I’m in the kitchen at Ocean House. It’s swarming with busy chefs prepping fruit and potatoes, grilling pounds of chicken, taking orders and rushing off to hungry guests. I’ve spent the morning with their Food Forager, Chef Paul McComiskey, traveling from farm to farm, dock to dock, farmer’s market to farmer’s market searching for the best oysters, shallot blossoms, radishes, tomatoes, gooseberries and anything else in season. What he finds ends up on the expertly crafted dishes at Ocean House after discussing how to use each component with the many other chefs on staff.
The discussion goes a little something like this: “Here’s some micro greens I found,” says Paul; “these gooseberries are perfect,” remarks another chef; “these carrots are so sweet,” mentions a sous chef that quickly grabs a spring carrot, takes a bite and hurries away. It’s absolute chaos. Like bees to a freshly opened flower, these chefs couldn’t be happier or more interested in the bounty Chef Paul has brought to them. It’s part of their weekly routine where Paul returns after a morning of sourcing local produce and has an impromtu – and delicious – meeting to discuss how each ingredient will be used in their seasonal menus. From the last of the seasonal raspberries to the crisp radishes, every chef is taking bites, smiling, discussing and planning. It’s poetry in motion.
Down on the Farm(er’s Market)
It’s around 11am in the morning when I meet up with Paul at the South Kingstown Farmer’s Market. It’s the longest running farmer’s market in Rhode Island, established in 1982. I’m a little early, so I take in my surroundings. Live music, happy dogs and the smell of fresh herbs and baked goods envelop my senses. I stick out like a sore thumb, taking photos and notes, so it wasn’t hard for Paul to find me. We meet and head over to S&P Gardiner Farm where he talks to one of the owners. They’ve clearly been working together for years. He picks up a few cases of “the best tomatoes around,” along with other peak-of-the-season produce, including the last of S&P’s strawberries, picked specially for Paul.
He’s taken the time to build relationships with most of the vendors, and it’s apparent when we head over to the Matunuck Oyster Bar stand and he starts talking about patty pan squash with the vendor. They’re just coming into season, and Paul was explaining how he would roast the squash as part of a vegetable dish or even use it as a garnish. He orders ten pounds for the following week and picks up some parsley and pea shoots Matunuck has available. “I love buying from [Matunuck Oyster Bar] because they’re such a success story. They started as an oyster farm [and branched into] a restaurant, then to a vegetable garden,” he says.
The RI Mushroom Company was the next stop. He speaks with Jim Smith, who also forages for Paul from time to time. Although trout lilies and violets are out of season (two wild edibles Paul was looking for), Jim offers to search for some other mushrooms the next time he’s out.
New England Grass Fed is next on the stroll, and we speak with owner Pat Beck. “Paul and I have known each other four years or so since he was cooking at [Ocean House’s sister restaurant] Weekapaug Inn,” says Pat. “It’s a small enough community where you sort of collect people and know who’s going to like what, and you build relationships together.” Pat raises 100% grass fed cattle (which graze in Little Compton and Matunuck), silver fox rabbits and red wattle pigs, and offers non-traditional cuts to chefs like Paul. “Pat’s the perfect guy to call up at the last minute when you need something, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to find at the other farms or be able to order from the regular producers,” Paul explains. “So he’s a great resource. I’ll call him up and ask if he’s got a pig’s head. He’ll say yeah, I’ll be there in an hour.”
Produce On Demand
After the South Kingstown Farmer’s Market, we take a drive through bucolic back roads to Exeter’s Our Kid’s Farm. This greenhouse farm sits on five acres and offers annuals, perennials, vegetables and more. What struck me during this particular stop was how in tune owner Gina Thurn was with Chef Paul’s and other restaurants’ produce needs. With enough notice, she can take vegetable orders and have a product ready for consumption. It reminded me of build-to-suit in realty, except grow-to-eat for food events. “Things like radishes, arugula, mixed greens and kale, romaine, that stuff, if there’s a big event coming up and you can give me three weeks notice, I can have a good volume for you,” says Gina, describing how long it takes for certain veggies to grow. “I seed every week, so I tend to seed when I know what I approximately need for farmer’s markets and a couple of other restaurants that I’m already supplying. But if you can give me notice, I can seed no problem.”
The Perfect Oyster
It was time to head back to Ocean House to share the spoils of our morning with the other chefs. On our way we made a quick stop along Shore Road in Westerly to check out the Watch Hill Oysters stand. Paul picks up around 400-600 oysters every week. “You always get the perfect oyster,” he explains. “Winnapaug Pond is absolutely fantastic for growing oysters. It’s tidal and there’s only one section where the ocean water can come in. Then underneath [the pond] are natural aquifers that come from ancient glaciers up in the north, pass underground and pass through Westerly Granite before it gets into the pond. So it’s naturally filtered by the granite, which makes this pond pretty clear.” In addition to the Watch Hill Oysters, Paul sources 400-600 Venus Oysters and 1,000 from Matunuck Oyster Farm for use between the Ocean House, Weekapaug Inn and sister property Spicer Mansion.
Back in the Kitchen
It’s hard to keep track of where all the produce goes once the chefs get their skilled hands on it. Between mouthfuls of radishes I learn that Paul put in an order to Our Kid’s Farm for a tray of radishes. In three weeks he’ll pick it up for use in Ocean House’s Seasons’ kitchen. The tomatoes Paul picked up from S&P Gardiner Farm are split between Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn. The Inn will use it for their pomodoro sauce, while Ocean House will use it on Seasons’ Vegetable Composition plate accompanied by cheese, other veggies and a ramp tortellini. The oysters from Venus Oysters and Matunuck Oyster Farm will be shucked to order at The Verandah at Ocean House.
It’s one thing to know that what you’re eating, especially at Ocean House, came from a local farm. It’s quite another to go to the farm, pick up produce, bring it back to the kitchen and watch as it’s prepped to go on someone’s plate. It’s given this writer, and hopefully you, dear reader, a new appreciation for all the work that goes into making the perfect dish.
1 Bluff Avenue, Watch Hill