us as we designed Season Two of Chef in Residence. It’s a celebration of many of the complex, delicious traditions that make up the American foodscape, carried out by chefs who are deeply rooted in connections to agriculture and the cuisines they will share with us."
After completing the first "season" of residencies at Stone Barns, I knew I couldn't stay away for the second, which they announced just a couple of weeks ago! To round out their late spring and summer at the farm, they decided to select five chefs to bring up to the Hudson Valley to share their perspective on the bounty of the place.
Chef Barber wanted to emphasize "what Americans eat for dinner" in this season––elevated takes on cuisines that are recognizable across the casual and fine dining landscape in America. The first and last chefs of the season were heading up more casual concepts––75 minute meals on Stone Barns' patio with barbecue and pizza, respectively. While BBQ with Stone Barns hogs sounded fantastic, I was out west for the duration of pitmaster Bryan Furman's residency, and a casual, brief BBQ experience didn't seem worth a pricey flight from out west, so I decided to bide my time and wait for the three middle residencies, meant to be even more elevated experiences than the first season.
Mexican cuisine has been enjoying increasing representation in fine dining circles, with traditional indigenous and Hispanic foodways pairing with top-notch ingredients to create world-class meals at some of the most celebrated restaurants. Nowhere is this more apparent that in North America, for what should be obvious reasons. In the US, fine dining, "progressive" takes on Mexican food have been garnering acclaim from California to Texas to New York and everywhere between. I had the chance to experience one of the emblems of this movement, Mixtli, in San Antonio a few years back, and had a spectacular meal. Mixtli and other institutions, like Californios in San Francisco, raise the bar each day on what modern, fine Mexican dining can look like. For a cool look at what it means to be a progressive, modern Mexican chef in North America these days, have a look at this awesome interview with the chefs at Mixtli and Californios.
If the US is enjoying a flourishing Mexican fine dining scene, Mexico's own embrace of fine Mexican cuisine rooted in the best of ingredients and traditional practice has certainly matched or outpaced it. Look no further than Jorge Vallejo's Quintonil in Mexico City, currently listed at no. 24 in the world on Pellegrino's "50 Best" list. Chef Jorge went to culinary school in Mexico City just as the modern Mexican cuisine movement was starting to gain steam in the country. He honed his skills working on cruise ships before coming back to the city at working at Pujol (no. 12 on the Pellegrino 50 Best list) under Enrique Olvera, one of the fathers of modern Mexican cuisine. From there, Chef Jorge helmed the kitchen at the St. Regis in Mexico City before taking a job at Noma in Copenhagen, which many consider to be the best restaurant in the world.
He and his family returned to Mexico City to open Quintonil, named for an important Mexican herb, to furious critical acclaim, emphasizing indigenous practices and ingredients in his work, and being an advocate and activist for preservation of traditional foodways and ingredients in Mexico. His recognition led him to be selected by Dan Barber and the Stone Barns team to represent one of the primary types of cuisine Americans eat for dinner––Mexican food––in the most elevated and wonderful manner possible.
It was a warm summer afternoon and I was so excited to see the Stone Barns property in full bloom, something I'd not yet had the chance to experience. Before and after the meal, I took walks around the property for some repose and relaxation (and photos!).
I sat with the same viewpoint as last time, enjoying the view of the colorful woven threads over the center table and the perfect light for photos from behind me. I was taken care of by a different but equally wonderful server this time, who, like everyone else, welcomed me back like a family member. I opted for the wine pairing and ordered a cocktail from their wonderful list of more obscure Mexican sprits. Before I knew it, it was off to the races.
