|Chef Mary Dumont: Honoring the Harvest|
|Features - Chefs and Restaurants|
|Written by LIS Staff|
For Harvest’s Executive Chef, Mary Dumont, cooking with fresh, local ingredients is in the blood. Growing up in New Hampshire in a family of restauranteurs, Dumont learned early that a life revolving around food is hard work that can reap big rewards. From carrying forward a family recipe, to working with some of the best in the business to hone her craft, Chef Dumont’s cooking comes from the heart, joins contemporary New England cuisine with classic French inspiration, and in her own words, “tells a story of the seasons.”
Currently, Chef Dumont is telling this story as she competes to be The Next Iron Chef on the Food Network. Local In Season had the chance to speak with Chef Dumont at the end of the summer to discuss the local ingredients and the gifts of a New England fall.
How did you come around to thinking about “local”?
I left Simmons College here in Boston and moved to Bay Area. I was living in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Santa Cruz...through that culture, I started to really embrace local ingredients. I would drive by Alice Waters' garden. I was really interested in that idea of a community-oriented garden project. It just clicked with me. Really resonated. I stayed there for 10 years and worked in a lot of restaurants. And it was California cuisine. Local was the focus of almost every chef out there. When I came back here it was kind of my ace in the hole, because others weren't doing it. I believed in putting the name of the farms on the menu, and bringing that kind of California sensibility here. In a way, it was a real advantage for me when I arrived in Portsmouth because not a lot of menus read that way. So...good for me!
Did you find the transition back to the East Coast limiting in terms of food availability?
I try not to think of it as limiting. Obviously the seasons are a lot shorter, sometimes the weather is warm and the produce isn't here, or it's cold and things are still growing. There’s a lot of hurry and wait or vice versa.
I rely heavier on technique in the winter rather than worrying myself with what's in season locally. Things become more technical. Certain ingredients can't really showcase themselves. Like a Hubbard squash isn't really going to sit well on the plate unless you do something to it. I view it as an opportunity.
Do you think diners are more aware of the importance of sourcing locally and other sustainability issues?
Absolutely. I get emails if something isn't correct...of course, that's Cambridge for you. For example, I got an email right when the oil spill was happening and there was all this stuff going on about bluefin tuna and I had bluefin on the menu. I had gone away, and, meanwhile, the actual product had changed, but the website wasn't updated, and this guy was up in arms. I said it's a mere typo...relax... So, yes, to answer your question, yes! People can be really emphatic about it, which I can understand, but I don't want to be personally held accountable for all of it.
Is buying local a permanent change?
Well, I think that it's not just food. I think people are just more aware of how to take care of themselves and the food movement is part of that.. But there’s recycling, emissions...it's a shift in consciousness, and food is part of that. I think people will continue to move in that direction because there are people that are talking about the fact that we are losing land, and we’re losing air quality, and all of these things. If we continue, we'll lose culture, history...So I don’t think it’s just a fad. I think molecular gastronomy is a fad, but being healthier of mind and spirit certainly isn't. I think there are fewer Archie Bunkers out there these days...
Can you talk a bit more about molecular gastronomy?
I think there are facets within molecular gastronomy that are really useful like transglutaminase, all natural meat glue....super useful. Do I think that I am creating the wheel if I use it? No. Xanthum gum...is another one. I do use those things, but just so I can do my job better. It's not like I have a bunch of chemicals back there, or want my student cooks to have that skill. People put on there resume "molecular gastronomy", and I'm like, "neat, but how can you apply it?” Using all of those other chemicals can't be good for you.
How do you go about sourcing locally? Farmers' markets? Partner farms?
We do both. We go to the markets every Friday and every Sunday because we are building relationships with those people. We also order direct from farms. The experience my cooks get when buying directly from the market is important. They show up early to work and want to start creating dishes. I let them, and then we go over things together, but I want them thinking about food in that way. We are also bringing back our Harvest review, which is a monthly farm dinner. It's really reasonable, 4 courses for $39 with wine pairings. It's once a month, and it's not a money-maker, per se...it's more to have an experience of the harvest.
These are the reasons I came here. I wouldn't have gone to any other restaurant because I really believe in what this restaurant stands for.
