The County’s Culinary Champs
8 Kitchen Wizards.
The County’s Culinary Champs
8 Kitchen Wizards
By Maria Bennett
Photography by Iko
I am a good cook. This I can assume judging by the considerable number of friends and family members who show up on my doorstep once a month or so anticipating a decent meal, and who, nine times out of 10, go away looking pretty satisfied. But although I may be a good cook, I am not a great chef.
The word “chef” means one who commands. A chef can be a founder of a dynasty, a ringleader of criminals, a head surgeon, military general, conductor of music or a kitchen master. His or her work—a “chef d’oeuvre”—is called a masterpiece, according to my high school French dictionary. Heavy work, this chefdom, and the chefs presented here all have the, umm, chops to stand out in a culinary crowd.
We’re blessed in Westchester with a multitude of fine chefs and top-notch dining establishments, thanks in part to the great upward migration of talent and discerning (demanding?) foodies from the Big City. So, it sure is tough to crown just a few guys as “best.” Just what makes our eight chefs—Cafe Mezé’s Mark Filippo, La Panetière’s Christophe Philoreau, Xaviar’s, Freelance Cafe, and Restaurant X & Bully Boy’s Bar’s Peter X. Kelly, Purdys Homestead’s Charles Steppe, Crabtree Kittle House’s Greg Gilbert, Sonora’s Rafael Palomino, Iron Horse Grill’s Philip McGrath, and Buffet de la Gare’s Gwenael Goulet—stand out?
First, they all have influenced dining in our area. Take Cafe Mezé’s chef Mark Filippo—he can be credited with bringing sophisticated Mediterranean cooking to the county—with great success. Xaviar’s Peter X. Kelly introduced classical French cuisine with a contemporary twist, delighting gourmands with unusual pairings, such as foie gras with fruit sauce.
Secondly, they work hard, real hard and are always in their kitchens (Are you listening, Monsieur Ducasse?) to make sure that what comes out of the kitchen doors is sublime. This is a particularly daunting task for Kelly, who is the only chef on our list with more than one restaurant (he has three and is poised to open one more in Yonkers by year’s end), but he makes sure to physically be at each every day. (He plays tag team with younger brother Ned, who manages two of the family’s restaurants: Freelance Café, next door to Xaviar’s in Piermont, and Restaurant X in Congers. Busy guys.)
Obsessed? Yes, they are. But, as Martha Stewart’s success proves, that can be a good thing. Kelly has been known to ask his valets to listen in on the conversations of diners as they depart to “find out” what they really thought of their meal. And they are all fanatical about the ingredients they use in their “chefs d’oeuvre.” Although it is possible to find top-notch ingredients here in the county, Charles Steppe of Purdys Homestead buys only organic pork and only from Niman Ranch in Western Pennsylvania. Why? “It’s an awesome product,” he exclaims. “The quality is so consistent and the cuts are easy to work with.” Gwen Goulet of Buffet de la Gare shops at Eastchester Fish Gourmet five mornings a week to personally select the freshest fish for his patrons’ dining pleasure.
But most important, they are all passionate about food. “I love to cook!” declares Steppe. “It releases my inner artist.”
Could we have included more contenders? You bet. But when talking with foodies, restaurant reviewers and chefs in and around the county, these eight names kept coming up—again and again. And if you haven’t sampled their food yet, well, what’s keeping you?
of Cafe Mezé in Hartsdale
Giving a Flair to
A graduate of the hotel and restaurant school at New York City Technical College, Mark Filippo honed his craft first during an apprenticeship in France, before going on to work in the kitchen of Manhattan’s landmark Quilted Giraffe. Then it was on to La Panetière’s, Rye’s beacon of French cuisine, for five years. What he learned at La Panetière he later perfected at Cafe Mezé, creating his own unique blend of Mediterranean fare. Says Filippo: “People told me that we couldn’t take such a risk in the area with this type of new Mediterranean menu. But it has paid off so well for us.”
If nothing else, try his two signature dishes: rare peppered tuna with green beans, warm sliced potatoes and (the secret weapon of this dish) pine nut currant dressing; and the silken, delicate artichoke ravioli, its flavor intensified with shards of Reggiano and a sprinkle of white truffle oil. “I love to reinvent dishes, but my customers tell me I can’t ever take these two off the menu,” says Filippo, a Greenwich resident and a father of two. Just as important it seems, his boss, Bill Livanos, a member of the Livanos family who manage Molyvos and Oceana in New York City and City Limits Diner in White Plains and Stamford, CT, is partial to those dishes as well. “When I first heard about the artichoke ravioli dish, I thought it would be kind of strange,” says Bill. “It’s not your typical dish. I eat it at least twice a month.”