The first course celebrated "La Milpa," the most traditional of Mesoamerican food practices, where family units maintained gardens to sustain and nourish themselves and their loved ones throughout the seasons. Similar to the "Three Sisters" approach by North American indigenous farmers, the cornerstones of these gardens are corn, beans, and squash, which grow in perfect symbiosis and harmony in this variety of garden, but the garden can also include any number of other herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
This was a celebration of La Milpa for the Stone Barns family––the staff, the guests, and the farm itself––bringing in the incredible bounty of the early summer. A "leche de tigre," a traditional liquid condiment in ceviche, was presented as a sort of shot to excite the palate, and was just described to me as "everything from the farm––greens, herbs, and alliums." It was complex, fresh, savory, and bright, and certainly primed the palate for the courses to come. I was surprised to be brought a second one, surely a mistake, but one I was happy to consume.
The main plate for La Milpa was a combination of thinly-sliced and rolled celtuse, kohlrabi, and turnip, with herbs and flowers from the farm, loads of delicious peas, and a sort of chilled vichyssoise (leek soup) with epazote oil, a pungent Mexican herb, over the top. The bounty of early summer in every bite.
Daniel, Hannah's partner-in-wine, poured my first glass, a perfect pairing with the course––a bright but nuanced grüner Veltliner from Kremstal in Austria. Green, indeed, and perfect with the verdant flavors of the dish. I also snagged a cocktail (pictured above) made with pulque, a spirit made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, the same thing used to make things like tequila, mezcal, and sotol. Made with cucumber and a float of Champagne, this cocktail was also a fresh, crisp pairing with La Milpa.
Continuing to emphasize freshness and bounty, the second course consisted of a mound of Peekytoe crab from Maine served with an incredibly flavorful green pipian, one of the cornerstone sauces of Mexico. Pipians are like moles, but simpler, with a seed or nut base and various herbs and spices ground and blended into delicious goodness. Of course, this means that pipians vary wildly and can include any number of things––this one was based in a Oaxacan corn miso that the preservation department at Stone Barns helped create, as well as pumpkin seeds (pepitas), and was loaded with flavors of cilantro and lemongrass. The sauce was so good that I could have licked it from the plate. Atop were some incredible chips made from the same corn which were meant to scoop up some of the crab.
My buddy Hannah made her first appearance to pour me some sauvignon blanc from Alto Adige, Italy's obscure alpine wine region nestled in the pre-Alps, which produces clean but incredibly fragrant wines. This one just sang with grapefruit and even conifer on the palate, and spoke beautifully with the bright elements of the pipian. Hannah strikes again with another killer pairing!
Prior to the next course, Hannah came back out with a cocktail called a "Bamboo," a fairly niche sherry-based cocktail made traditionally with equal parts vermouth, sherry, and bitters. This version was made with Hannah's favorite sherry, as well as a vermouth they distilled in-house with Badger Flame beets, a particularly sweet (and colorful!) variety they cultivate on the farm. Very tasty, and makes me want to give sherry-based cocktails a second look!
Badger Flame beet was the primary ingredient in the next course, so the pairing was perfect. The beet had been treated with a traditional Mesoamerican practice called nixtamalization. Normally used with corn, nixtamalization involves repeated soaking of grain in an alkaline solution (traditionally lime-based water) and then hulling the grain. This removes several possible fungi and toxins from the grain and improves the nutritional quality. Masa, or corn paste, is one of the most important nixtamalized products, and makes the corn chips or tortillas you can get at any Mexican restaurant or supermarket. They'd done the same process to the beet and then roasted it, bringing out natural sweetness and caramelization, but with a slight tang from the alkaline. It was wonderful, if a shade too sweet, but the emulsion they served alongside was truly special––emulsified scallops and sunchokes, with the unmistakable sweetness of scallop and sweet earth of sunchoke. Never thought to purée an scallop into a sauce, but it resulted in one of the most fascinating and delicious sauces I'd had the chance to try.
