Housemade: Elevating “From Scratch” at the Alvah Stone

By Samantha Marsh | Photographs by Dominic Perri

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Gnocchi, English muffins, bacon, sausage, XO sauce, and beer cheese ... just a handful of the ingredients made from scratch at the Alvah Stone. Howard Wein’s restaurant and bar in the picturesque Montague Mill location (previously the Night Kitchen) celebrates its first anniversary this April.

“We would never do it any other way,” says chef David Schrier when explaining why their menu has such a focus on housemade ingredients.

Cooking “from scratch” is certainly not a new restaurant trend, however, an increasing number of restaurants are placing even more emphasis on this aspect of their cooking in order to ensure the quality and taste of every dish that leaves the kitchen. The Alvah Stone has experimented extensively with re-creating “store-bought” favorites—using fresh, quality ingredients in lieu of their processed counterparts.

“We have a problem with the ingredients, not the actual food itself,” David explains.

One of the Alvah Stone’s first experiments was to create a burger that they, and their diners, wouldn’t get tired of. David explains that if they were going to serve a burger, it “had to be really good” ... and so they went to work to re-create the classic American burger, gooey “American” cheese and all. Clearly the experiment was a success, as the burger hasn’t left the menu since the restaurant opened.

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 The Alvah Stone burger is prepared with local, dry-aged beef from River Rock Farm in Brimfield, which is then ground and formed into patties, grilled, topped with onion marmalade, pickles, melted cheese, and mayonnaise. It’s served on a housemade English muffin. In the summer, David adds a juicy tomato slice to the burger, but outside of the season “I won’t even look at a tomato.”

The cheese is meant to replicate the texture of individually wrapped American cheese singles, evoking nostalgia for the simple days of childhood. It’s no lab experiment, however—it is made from aged Grafton cheddar cheese and emulsified to enhance its creaminess. The English muffin recipe, in similar fashion, has been refined to taste as good as, if not better, than the classic Thomas’ English muffin that so many know and adore.

“We love the taste of Thomas’ muffins, but we would never dream of using them,” David says. Pastry chef (and David’s wife) Jessica Schrier has perfected the experience of the English muffin with all the nooks and crannies that we remember from our Thomas’ muffin-eating days, sans the long list of unpronounceable ingredients.

“[Cooking from scratch] is fun. It’s a constant challenge to make something as good as the original,” David continues. He explains that it is all about trial and error—recipes will not come out perfectly every time. The first time David attempted to make soba noodles, for example,“it was horrible,” he admits with a chuckle.

David and the kitchen team have mastered other housemade pastas, however. Pastas such as pappardelle, cavatelli, tortellini, agnolotti, and gnocchi are always served—a gnocchi dish has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening.

“We have housemade pasta on the menu every night,” David explains. In the spring or summer, pasta may be served in ham broth with ricotta cheese and pea purée, while winter dishes tend to be heartier. David continues to describe why he loves making pasta, “it’s something that’s simple” but that he and his team “don’t get tired of looking at [it].”

The culinary mindset behind the Alvah Stone isn’t so much about adhering to the trendiness of “DIY” food and using local and in-season ingredients as it is about simply doing what makes sense.

“‘Farm to table’ is hilarious,” David says of the recent popularity of the phrase to describe restaurant cuisine. He feels that every restaurant should be using local, seasonal ingredients. There should be no need to call it out and draw attention to it, because “it just makes sense,” he concludes. “We would never define ourselves using this terminology. It’s overused and disrespected.”

Howard and David have strong relationships with many local farmers and vendors, including Snugg Valley Farm in Southern Vermont, Four Star Farms in Northfield, BerkShore in Northampton, Clarkdale Farm in South Deerfield, Red Fire Farm in Montague, Mapleline Farm in Hadley and Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland. “Whatever they have, we’ll use,” David says of the process of ordering produce from farms.

“Last year we sold the Alvah Stone a lot of shishito peppers, salad greens, peas, garlic, radishes, tropea onions, treviso radicchio, fennel, all kinds of herbs, heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes, cauliflower, celeriac, and lots more,” said Caroline Pam, co-owner of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland.

Wes Malzone from BerkShore is the fish supplier for the Alvah Stone. BerkShore delivers fish from the shore of Massachusetts multiple times a week to restaurants in Western Massachusetts, allowing restaurants like the Alvah Stone to serve some of the best seafood that the state has to offer (learn more about BerkShore in the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Pioneer Valley).

David trusts his local vendors, and is happy to experiment with different vegetables, unfamiliar types of fish, or different cuts of meat if a supplier has something exciting to bring to the table.

