The Fish and Game restaurant sits proudly in the centre of Hudson, just over two hours drive from New York City. Housed inside a wonderful stone farmhouse, it’s owned and operated by the eclectic chef crew of Kevin Pomplun, Zakary Pelaccio and Jori Jayne Emde - all three of them sharing a wide range of experience, a love for cuisine, and a shared urge to leave the crazy crank of New York in search for more tranquil times.
“Hudson Valley regional cuisine focused on local seasonal products”, is how they first define the cuisine, but a quick look at the menu and a few minutes of conversation with Pelaccio and Pomplun and you quickly realise it’s a bit more complex than cooking with local products.
Ok, they do focus a lot on sourcing locally, I mean a lot - they started when they first opened the restaurants in 2011 with a shortlist of 265 different farms. This has now been whittled down to six they work with on a regular basis. “It’s crazy to think that when we started we were looking at around 25 different dairy farms,” says Pomplun.
“I guess it’s the true American version of what is properly considered Italian cuisine, explains Pelaccio. “Cooking with what is around us - that’s what Italian food is, right? We use that Philosophy but through very unique filters. Kevin has a lot more French training, I have a lot of Asian training, Jori has got a variety of training and she produces the larder for the restaurant: the kimchi, pickles and reserves.”
This democratic mixing of skills, ideas and approaches makes for some interesting ideas on the menu. Ingredients, techniques, styles and tastes from all over the world often mix right there on your tongue. Their kimchi hollandaise best exemplifies this, slathered on top of oysters it’s a bit of French, Korean and Hudson rolled into one. And it’s delicious, the briny oysters perfectly offset with a sharp kick of kimchi hollandaise.
They make their own XO sauce using homemade prosciutto, Italian technique meeting Asian flavours. This is then peppered on top of juicy Maine scallops, and, as with all of their dishes, the backbone of local is formed. It’s a global facing gastronomy, a style of cooking we’re seeing more and more as young chefs open their ideal restaurants. For Pelaccio, however, it’s distinctly American, “I actually think that it’s the best idea of America, that there is no box to put it in, it goes in the miscellaneous bin because everyone is from everywhere here.” And for Pomplun? “It’s a conglomerate of techniques that are all used to maximise Hudson Valley ingredients.”
However you look at it, it’s an open, democratic menu, a theme that also extends to the kitchen. There is a noticeable breakaway from the idea of one main head chef within the restaurant, you could argue that’s because a group of people started the business together, but throughout the interview with Pelaccio and Pomplun sits Tony Scotto, one of their most trusted chefs and someone they happily introduce as the one in charge of day-to-day operation of the kitchen. That might not seem like much, but I can say in five years of interviewing chefs, I’ve never had one bring a junior chef into a planned interview and laud them with so much credit.
Zakary Pelaccio, Kevin Pomplun, Tony Scotto
The idea of flattening the structure of the kitchen is something important to the culture of the restaurant. “We sit down and we have discussions about everything, it’s less hierarchy and more that we all fit into complementary roles, ideas for a menu will come from one person, another might discuss the merits of the technique involved, and then another person will understand whether or not it can be made into a dish that will actually run everyday on the menu.”
Pomplun explains that it was definitely an intentional approach to setting up the kitchen from the start, as was offering two days holiday a week - another growing trend we’re seeing as restaurants look to attract the best chefs. For Pomplin, it was about reflecting on his past and changing the way he went forward. “I mean what we grew up with in the trade, a chef would taste the food and if he didn’t like it maybe spit it back in your face and that was the nature of the beast. I think abuse breeds abuse and I think that’s why there was always such a hierarchy in the past, the chef was the guy who created everything while everyone else just did it, I mean, everyone else was just so beat down to have the emotional stability to be creative. That was just how people were treated, moving up here was part of a big shift to try and change that aspect of my life and not breed that culture.”
For someone like Scotto, a young chef with aspirations and a want to be creative, a more flattened hierarchy is a bonus and something he says attracts him to seek and stay in a job. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air when we can all share ideas, pull from different backgrounds, we’re not set on one thing, we all talk about what’s around - what’s growing, what’s not growing, what’s preserved, what tastes awesome. We don’t have to fit into a mould…It helps when you get to see your ideas through all the way to finish.”
And far from being altruistic, Pomplun and Pelaccio say that opening up their kitchen in this way allows them to push forward much faster. “The idea is that we have transferred the power in many respects to Tony. We have a dynamic partnership here, we’re interesting in a lot of things, his strength and level headiness allows us to entertain more things to do and expand on different ideas. Connect to products, meet farmers, focus on how the restaurant operates,” says Pelaccio.
It’s a seemingly relaxed and open way of working and one that is loved by staff, a more sustainable human model that will eventually become the norm as younger chefs with different ideals step from kitchen to ownership. For Pomplun, it’s pretty simple really, “we have fish sauce that takes sometimes three years to make, prosciutto is also usually about three years, you have to be mellow, enjoy the process, understand that this is a lifestyle not a job.”