Filippo’s boss is equally happy with his master chef. “I’ve worked with some real terrors in the kitchen in the past,” Bill Livanos confides. “But Mark’s different. I’ve never seen anyone on such an even keel. I’ve never seen anyone with such a passion for food; he changes the menu all the time, because he wants to stay one step ahead of the rest. That’s what makes him so great.”
of La Panetière
Tweaking Traditional French
zooming by la panetiÈre in rye some afternoon, you might catch sight of a cute guy out in the parking lot blowing off some steam, kicking around a soccer ball. That’s probably chef Christophe Philoreau, 32, who’s amassed credentials that would take a lifetime for most chefs to acquire: a Michelin star for his work at Paris’s famed Helene Darroze, stints with the cult-status chefs Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy and Alain Passard at Paris’ Arpege, and two years with star chef Joel Robuchon.
La Panetière’s owner Jacques Loupiac began scouting for a new chef a few years ago. When he met Philoreau, “it was love at first sight,” he says. “He was exactly what I wanted. He’s trained with all the great names of French cuisine, and possesses a solid foundation in the techniques of classic French cooking.” Were there any speed bumps along Philoreau’s swift trip to the top? “Well,” Loupiac muses, “it was difficult for him at first to adjust to local habits and the American palate. So we designed a menu that offered our customers, who have often spent time in Europe, what they like. This is a restaurant that brings back those culinary experiences for them.”
Another thumbs up review comes from Judy Dweck of the Scarsdale Inquirer: “I had the best sweetbreads I ever tasted and a duck that was perfection on a plate when I dined at La Panetière. “What amazed me about Chef Philoreau’s tasting menu was his ability to orchestrate the meal dish by dish, from a light fish plate to a more robust meat, and then a selection of desserts followed by a chocolate plate of the finest quality to top things off.”
It should come as no surprise
that Philoreau’s menu emphasizes traditional French items—country paté and a bright, tangy terrine of Beaufort cheese, artichoke hearts, and poached egg; adventurous halibut crusted with portobello mushrooms, caramelized salsify (a little like white asparagus, it’s a staple in the Continental larder), and mushroom sauce. Noteworthy is his shrimp ravioli with foie gras sauce, a haute version of surf and turf that works beautifully, and tweaks your palate with a mix of delectable crustacean and luxuriant duck liver.
Xaviar’s in Piermont, Freelance Café and Wine Bar,
And Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar
Hottest Culinary Hand North of the City
it’s been a long journey from south yonkers
across the Hudson to Piermont for Peter X. Kelly, one of 12 kids in a big, rambunctious Irish family. But the journey has been a happy trail of successes, starting with Xaviar’s in Garrison in 1983 (it closed at the end of last year), followed by Xaviar’s in Piermont in 1987. He opened Restuarant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers 10 years later, and is scheduled to open Xaviar’s-on-the Hudson in Yonkers at the end of this year. The reviews he’s garnered have heaped superlative upon superlative. The chef has been called “extraordinary” by the New York Times, “impeccable” by The Record in Hackensack, and the “hottest culinary hand north of the city” by WCBS radio. In 1998 he was awarded a “Restaurateur of the Year” honor by Governor George Pataki, who called Kelly’s “masterful” approach to local dining “an exciting new experience.”
Kelly, who looks like a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Jimmy Cagney, became interested in the restaurants early on. “Peter and I used to babysit the little ones in our family when we were young,” recalls his younger brother Ned. “His favorite game was, Let’s Play Restaurant. ‘I’m the chef,’ he’d tell me, ‘and you will be the waiter.’ He had two specialties: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cinnamon toast, which I’d have to recite with my mom’s kitchen towel draped over my arm.” Kelly started working in local restaurants at age 14, and to pick up business skills, he entered Marist College at 18.
It was a job in the front of the house at the Escoffier-influenced Laurent in New York City that made Kelly realize he really should be in the kitchen. He had a “disagreement” with the chef over the correct way to prepare a recipe. The chef lost the argument, left the restaurant, and Kelly cooked the dish—well, really well. Still, he never received “formal” training. Instead of peeling potatoes, dicing fennel and grating cheese at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Kelly chose to learn the art of cooking from Michelin-starred culinary masters. “I learned so much more about food and cooking traveling in France and eating the food of Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Alain Chapel than anybody could ever learn in cooking school,” he says.