One of the disadvantages to coming early in the residency is that some of the dishes have not yet developed their final form. This was true of the next dish, which was excellent, but missed one of the critical components of Mesoamerican food, which will be part of future permutations of this menu––potatoes. I saw the beginning stages of this dish taking shape on Chef Barber's Instagram. The substitute was certainly delicious, however––they used black bass instead of the potatoes, bu the critical ingredient was also an important element of Mexican cuisine––crickets prepared in adobo, which involves soaking raw foods in spices and allium to enhance their flavors. Don't worry, there were no in-tact legs––the fish was coated in the puréed cricket adobo, which was delicious, and served alongside a cooked noble jade stalk from the farm, a killer purée of cauliflower, and hoja santa, an important herb in Mexican cuisine that Chef Jorge had sent up to Stone Barns for them to cultivate. The fish was perfectly cooked and the cauliflower decadent, but I enjoyed most the bites of noble jade, particularly the crispy floret. Delicious.
This rosé is one that shows up regularly on tasting menus I've had––sommeliers absolutely love it. From Clos Cibonne in Provence, this rosé is made with tibouren, a more obscure black-skinned grape, but one that produces rosés of immense complexity and depth while still maintaining an aloof Provençal style. Hannah and I nerded out to this wine for a while before she asked me if I'd had any of the older vintages, only to bring me a taste of the 2009 alongside a few minutes later for a mini vertical tasting. Aged rosé; what a concept! A hint of oxidation creeps into the 2009, giving it a sort of heft I associate with whites aged in a similar old-world style like the Lopez Heredia viuras from Rioja. Stellar.
Remember how I once told Evan that I'd eat whatever they put in front of me, way back in February during the first residency? That has certainly stuck, and my next course was made special for me with all manner of interesting and out-there, adventurous things that might make other diners squirm.
Barbacoa originated in the Caribbean and made its way into traditional Mexican cooking from there, and refers to the practice of roasting a whole animal over an earthen pit with fire and/or maguey or agave leaves. Whole animal, indeed––the jowl of a Stone Barns pastured lamb was served atop its charred lower jaw bone as a plate and topped with a glorious lamb jus; the short ribs of the lamb were served in a beautiful dish made special for the residency lined with corn husks; a taco was served alongside with a tortilla made from green corn and filling made from pulled meats from the neck and shoulder of the lamb served birria-style with a preserved chickpea miso and greenhouse greens; and finally, lamb brains were served with roasted garlic and mole (mol-AY) bread for spreading. Each was delicious, but the jowl cuts were my favorite, and I actually thought the presentation on the jaw was super cool and interesting––the waitstaff was also jazzed that they got to see the dish served that way.
Hannah brought out a Mexican wine from Baja California to pair, which I was very excited to try––I was hoping Mexican wines might make an appearance on this menu. This red blend from Valle de Guadalupe is everything I like in a red despite its warmer climate––fresh, aromatic, medium-bodied and singing with blue fruit, sundried tomato, and a bit of olive. Only the second Mexican wine I've tried, and I'm loving what I am finding so far!
The table adjacent to me eventually engaged me in conversation about the particularities of the dish I'd just been served, since it was different from theirs, and we talked for a while––they were celebrating their anniversary, and one of them was also a professor! The gentleman at the table sang the praises of the cocktail he'd ordered, so naturally I had to try it out as well. Pox (pronounced "posh" is a clear liquor from Chiapas made from various grains, often corn, that can be compared to a lighter-bodied, un-aged bourbon. This cocktail was similar to a whiskey sour in that respect––pox was combined with citrus and hoja santa for an herbaceous tipple with some lovely depth. Was loving getting to try all these cool new Mexican spirits with this menu!
I was terribly afraid that the lamb was the last savory course, which seemed to be served rather soon into the meal, but one more was to follow––barbecued pork, the most delicious, moist, and tender I'd ever had, with a coarse mole made from eight row flint corn called "segueza," maple, and chorizo made with ants, another important element in traditional Mexican cuisine. Atop were leek chips, which made the dish almost look golden and opulent given the plate on which it was served. Really incredible.