Caroline adds, “We love working with David because he really appreciates and knows how to use some of the more unusual specialty vegetables we grow. He is always excited to try anything new and we can feel confident that our vegetables will be highlighted on the menu with respect and skill. We are often in contact throughout the week by text. If I have something cool like shiso or okra but not enough to put on the list for everyone, I can text David and he’s usually happy to work it into his menu.”

“It’s all about making good food,” David says. “We use whatever tastes the best.”

It is clear from the Alvah Stone menu that the focus on the ingredients is first and foremost, and allows them to stand out. David explains that the process of creating the menu each night is very democratic. Most of the kitchen crew has been at the restaurant since it opened, and David trusts their opinions and skills when it comes to deciding what sauce to pair with a meat, trying out a certain plating technique, or experimenting with a new flavor combination.

For example, when David asked Dave Clegg, a line cook, what flavor he thought would go well with carrots, his answer (sesame seeds), became a new roasted carrot and sesame seed dish.

“Eli [the sous-chef] is the gnocchi master,” David says about another member of team. “We’re always learning,” David says of himself and his crew.

“We’re the opposite of traditionalists,” Dave explains. It just has to taste good. “Seasoning is important—but not just salt. We use a lot of acid and vinegar in our dishes.”

“And as much fat as it can accept,” he adds with a laugh.

It’s an exciting time for restaurants (and restaurant-goers) as the focus on specific cuisines shifts to a focus on quality ingredients and a chef’s personal style of cooking. Restaurants that cook everything from scratch are no longer one in a million, but are becoming increasingly popular. The Alvah Stone is leading this charge and are committed to getting others to join them—making good food from scratch is the right way to cook.

 

Samantha Marsh is a writer and food lover based in the Pioneer Valley. She holds a BA in journalism and anthropology from UMass Amherst and works as a literary associate at The Lisa Ekus Group in Hatfield. When she is not writing about food, Samantha can be found teaching dance, practicing yoga, or testing out new baking recipes at her home in North Amherst.

Recipe for Alvah Stone Bacon

Recipe for Baby Bok Choy with XO sauce and Nam Pla Prik

 

Beyond "Eat Local"

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Investors put their money where their mouth is

By Ilana Polyak | Photographs by Dominic Perri

Shortly after the midday rush one day this past winter, Susan Mygatt Ragasa was behind the counter at Sutter Meats pressing ground pork into little squat maple breakfast sausages. She carefully stacked the patties three layers high on a platter bound for a display case where they sat alongside thick slabs of bacon, plump Italian sausages and pink roast beef.

The air was thick with the aroma of pastrami and a signature semi-cured product called “beef pancetta” in the smoker as customers weighed the merits of different cuts of steak—ribeye or porterhouse?

In a little more than a year, the Northampton butcher has become a go-to destination for consumers craving local, humanely raised meat. Animals from the almost two dozen farmers with whom Sutter Meats works are slaughtered at Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol. They are then delivered to Sutter Meats for butchering.

“This way we’re able to use almost all parts of the animal and introduce the community to different cuts of meat they may not have known about before,” says Ragasa’s husband and co-owner, Terry.

Things are humming along at Sutter Meats now, but the future didn’t always look so bright.

As they were getting ready to open the business in January 2014, the Ragasas had already sunk close to $200,000 of their own savings into the venture. They had secured their 1,300-square-foot store on King Street, but paying contractors, electricians, suppliers, not to mention purchasing the freezers, cutting tables and display cases, required even more cash.

“We got to the point where we were going to have to have to write some big checks,” says Susan.

To keep their vision for a small-scale butcher on track, they turned to the PVGrows Loan Fund for financing. PVGrows connected the Ragasas with the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (the CDC), in Greenfield to provided a much-needed cash infusion.

“Our whole business is meant to support the local food system, so it made sense that we would get our funding locally too,” says Terry.

The CDC helped the butchers secure a small business loan of $288,000 with an interest rate of 5.75% through Florence Savings Bank, with the CDC kicking in a portion. But the Ragasas got so much more than financing.

The CDC took the lead in helping them refine their business plan so that it demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the supply of pastured meats in the region and the market for a store like theirs. “The CDC had more information on the local climate [for pastured meat] than we were able to get online,” says Terry about their first pass at a business plan using online tools.

Moving toward food independence

Community members will now have the ability to help fund the local food economy too. The PVGrows Fund is accepting investments from community members to be lent to local food businesses.

The Fund hopes to raise $500,000 and offer investors a 2% interest rate on their money—though that rate of return is not guaranteed. It will be administered through the CDC. The Fund now operates under the CDC’s auspices, as reflected by a recent name change: Franklin County CDC’s PVGrows Investment Fund.