He certainly learned a thing or two about whisking, puréeing and braising. Just try his Japanese hamachi tataki with hot curry oil, crispy duck schnitzel with orange braised cabbage, or fingerling gnocchi with black truffle emulsion, chanterelles, and fava beans.
What exactly has he got that makes him score 29s—the highest rating given by Zagat—each year? Maybe it’s the symphonic thing at work here: the layering of radically different flavors in a dish such as Kelly’s signature lobster with Tahitian vanilla and braised fennel (who would have dreamed vanilla and fennel could work so well together?); the timing (one second too long and the lobster turns to rubber); pitch (the licorice hint of the braised fennel); and harmony (warm, smoky vanilla provides the bass note for the silky, briny crustacean that’s soloing on the plate). Clearly, Kelly has come a long way from the days of cinnamon toast.
Why is Peter so successful? “In our family, you learned early on that you had to be quick and you had to handle a crowd,” younger brother Ned answers. “Both give Peter an edge in what he does nowadays.” Nevertheless, Kelly never takes his success for granted—which, of course, may be another reason he is so successful. Says Kelly: “You can’t have just great food, wine, service or ambiance. You have to have a balance of them all.” Judging by the raves he receives and the wait for a reservation at his restaurants, his restaurants all hit that perfect balance.
of Purdys Homestead
From a Tiny Kitchen, Huge Flavor
when you venture into purdys homestead, the charming 1775 inn in North Salem, you’ll usually find a fire blazing in the hearth in every room, as they no doubt did in the Revolutionary War days of settler Joseph Purdy. But Purdy would be mighty surprised at the high-falutin’ cooking going on nowadays in the inn’s tiny kitchen space shared by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Maureen Steppe.
“We decided to take over the inn as a way to create a sophisticated environment in the area where we were living,” Charles says. “We wanted to bring the world of Like Water for Chocolate to North Salem.” They have by most accounts succeeded. Zagat extols “the modern flair of delicious and imaginative New American menu” in the Steppes’ cuisine. The 1987 CIA grads were invited last year to cook for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s “Couples Who Cook” series.
The Texas-born chef, who admits to frequent cravings for El Torito’s Mexican chow up in Brewster, cites his wife, the restaurant’s pastry chef, as muse for much of Purdys success. “She’s truly my better half,” he says, adding, “I’m a lucky guy—I married my pastry chef!”
He started out as a dishwasher in a little barbeque shack in Austin. “I loved the energy I found there and worked my way up to the culinary side.” I’ll say. After graduating from the CIA, Charles and his wife began working with renowned New York City chef Waldy Malouf at the Hudson River Club in 1987 where Malouf’s emphasis on Hudson Valley products made a big impression. “I love Hudson Valley products,” he says. We try to use them in the restuarant as much as possible. The greens—100 plus varieites and baby golden beets and squashes—are the best.”
The husband-and-wife team later followed Malouf to Manhattan’s Beacon Restaurant and Bar. Says Malouf: “Charles was really my right hand in both those spots, as well as at the Rainbow Room, where he worked banquets. And Maureen worked with me at La Crémaillère in Banksville when she was only 17.”
An ideal meal at Purdys Homestead might include the perfectly crusted, fork-tender beef filet drizzled in a red-wine sauce with so much butter it’s downright sinful, or a monster of a pork shank jazzed up with cranberry-glazed cabbage, finished off with the pineapple gingerbread upside down cake with molasses cream.
When asked what makes his former sous-chef special, Malouf says, “Charles adores food. He puts a tremendous amount of love into what he does. He was instrumental in helping me develop the recipes that we’re proud of here at Beacon. My wife and I enjoy visiting Purdys whenever we can. We love Charles’s soups and filet wrapped in bacon, but I think he got the idea for those super roasted oysters from me.”
of Crabtree’s Kittle House
A Fanatic for Freshness
greg gilbert of crabtree’s kittle house in chappaqua
(“one of the most refined and civilized restaurants in the New York metropolitan area,” applauds Gerry Dawes, a former food critic for the Journal News) is inspired by the county’s wealth of regional produce and meats: “I’m a fanatic for freshness, and local purveyors such as Cabbage Hill Farms can provide the quality we look for at Crabtree’s.” He also has a knack with game meats (“Believe it or not, the caribou sold pretty well recently,” he reports).
