From farm to kitchen: The narrative of a chef

Tonight’s menu at Greylock Dining Hall goes beyond the average fare. Consisting of spaghetti Bolognese with pork and lamb and salted cod fritter with choux pastry batter, these recipes are adopted from Chef Joe Nastro of the upscale restaurant Allium.

In the final days of last semester, I took an hour-and-a-half ride down to Great Barrington to visit Nastro at Allium. Dining Services’ Executive Chef Mark Thompson drove, along with Molly O’Brien, manager of Greylock Dining Hall. When we arrived, Nastro and Thompson began talking about food, eating locally, supporting the environment, food economy and various other “food-talk.”

From their conversation, it was clear that it takes a chef to recognize a chef. It is not the oven-baked face, or even the telltale scars by which they know one another; it is instinct. And as the two continued talking, I realized that there is much more to chefs than their ability to prepare delicious cuisine.

Chef Nastro graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in animal science, and after spending six years managing farms, he decided to enter the other tier of the food chain. For him, cooking started at the early age of six when he took a simple cooking class, and 26 years later he found himself back to the culinary classroom. Nastro sees cooking as something really simple and methodical. There is a recipe, follow it, do it enough times and you get an idea, a feel for the ingredients, and thereafter, creation follows. Art is born of craft, and craftsmanship is a matter of dedication and perseverance.

After graduating from the New England Culinary Institute, Nastro went on to work at a top restaurant in Maine that focused on quality ingredients and integrity in food preparation as well as service. With about six years of kitchen experience, and after attaining the position of sous-chef, Nastro left Maine and joined Allium as the executive chef.

Chef Thompson knew at a very young age that he wanted to master the craft of cuisine. “I’d have to say my interest in cooking came from my grandma,” he said. “My mom couldn’t cook to save herself, but my grandma was amazing. She made these chicken pot pies that were just really, really good.” He received his culinary arts degree from the Assabet Valley Regional Technical School in Marlborough, Mass., and worked most recently at Emerson College before coming to Williams.

During Nastro and Thompson’s conversation, each talked about how they try to help out farmers. Last year was a good year for the fruit, they said, but some farmers wanted to throw away the excess because they did not have the facilities to deal with them, such as kitchens that are big enough to produce homemade canned tomato products. Through local organizations like Berkshire Grown, many participating restaurants, including Allium, took up the task of making canned tomatoes, in the form of tomato sauce, simple puree, and the like. In this way, even in early winter, the spaghetti Bolognese I had while the chefs were chatting came from the Berkshire region.

The spaghetti Bolognese was incredible. The pasta itself had the suppleness of overcooked pasta, the chewy-ness of undercooked pasta, but without the horrible “dried-cakey” grit. But texture aside, fresh pasta actually tastes like pasta should, with the pleasant scent of egg, semolina flour and olive oil – its principle ingredients. Furthermore, with a complementary level of acidity provided by the tomato-based sauce that was seasoned to perfection, each ingredient on the plate pronounced its own flavor on my tongue as it made its way down towards my tummy. But the best thing was Nastro’s choice to replace the traditional protein of the dish. Say goodbye to beef and hello to lamb and pork. Ground lamb and pork do not have that aftertaste that ground beef leaves in the sauce. Think the taste of the juice, and the juice only, of a just-off-the-grill burger patty – the unpleasant mix of blood and fat must be complemented by actual protein, and while that juice might work in a burger, it clouds the taste of a subtle sauce.

“Fooding” is getting more and more à la mode these days with the numerous celebrity chefs and TV programs. But aside from the glitz and glamour onscreen, one cannot deny that the passion of these men and women who slog behind hot furnaces and toy with sharp implements has gradually permeated our consciousness, and it is changing our view towards food. Like Nastro says, public perception is gradually shifting away from seeing a kitchen livelihood as blue collar, or a “trade.” More and more, people are recognizing that there are genuinely intelligent people running the kitchens who not only care about food, but who are also willing to put up the hours, soak up the heat and dish out the dish for us.

But enough talk, at least for now. Let your mouth do the eating at Greylock tonight with the menu concocted by Nastro. Or maybe, if you would, let the food do the talking.