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The Fund is part of a larger plan to move New England toward food independence, says PVGrows’ former executive director Sam Stegman. Food Solutions New England has set a goal to have half of the food consumed in the region to be produced locally by 2060. Right now, just 3% to 5% is. “If you want to reach that, that’s a complete transformation of the food system and is vastly different from what we have now,” says Stegman.

To get to a quarter of that vision requires $250 million in financing for local food businesses. “We could never create a $250 million fund,” Stegman explains. “We just have to create a smaller fund and then have banks and other financial institutions join in. We have to lead the way.”

Because investing in just one or two businesses directly can be risky, pooling the money together for a variety of investments helps spread the risk for investors. If one business fails, it won’t necessarily mean losses if the other businesses are doing well and making their loan payments. And since the loans are paid back over several years, it further reduces the risk.

For borrowers the first step is an application through PVGrows. A 10-organization committee reviews it for “mission fit,” explains Rebecca Busansky, PVGrows Fund coordinator. This committee is made up of potential funders and food and farm specialists. Once an organization’s application is deemed appropriate, it moves on to the CDC, which is the loan administrator, for due diligence, the process of vetting for financial soundness.

While PVGrows starts the ball rolling, it may not ultimately loan out the funds. One of the other funders may be better suited due to their expertise. For example, Common Capital is interested in healthy foods, Equity Trust has expertise in land issues and Cooperative Fund of New England provides financing to co-ops in the region.

“That’s the advantage of having everyone at the table,” says Busansky. “It’s so efficient and then you throw in the technical assistance piece that really makes a difference.”

Small investors, big impact

It’s difficult for non-accredited investors—those who have less than $1 million in assets and under $200,000 in income; in other words, most of us—to invest in small businesses.

Typically individuals rely on mutual funds when they want to pool their money and invest in companies. But mutual funds don’t invest in local businesses—defined as one where the producer and consumer are a short distance away from each other. An exemption to the Investment Act of 1940, which governs mutual funds, allows non-accredited investors to participate in local funding if they invest in a nonprofit fund to support small businesses.

Through the PVGrows Fund, community members can invest from $1,000 to $10,000.

Though not federally insured, says Jeffrey Rosen, chief financial officer of the Solidago Foundation and one of the original members of the PVGrows finance working group, the investments have some protection. Solidago and the Lydia B. Stokes Foundations are both contributing to a risk loss pool for the first five years, so that in case of default, the pool should be able to cover losses. Both foundations are also footing the Fund’s administrative costs.

Capital-intensive businesses

The loan fund is not meant to support start-ups, says Busansky. “Our sweet spot tends to be farms and food businesses that have been around for three to five years and are ready to grow to the next level,” she adds.

Businesses like Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley, for instance. Owners Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum found themselves in a typical small business predicament in late 2013. As their sales were growing (they expect an increase of 50% in 2015), their cash outlays were too. They will need to buy $30,000 worth of bottles and pay $15,000 to print labels on them in March. However, the busy holiday selling season for the business’s ciders, vinegars and syrups is in the last few months of the year. What’s more, distributors and retailers can take up to 60 days to pay their bills, creating a significant cash crunch.

“Agriculture is a capital-intensive business,” Jonathan notes.

When the Carrs applied for their loan, they were connected with Common Capital of Holyoke. Before closing on the loan, Common Capital gave them technical assistance, mostly designing spreadsheets that would help them with their cash flow projections.

Their $45,000 loan from Common Capital will help Carr and Blum avoid bank overdrafts and financing through credit cards.

Artisan Beverage Company, the Greenfield purveyors of Ginger Libation and Green River Ambrosia, was also ready to take its business to the next level when members of the cooperative applied for funding last winter. The worker-owned brewery couldn’t produce its beers, meads and kombuchas fast enough in its old 1,200-square foot facility. The company was readying plans for a bigger space, which they moved into last fall, and needed funding to hire a design consultant.

The loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England helped the business take full advantage of its new facility’s 3,000 square feet by stacking fermenters on top of one another. “We doubled our production space, but our actual capacity increased by 300% to 400%,” says Will Savitri, ABC’s president and operations manager.

Before ABC was approved for the loan they got a $6,000 grant for technical assistance to write a new business plan.

“We had written a business plan on our own and it was good, but it was driven in large measure by our values,” Savitri explains. “This business plan has more of a business focus. When we’re looking to raise $1 million, someone is going to want to see that.”