I never thought I'd see the day that Hannah poured me a Napa cabernet sauvignon, but here it was! Of course, this was a particularly elegant expression of Napa cab––Phillip Togni is a rockstar cult producer of Napa cab, and his wines go for insane prices. This one, from Tanbark Hill Vineyard in the tiny and cooler Spring Mountain AVA, is more accessible, but just as good. Blue fruits and currants pervaded the palate, while the nose featured cedar, licorice, and floral elements. A knockout wine and one to watch out for if you're a pinot drinker looking for Napa cab.
I was so sad the savory portion had come to a close after just six courses, but I had certainly eaten plenty to fill me up. Hannah brought me a special cocktail to pair with my early dessert courses, this one also made with interesting Mexican spirits. This one was a chilled, milky drink similar to horchata, made with Nixta Licor de Elote, a corn-distilled liqueur described as "ancestral," and Licor Pajarote, a cardamom liqueur also from Mexico. The drink was refreshing and interesting, and I took the coolest picture of Hannah holding both bottles in her skilled, well-balanced hand!
The actual pairing was a combination of Calvados (apple brandy) and another apple-based thing that escapes me, meant to bring out the "black fruit" that comprised the deconstructed grilled cheese that was next. Alongside the fruit was a manchego from Wisconsin and a cows milk cheese from Jasper Hill in Vermont, the same cheese they'd sent me home with last time I bought a market box from them. Alongside was the same mole (mol-AY) bread they'd served me with the lamb course. A nice array of components, and I was particularly fond of the "Wischego" cheese, though it did just sort of seem like a pedestrian cheese course.
Learning that no more pairings were forthcoming, I wanted to add another cocktail––this one was a martini made with reposado tequila, Ancho Reyes verde (a spicy poblano liqueur from Mexico), and pickled habanada pepper. I loved how spicy this drink was, and the pepper kept adding more heat the longer it sat in the concoction. Hannah brought me a bit of the tequila to try on its own alongside. Beautiful.
The first dessert course I neglected to photograph (a few cocktails, ya know...), but it was a granita of lemon verbena with a sort of custard made of Blue Hill cows milk, honey, and peppermint oil. Super refreshing and delicious, and reminded me of my first visit to BHSB, when I somehow talked my way into a glass of Blue Hill milk from Hazel, the sweet matriarch cow of the farm!
The last dessert set was meant to be an expression of La Marienda, the equivalent of tea time in Mexico. Set between lunch and the evening meal, La Marienda consists of various snacks, fruits, sweets, hot chocolate, spirits, or coffee. The first item was hot chocolate utilizing Blue Hill Farm milk heated and infused with spices and single-origin Mexican chocolate brought by Chef Jorge from Oaxaca, the chocolate capital of Mexico. In a traditional hot chocolate vessel made for the residency by ceramicist Nena Escobar, the chocolate was vigorously stirred and incorporated into the warm milk. The resulting drink was about as delicious a hot chocolate as you can imagine, and brimming with complex spice flavors.
Alongside was the "pastry" portion of La Marienda, with three for me to choose from. I chose two and was promptly encouraged to try all three (twist my arm)––chocolate babka, a traditional maple pastry, and a cookie made with pork fat. All were delicious, but I couldn't possibly finish that volume of carbs after the meal!
To close, I ordered one of the last cocktails on their Mexican spirits menu, this one a variation on a Negroni made with an obscure Mexican rum called Uruapan. This was served with their house-made amaro and hibiscus, and turned out to be my favorite cocktail of the day (Jenny stopped by to say hello and told me she was glad I tried that one, since it was the fairly unanimous favorite of the staff).
Chef Jorge is one of the most important chefs in Mexico––he is a steward of traditional techniques and ingredients, and sustainable and ancestral farming practices, standing astride the traditional and progressive elements of Mexican cuisine with integrity, inventiveness, and precision. I can see why Chef Dan Barber, who I finally got to meet and speak with briefly on the way out, was so excited to welcome him for this residency, and I will look forward to visiting Quintonil in Mexico City one day!
I will say that after three Latin American-inspired meals in a row at Stone Barns, I am pretty excited for the next chef in July, who will be offering fine dining takes on Cantonese cuisine. Stay tuned!