New to the Westchester area, the 30-year old chef auditioned for his job by creating a tasting plate that sold owner John Crabtree on the spot. Although most of us have already forgotten what we ate for lunch yesterday, Crabtree can’t forget the meal he ate more than four years ago. “The veal with truffles was a sensation,” he recalls, “and the carpaccio of beets with horseradish vinaigrette was perfect for our vegetable lovers. I also fell for his truffled spaetzle, something I’d never eaten before. But what really got me was the black bass with an herb-infused veal demi-glace sauce. The fact that the fish stood up to the sauce, and the sauce enhanced the fish’s natural flavors, was incredible. I knew that Greg would be perfect for Crabtree’s then. His food was made to be paired with the bold wines in our cellar.”
Right after graduating from the CIA in 1992, Gilbert got his start as a sous-chef with famed chef Rick Moonen at The Water Club in Manhattan. After a few hectic years, Gilbert decided, with Moonen’s blessing, that the quiet, understated elegance of Crabtree’s Kittle House would be a good nesting spot.
“Greg is so special because he is 100 percent dedicated to what he does, and has the focus it takes to be the best,” declares Moonen, who now heads the highly touted RM in Manhatttan. “If I told him to straighten out the shelves, he’d not only do that, but spray paint them, too. That dedication is what makes him a success. He also doesn’t ever forget that this is a hospitality industry, and the person who’s paying the bill is the person you are trying to please. Not all chefs can do that. I’m totally behind him in any venture he undertakes.”
“I change the menu six times a year, and revisit what I’m serving constantly, ” Gilbert says. “I give the waitstaff tests on what I’m serving so they can help the customer choose, too. I expect the best from myself and my staff.”
The handsome, single White Plains resident will be cooking at the upcoming Westchester Make-A-Wish foundation dinner May 6, and if you’re ever way up north in New Lebanon, NY, and see a spot called the Shaker Silly Tavern, drop in. It’s his brother’s lounge, and in his spare time, he helps out behind the bar.
of Sonora Restaurant
for bedford resident rafael palomino, chef and owner of Sonora Restaurant in Port Chester and the soon-to-be-opening Pacifico also in Port Chester, the culinary goal is clear: “To let everyone know that Latin cuisine is not just rice and beans.” Dine at Sonora, and that message will ring loud and clear. The food may come as a surprise to diners not aware of the rich culinary heritage of South America. “Latin cuisine is more like the cuisine of Southern France, with lots of rabbit, squab and fresh vegetables,” Palomino says. “They may use tarragon and we use cilantro.” Authentic Latin cuisine is, he notes, glorious, sophisticated and “not just tacos.”
Chef Palomino got his start by wandering into legendary chef Larry Forgione’s River Cafe in Brooklyn when he was 17. He had recently arrived from Bogota, Colombia, didn’t speak much English and needed a job. It was a happy accident. He began by peeling potatoes and onions, learning the kitchen trade as one should—from the bottom up. But wanderlust and curiosity led him to France to work in the kitchen of icon Michel Guerard, father of that light French cuisine, called cuisine minceur, popular in the 70s. “I learned all about French sauces, classic mother sauces. I learned how to prepare foie gras. I learned about herbs and fresh fruit from Guerard’s garden.” Palomino also learned from two other mentors, noted chefs Charlie Palmer and Jonathan Waxman.
For inspiration, he goes to the Latin markets on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens: “I love to check out the different fruits and vegetables and think of new ways to use them in my kitchen.” One standout he’s gussied up his way is grilled Kansas sirloin steak with sweet plantain mofongo and tequila mushroom sauce. The steak is consummately elegant, but he’s sided it with the staple of Caribbean trenchermen, mofongo (a mountain of mashed plantains). Of course, it’s not the usual red wine sauce enveloping the meat, either—it’s a delicious tequila-based concoction that stands up to the meat even better than a wine sauce. There’s a solid French technique behind his distinctive Chilean sea bass in lobster broth, a crowd pleaser at Sonora. The dish’s kick comes, however, from the addition of spicy Colombian chorizo, a Nuevo Latin touch.
If you crave some ajiaco (chicken stew) or ceviche, but, gosh darnit! are homebound, you could try to recreate Palomino’s artistry yourself. Pick up one of his cookbooks, Bistro Latino or Viva La Vida; a third book, on salsa, is in the works. In addition to running restaurants and authoring books, the curly-haired chef does demos on the NBC Morning Show and chairs the Spanish Chefs of America organization, which gives scholarships to Hispanics learning the culinary arts. “In the kitchen, it’s all about focusing your energy,” he says.
of Iron Horse Grill
sure, he could hire someone to man the phones at his restaurant, Iron Horse Grill in Pleasantville, but chef Philip McGrath chooses not to. “The interaction between myself and my staff with customers is probably one of the most important things we do,” McGrath declares. “I want to take care of people and let them know they’re important.”