Loans through PVGrows are different, Savitri says. The funders are willing to loan money for things like marketing and sales, activities that carry more risk than lending for equipment as most banks prefer. If a business goes under, equipment can be sold and at least some of the lender’s losses can be recouped. But while riskier as investments, marketing activities are essential for business growth.

“PVGrows is willing to take on a little bit more risk for the values they’re lending for,” Savitri says.

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Growing demand

The timing is right to introduce a fund like this in the Valley, says Doug Wheat, a certified financial planner with Family Wealth Management in Holyoke. His clients are increasingly asking him about more ways to invest in businesses headquartered in their backyard. “Investing locally means knowing where your money is going, like knowing where your food is coming from,” he says. “It’s very satisfying.”

As evidence, he points to the experience of local food businesses that have raised money from the community in recent years. In March 2013 Real Pickles of Greenfield embarked on a financing campaign to buy out its founders, Dan and Addie Rose, and transition to a worker-owned cooperative. The picklers were able to complete the $500,000 campaign within two months with 77 investors.

Similarly, River Valley Market in Northampton launched a $2 million campaign to refinance its start-up loan and raise funds for a remodeling project in March 2014. The member-owned co-op raised $2.4 million from 220 participating member households over a six-month period, says Rochelle Prunty, River Valley’s general manager.

One of those local investors is Paul Lipke of Montague. He participated in both deals and is looking for more ways to help out local food businesses. “If it were possible to be entirely invested [in locally sustainable businesses], then I would do it,” he says.

He likes being able to see the businesses he invests in and have their products on his dinner table. “Part of the pleasure of this is you’re investing in something where you have a real relationship with the person producing your food,” he says.

Lipke says he thinks about risk and reward differently when investing this way than investing for other purposes like retirement. His motivation is community development, not necessarily profit.

Wheat, the financial planner, supports this reasoning. Because small businesses are by their nature riskier than larger ones, investors shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t go as planned.

A pooled approach, such as the PVGrows Fund, certainly helps to minimize the risk, but it’s not foolproof. When the Fund was still in its pilot stage, it experienced one default. For that reason, Wheat recommends investors should only commit money they are willing to part with. “There is risk involved,” he says. But so many rewards, too.

Ilana Polyak is financial writer. Her work has appeared in various national publications including CNBC.com, BusinessWeek and the New York Times. She lives in Northampton with her husband, Jean-Paul Maitinsky, and their sons, Stefan and Kobi.

Tackling the Whole Bird: You CAN Cut Up a Chicken

 By Jennifer Chandler | Butchery photos by Melissa Petersen | Recipe photo by Dominic Perri

You are probably thinking, “Why should I learn how to cut up a chicken when I can buy it that way at the store?”

I have three answers for you.

Number 1: Buying a whole chicken is much cheaper than buying individual parts.

Number 2: Not only are you saving money, but as an added bonus, you can use the carcass and bones to make a delicious chicken stock.

Number 3: Many of the local farmers at our farmers’ markets only sell their beautiful birds whole.

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Prep the Chicken: Rinse off the chicken and pat it dry. Then place the chicken on a clean, flat cutting surface with the breast side up. Having a sharp chef’s knife is essential. A sturdy pair of kitchen shears makes removing the backbone a breeze. But a sharp knife will work if you don’t have shears.

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Remove the Wings: Place the chicken on its side, pull the wing away from the body, and cut through the joint to remove the wing. Repeat with the other wing.

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Remove the Legs: Pull the leg away from the body and slice the skin between the leg and the breast. When you reach the bone, stop cutting. Turn the chicken on its side and then bend back the leg until the thighbone pops out of its socket. Remove the leg by cutting in and around the joint. Repeat with the other leg.

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Separate the Drumstick and Thigh: Place each leg skin-side down. Bend to see where the ball joint between the drumstick and thigh is located. Look for the line of fat. Cut through that line of fat to separate the thigh and drumstick, wiggling the joint as needed to separate it. Repeat with the other leg.

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chicken_1

Remove the Backbone: Place the chicken on the cutting surface with the breast side down. Using kitchen shears, cut through the rib cage on one side of the backbone. Let the fat lines be your guide. Repeat on the other side of the backbone to remove it completely. (Reserve the backbone for chicken stock, if desired.)

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Split the Breasts: Place the breasts skin-side down, exposing the underside of the breastbone. Using the tip of the knife, slice along the breastbone to weaken it. Turn the breasts over and press down along the breastbone to crack it. Now, slice through the meat and the breastbone to separate the two breasts. Cut each breast half in half again, crosswise, if desired.

Recipe for Lemon-roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Recipe for Basic Chicken Broth