Chef Chris Vergara and His Bradley Electric Smoker
On the smoker, and the myriad recipes you can use to cook with it.
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Chef Chris Vergara, owner of Harpers in Dobbs Ferry, and, now, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson, is rumored to have hacked a fridge with a hydrostat and a cheap cigar humidifier in the basement of his first restaurant, Meritage in Scarsdale. Vergara’s goal? He wanted to create a moist, cave-like chamber for curing silken duck ham, pancetta, and guanciale. What can you do with a chef who says things like this: “If you get arrested for making bootleg charcuterie in Westchester, your career is made; you’ll be famous. Every foodie will be busting down your doors trying to get into your restaurant.” This is a chef who doesn’t take kindly to code. (Don’t tell the Health Department.)
Now Vergara has moved onto a Bradley electric smoker. “We’ve been using this particular smoker for about two years. Before that, we were using a series of makeshift smokers, rinky-dink stovetop stuff, or we’d have a smoker out back and I’d have to feed it fuel. I’d be running out to put charcoal into the smoker every 20 minutes. Finally, I just got fed up. I said to my partner, ‘What is this, the Stone Age? I’m tired of stoking this thing like a caveman. I need low maintenance.’” He echoes Ron Popeil, the perennial pitchman for Ronco’s Showtime Rotisserie: “With the smoker that I have now, I just set it and forget it.”
Like most chefs with a new gadget, Vergara threw away the recipe booklet that was included in the box. “We’ve pretty much tried to put everything into the smoker at one time or another. Everything that could conceivably fit onto the racks has gone into the smoker at least once.” Some of it worked, and some did not. “Smoke is a very interesting seasoning.”
“We do a lot of smoked corn and small-volume things. I’m running among three restaurants now, so I don’t have time to wait 14 hours to smoke a whole pork shoulder. But smaller things—smoked corn, smoked trout rillettes, smoked trout pâté, mackerel—are all perfect. We use a lot of smoke in the components of a dish, so our vegetables often have a smoked element.”
Does a smoker work for home cooks? “Definitely. People should get them. They’re perfect for large-batch cooking—parties and large gatherings. It’s a completely low-maintenance way to cook. You stick your pork shoulder in there and 12 to 14 hours later, you’re done.”
In some ways, it’s sacrilege to smoke food at Vergara’s newest venture, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson, which steps into the glittering, mirror-lined jewel box recently vacated by Buffet de la Gare (which had been in that spot since 1980). Saint George will serve French cuisine—which is usually not noted for its use of smokers.
Says Vergara, “My culinary career is coming full circle with Saint George. I worked at La Panetière for five years and I was the only cook in that kitchen who wasn’t French.” Even though there may be some smoked elements on the menu, “Saint George will have an unmistakable French aesthetic. It has the prettiest dining room in Westchester with an original turn-of-the-century bar. The pressed-tin ceiling that we have is also original and it runs right through the kitchen.” He laughs about the excellent condition in which Buffet de la Gare’s owners, Gwendal and Annie Goulet, left his new building. “It was amazing; this is the first time I opened a restaurant without having to replace all the kitchen equipment. The pilot lights on the stoves all still worked.”