You admit to being obsessed with radishes. What should the home cook be doing with them?
I use them a lot and what I usually do with them is butter-braise them. Melt some butter, add the radishes, and season them with salt right away. Basically, cooking it like you would a risotto, so a little bit of liquid, a little bit more liquid, and so on. I use water. The radishes go from peppery to buttery. I season as I go as well. The radishes completely change and taste delicious. There are so many kinds and colors of radishes, and you just cook them all the same way. They’re great, and I love them. My chefs are always like, "Stop eating my radishes!" And I'm like, "At least I'm not eating your gnocchi or your rabbit!"
What other ingredients are you excited about at this time of year?
At this time of year I use a lot of herbs...lemon verbena and things like that. Peaches are starting to come in which are just awesome…and, of course, the tomatoes but this time of year the two biggest things are corn and tomatoes. Corn lasts a long time. Tomatoes will be gone in a month or so. There are so many different types of corn and so many different applications for it. Those are the things that I look forward to. And starting to get into early squashes and things like that. There’s so much right now! If you have your own garden you can be completely overwhelmed. You plant three tiny tomato plants and suddenly you have 8 million tomatoes!
You mentioned lemon verbena.
I use it all different kinds of ways. I use it in a braise, for example. It has a really intense kind of lemon flavor, obviously, and it has a little bit of oil in the leaf so if you put it in something you really don’t need a lot. It really permeates everything so I’ll put it on fish or cook it with fish or chicken or anything like that. I use a lot of lavender in cooking as well, it has a different flavor profile but that same pervasive quality.
What are some of your favorite early fall flavor pairings?
What is early fall? It’s still summer. <Laugh> Like I said, often times I’ll do chicken and lavender together because it really is very aromatic and I feel like chicken is a really easy thing for people to cook. And it’s accessible anywhere. You can get dried lavender anywhere or fresh lavender. I really like those two things together. As far as local produce? There’s broccoli rabe and beautiful turnips at this time of year and things that are heartier.
Do you tend to highlight the bitterness in the broccoli rabe, or try do you try to tone it down?
I find if you blanch it and put it on the grill it counterbalances that bitterness because you get that smokiness off the grill. I have had some rabe that I’ve hated because it’s so bitter and I’m like “that’s the worst thing I just did to myself.” So I totally agree it can be that way but you try to balance it out with something else like butter braised turnips. You get that buttery taste that balances it out and they are just great.
Do you have a favorite late summer / early fall food memory?
When my family got together we definitely grilled out a lot. We would have fresh grilled piccalilli – we had a garden when I was growing up and we would grow tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. It was small, my parent’s weren’t farmers by any means, but it was a hobby and fun for us as kids. We’d grill a lot of hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken, but we would make fresh garnishes, relishes, and slaws and things that were really great. And my mother’s potato salad recipe has stayed the same. She’s passed on now, but it does not change. And it won’t change! I’m usually in charge of making it when we have family get-togethers so we preserve the family food traditions.
Boiled or roasted potatoes?
They’re boiled. No vinegar. It has to have Cain’s mayonnaise. Any other mayonnaise and everyone’s looking at me like, “What did you do that for? It’s potato salad but it’s not THE potato salad.”
What are some other local products besides produce that have grabbed your attention?
There’s tons of great local honey. I think that’s part of the movement that people are making more local products. Even if they aren’t making more, people are buying them more so you see them out in local stores, and not just specialty stores. I use some local flours – if I can’t find local I’ll buy Hanson’s Mills because I know its an heirloom variety. There are so many cool things out there. I deal with local fishermen and I try to deal with local ranchers almost 100%.
What about cheese?
Cheese is a whole other thing! The Shelburne farms cheeses are awesome. I have some friends up at Crowley Cheese, I buy cheese from them as well. As far as Vermont, there are so many. I also like Heartsong Farm in New Hampshire which is a local goat cheese. They are part of the Farm to Chef Organization and I’m friendly with George Carpenter, the guy who runs that. I try to buy their cheeses as much as possible. The state of Maine, by itself, has so many products – I can’t even start because there’s stuff everywhere. In Massachusetts there’s the Heritage farming region, south of Cape Cod, Great Hill Blue cheese and the Capri blue logs from Westfield Farm down there. So many great places and I love bringing that here and having people understand that, you know, it’s from Massachusetts and that that means something. What is that area? Why is it particularly fertile down there? Why are these things growing there? Because it’s a great place and there’s lots of land.
