East Coast natives have a fairly skewed perception of the Midwest, one that is filled almost entirely with tumbleweeds and acres of farmland. While the former may represent reality, it doesn’t always parallel the overall community-oriented impression of the Midwest. Most of that farmland is owned by corporations, not families, and their operations are anything but locally focused.
Chef Matt Molloy can speak from experience: Originally from St. Louis, he knows first-hand the intersection of corporations and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Molloy even attended classes in the Monsanto building; an academic center funded by the infamous company for which many of his classmates within the School of Agriculture went to work after graduation. At first, he was to study business, but after waiting tables at an Italian restaurant and eventually learning his way around its kitchen, Molloy decided to pursue his culinary passion and legacy.
Molloy eventually settled in New England, where he was first exposed to the concept of farm-to-table as Chef de Cuisine at Boston suburban restaurant Lumière, where he received a proper education on sourcing locally from chef/owner Michel Leviton, a longtime advocate of the movement. Roughly six months ago, Molloy made his way to Beacon Hill Bistro to fill the position of Executive Chef*, bringing with him seven years of established relationships with local farmers and farm-to-table principles.
Molloy calls late winter “a tough time in New England,” but also credits “letting the seasons dictate” with forcing an especially high level of creativity in dish preparation. Specials will change according to what is locally provided on any given day. For example, a fresh half-pig brought in one morning generated a “Round the Bend” pork loin special that night, complimented by such seasonal produce as pickled radish, green apples and sauerkraut made with cabbage from Siena Farm of Sudbury, MA.
“We try to make the most out of [what ’s available]," Molloy said, “within certain cost constraints. I like it when we can make use of a whole animal. You can make a decent amount of money.”
Luckily, a New England location also permits bountiful amounts of seafood, both wild and farm-raised. Though Molloy sees farm-raised salmon, for example, as “not ideal,” he is sure to see that it’s either organically farmed or wild-caught when in season. At present, the fresh/wild fish selection includes Gloucester, MA cod, currently found on the menu in the form of both a delectable, savory croquette, as well as a slightly less spectacular fillet, but supported by a superb, seasonal ragout of “yellow eye” beans, swiss chard and roasted tomatoes (Molloy cites roasting tomatoes as a method of “coaxing” flavor from the vegetable outside of peak season). Among Molloy’s favorite things to prepare are Stonington, ME scallops, served with a fall/winter butternut squash, duck confit, caramelized onions and finished with a cranberry port vinaigrette.
Though Molloy uses organic ingredients as often as possible, he stresses the importance of looking beyond the label. Some farms “might not necessarily be certified organic,” he explained, due to USDA certification processes and costs, “but they’re using organic practices. It’s just a respect for traditions of agriculture, which are deeply-rooted here.”
As well as traditions, Molloy also emphasizes supporting a local economy: “I’d rather buy local than organic,” he said. “You’re supporting a local farmer, a local community, and you’re minimizing fossil fuels as far as transport."
“It tastes better,” he added. “You’re closer to where it’s sourced.”
As for the trade itself, Molloy finds encouragement and motivation from the farmers with whom he collaborates, noting an unexpected contrast between St. Louis and New England agriculture. “I was expecting [Boston to be] more urban, less focused,” he said. “But the farmers really take pride in what they do. Seeing the care that they put into their ingredients inspires you to put equal care into it.”
Beacon Hill Bistro is located within the Beacon Hill Hotel on Boston’s historic Charles Street. For hours, directions and additional information, visit http://www.beaconhillhotel.com/bistro.
*As this article went to press, Chef Matt Malloy left the Beacon Hill Bistro to serve as the opening chef for a Cambridge, MA restaurant. The Bistro’s Executive Chef position has since been filled by Richmond Edes.
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image: adie reed