First in his class at the CIA, McGrath did stints in New York City at Tavern on the Green, Sign of the Dove and La Côte Basque before bringing his culinary skills to Westchester, first at the Castle at Tarrytown, where his culinary talents almost immediately were noticed, and today at the elegant Iron Horse Grill in Pleasantville—his first and thus far only venture into restaurant ownership. “I’m not sure that culinary school alone prepares you for the demands of running your own place,” confides the Pleasantville resident. “One of the tougest parts of what we do is trying to live up to our customers’ expectations.”
When Iron Horse Grill opened five years ago (it’s called that because the restaurant is housed in Pleasantville’s old train station), the restaurant received ratings of “excellent” from The New York Times and The Journal News. For the 46-year-old athletic Celt, class of 1974 at the Bronx’s Spellman High School, the reputation is well deserved.
Among his fans: Westchester local Janet Maslin, book critic for The New York Times. “I love Iron Horse Grill,” Maslin says, “and whenever anybody comes up from New York City to visit, it’s the place I take them to eat. I’ve dined there with Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and I recently brought along Martin Scorsese.”
“The food and the atmosphere are terrific,” she continues. “We had my mother’s birthday party there last week, and the entire family was delighted. My favorite dish is the sole, and I really appreciate Phil’s friendly, savvy approach to what he does.”
McGrath was saucier for Jean Jacques Rachou, the venerated chef/owner at La Côte Basque. “Phil worked incredibly hard here,” Rachou remembers, “and he got his basis in the classic techniques of French cuisine right at my stove. He was espcially adept in preparing French sauces.” Proving Rachou’s point today is McGrath’s sautéeed fois gras, sided with an apple and chestnut compote that’s given a zing by the addition of a traditional French gastrique (a light, acid-based sauce made with apple cider), which complements the buttery fois gras exquisetly.
Where does he get his inspiration for what some have called a “melting pot cuisine”? “When my wife and I lived in Brooklyn, we’d stroll past the Arab stores on Atlantic Avenue, and the smell of spices would always draw us in,” he says. “We fell in love with the zatar, a mix of cumin, oregano, pepper, and other herbs, and eventually it made its way onto one of our biggest sellers, the Zatar swordfish.” His popular curried carrot bisque layers the flavors of smoky curry and bright carrot with honey, raisin, and goat cheese topping.
McGrath says, “I try to accommodate everyone. If someone wants me to butterfly a filet mignon, I’ll do it. If they want to share a dish, no problem. In the almost five years I’ve been here, the only legitimate complaint I’ve had was from a couple who were not properly advised of the two seating times. They arrived late for the first seating and then felt their meal was rushed. They wrote me a letter stating their discontent, we invited them back for another meal free of charge and now they are two of the restaurant’s best customers.”
The only complaints I’ve heard deal with the fact that it’s so difficult to snag a reservation at the charming 60-seat eatery—but keep trying, guys. McGrath wants to accomodate you, and if there’s any way he can fit you in, he will. But pay attention to where you park. He heads up the parking comission.
of Buffet de la Gare
The King of Simplicity
who’s the inspiration behind many of these
Top Toques? Hastings resident Gwenael Goulet, the fiftyish chef and owner of the renowned Buffet de la Gare in Hastings. “He’s absolutely the best!” Xaviar’s Peter Kelly enthuses. Cafe Mezé’s Mark Filippo seconds that emotion. “I really like his style of food. Anytime I’ve ever eaten in his restaurant, I’m impressed.” (Both have worked with him, and new chefs constantly make pilgrimages to Goulet’s kitchen for inspiration, advice and a good meal.)
With $2,000 in their pockets, Goulet and his wife Annie, who keeps the homey eatery humming, came to New York 22 years ago at the behest of Maxime Ribera of Chappaqua’s Bistro Maxime, then the only French restaurant in Westchester. With dedication and a solid knowledge of the ins and outs of restaurant ownership from his days in Paris as a maitre d’, Goulet arrived stateside with the dream of opening a small spot where he could introduce the best of French country cooking to an increasingly sophisticated American audience.
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