Educating people is important – we have felt that people can be too recipe focused.
The biggest reason people say, “I followed the recipe and it didn’t work out” is because they don’t know why they are doing it that way. They don’t understand the chemistry of food. I try to do that with my cooks. When they make a mistake I’ll say, why do you think that happened? How can you fix it?” If you don’t know why you’ll keep making the same mistake over and over…
Are you a cookbook reader?
I do read a lot of cookbooks. I buy more cookbooks than I actually read. My favorite cookbook is Susur: A Culinary Life. I’m friends with Paula Wolfert, so I buy all of her books and scour them because she does a lot of the “why” – explaining why things happen and why it needs to be done a certain way. And also the historical background of the food. The way she prepares food is more rustic in presentation than my food, but the story she weaves into every recipe is really cool. If you are going to explain why then, it’s like, “This is the way a grandma in the Middle East did it and why it comes out perfectly every time. So now you can be in 2010 and apply that same technique and it’s still fluffy, amazing, beautiful or whatever. Most of the cookbooks I buy have that kind of quality to them.
So if you were recommending one cookbook it would be one of hers?
Her books? Absolutely. All of them. From the very beginning, from her couscous book to her clay pot book that she’s coming out with now. If you buy ONE clay pot and really understand how to use that…it’s really cool. I was with her in February and she was showing me all these different clay pots and there was this one, an Italian one that you make risotto in and it has a concave lip so the moisture goes up and comes back down and makes the risotto more creamy. If it was a straight side it would just go right out. That’s the traditional way of making the real risotto and I was like, “Yes! That makes so much sense!”
Aside from cookbooks what are some other kitchen tools or pantry items people should learn how to use?
I always have a couple of really great knives. Stay away from that “Lansom Edge” or whatever that terrible knife is. I use a mandoline a lot at home. People are always complaining because they want things to be thin. I find that to be really handy at home. If you want something just so or a certain angle, a mandoline is key. I don’t have a lot of fancy things at my house to be honest. I recently bought a pressure cooker. That saves a lot of time because you can, say, braise something in about an hour as opposed to four. I have all stainless steel All-Clad pots, Le Creuset cookware, and a really great cutting board. I feel like people buy a lot of crap that they don’t need. I was talking to a friend the other day at a cook out and she was joking and said, “I’m going to sell something that you could put around a tree that could hold your beer… people would buy that.” Sure. They would. Or you could just put your beer on the ground.
How about a “go to” obsession ingredient that you use?
Most of the year I use the lemon verbena – I never really get tired of it. For the most part, when I’m cooking for myself at home, I really go back to the basics. Start with, like, shallots and garlic. It’s real easy. I can caramelize it or cook it fast. These are things that build flavor in food. With the amount of time I have for cooking at home, I really want to get back to the basics of cooking with really good salt, good pepper, shallots and garlic and build from there. That’s pretty much how I cook at home… a lot of scrambled eggs. <Laugh> I use some fennel pollen. You can put it on vegetables or you can put it on chicken or fish or anything like that.
Where can we get that?
You can get it at Whole Foods.
Finally, what is a technique that people don’t use enough at home?
I’d say using the pressure cooker. It’s really simple. Everything goes in one pot. I mean, you can cook an artichoke in about 20 minutes. Because of the pressure it preserves a lot of the flavor of whatever you are cooking. They run from $50 to $250 but they are awesome and fairly easy to use. And much safer than they used to be. I recently had one embarrassingly not open up for me in public (at the time of the interview, Chef Dumont could not divulge that this public episode actually happened in the middle of the Next Iron Chef competition! Episode aired: 10/10/2010) and that was not cool…I was about to get a hammer out. But I’ve taken that public mistake and really learned how to use it. And I really enjoy it. <Laughing>
Thank you so much.
*NOTE: Local In Season interviews Chef Dumont's fellow Next Iron Chef competitor, Ming Tsai here.