Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Chef Eric Haugen at Seasons, the Ocean House Hotel, Watch Hill, Road Island talks about his farm-to-table menu

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Ocean House was one of half a dozen luxury hotels built in the resort community of Watch Hill, R.I..
The hotel sits commandingly on a bluff overlooking the waters of Block Island Sound, with the northern tip of Long Island only a few miles away.

In time, the hotels fell into disrepair and were lost to the ravages of fire, weather, and residential development.  Declared unsafe, the Ocean House was slated to disappear along with her sisters.

In 2005 the hotel was rescued from demolition with a commitment to restore the property by dismantling the structure, piece by piece, and reconditioning storm battered wood and eroded stone. Reopened in 2010, the interior rooms were modernized, with the lobby and dining areas redesigned to take advantage of the sweeping views of the water and private beach below the bluff.
The room with the best view is Seasons, the main restaurant, with windows running along the ocean facing side of the hotel. Serving a full hotel menu, the focus of the restaurant is on the seasonal products of farms and ranches within a hundred and fifty miles of the property.
The kitchen excels at home made soups, farm fresh salads, seafood from local waters and upscale riffs on classics like lobster rolls and lobster mac n' cheese. With artful plating, the dishes playfully engage the eye as well as the palate.

Early reviews were critical of Seasons' quality and cost. Some of that criticism seems due to the fact that for generations the hotel was a favorite hangout of locals looking for an inexpensive place to enjoy the cool sea breezes on sultry days. Dressing casually in t-shirts, swimsuits and flip flops, drinking at the outdoor bar and lounging on the beach--that was Watch Hill's experience with the old Ocean House.

The new, luxury Ocean House is very different.

Guests entering the restaurant discover Seasons’ modern, high-tech, open kitchen with a counter-top chef’s table to their left and the elegant horseshoe bar and library-style lounge on the right.

Chef du cuisine, Eric Haugen, is the steady hand behind the kitchen with an ambitious agenda.

By his own admission, chef Haugen is a cook’s cook.  As he said with a big smile, “I spend 95% of my time with a knife in my hand.”

He took time from his busy schedule to talk with me.

A hotel restaurant is very demanding, since you have to provide service breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tell us what a day is like for you.

During the winter, I work six days a week and seven days a week during high season when I start every day at eight am. The constant drive is, I want to give the hotel guest here for three days, something new each day. We change the menu in some way every day. Sometimes one dish, sometimes up to six. Tonight there are four new dishes. At the end of every dinner service, I talk with the staff and ask, “What worked, what didn’t? What products are available?"

That puts a lot of demands on your kitchen. You told me that you apprenticed at The French Laundry after graduating from Johnson & Wales culinary school. How did that experience color your view of being a chef?

Buying good products and executing them well, that’s what I learned from working with Thomas Keller. He is incredibly demanding. What makes that place so special is Thomas will go to the end of the earth to find the best vessel to serve sake in. That’s what separates him from the rest, the extent to which he’ll go to find the best ingredient.

His guiding rule is don’t make the technique too complicated. Start with a protein, then develop the sauce with an eye to the balance of flavors. For instance, last night the grilled sea scallops were paired with sweet-bitter endive with a sauce that had acid, to balance the richness of the scallop. In another dish the crab needed mustard so it wouldn’t fall flat because acid heightens flavor.
We make traditional dishes better. We make the best lobster roll with the best sourced ingredients and finely cut the celery.

We’ll buy a lot of whole animals. We use the pork leg, braise it for twelve hours using old Chinese techniques to make dumplings by hand with pickled green garlic and chives. Not bao but dumplings. We serve the dumplings in broth. The result is a contemporary feel.

How would you describe your cuisine?

A product and produce driven cuisine. Contemporary European, modern American, which can be very global.

But we’re a hotel restaurant. A family stays at the hotel. Seasons happens to be the restaurant and we try to accommodate everyone. Which means we might have to use produce that isn’t sourced from nearby farms because the guest expects it. Like tomatoes when it is out of season here. That’s the difference between having a hotel restaurant instead of a free standing restaurant.

We do find that so many more people are open to ideas and take risks when they order. People watch the Food Network and they learn the difference between dry and fresh pasta. They watch a whole suckling pig being prepared on the Iron Chef. The social media world helps the industry so people want to try terrines of foie gras and sweetbreads and a lot of people now want to be chefs.

We’re really in a lucky time for cooking.

What place in your region inspires you most?

We have a little plot of land a mile down the road, even a bee hive. Going over to the farm with the chefs is inspiring. The herb garden on the property is only 375 square feet but we have thirty five varieties of herbs with six different kinds of basil and mint and shiso as well as the usual herbs.

Nothing is better than in the summer to go down to the herb garden and pick herbs for the tomato salads.

Tell us about the local markets, where to visit for the best produce, fish, and meat.

The Market Mobile program has really changed restaurant food in Rhode Island.

You can see all the different farms in the state and what they have to sell. I set my alarum to get up at midnight on Sunday so I get my order in early. Market Mobile delivers on Thursday.

80% of what Market Mobile covers is from Rhode Island. The rest comes from Connecticut and Massachusetts.

I have to get on the site quickly because shoulders of pork and beef go first, then the early season radishes and baby vegetables and greens.

If I don’t know the farm, I’ll order a small amount to try it out.

The best farms for me are North Star Farms. I like their wild arugula. Schartner Frams has baby radishes, young Swiss chard the size of a finger nail, tiny products that are salad grade that are earthy and sweet. Patrick McNiff’s Pat’s Pastured for poulet rouge [French chickens], eggs I call “Americana eggs,” they’re so large with beautiful bright orange yolks, and Berkshire pigs. Hopkins Farm for spring lamb.

For tonight’s menu I’m using heirloom shelling beans from Maine that are beautifully dried beans. Because Rhode Island is a Portuguese area, why not use beans? I use them for soup and a bean salad with escarole.

Is there good street food in Rhode Island?

Not really, because of zoning laws and insurance costs. There is only really the Chez Pascal hot dog cart, Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile.

When I lived in San Francisco, there was a crepe trailer that had benches that was open until three am on weekends. For eight dollars, after work I’d get three crepes—sweet and savory ones—it was great.

But you know about street food and food trucks, just because it’s in the street there’s a feeling that it’s authentic. That’s not always true.

Do you enjoy being a chef in Rhode Island?

During high season we have five restaurants with Seasons, the Member Hotel Club Room, the Veranda, Seaside Terrace and the Hut on the beach. I had to handle all that but we have a new executive chef. Mark Mellinger will handle the administrative duties I was doing so I can focus on Season’s menu and sourcing products.

I like that the hotel has a farm and is committed to farm-to-table. There is a great community of chefs here. I went to school with other chefs in Rhode Island like Derick Wagner of Nick’s on Broadway and Matt Jennings who makes his own charcuterie for Farmstead and La Laiterie. I understood what the demographics were like in Rhode Island, what the clientele expected, what the state provided in terms of resources.

As a chef, what influences you?

I read a lot. If there’s a new cookbook, I’ll buy it. I’m really into the science of cooking. I’ve read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking several times. And I follow www.ideasinfood.com by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.

Grant Achatz’s biography is awe inspiring. Going through the surgery. The irony of the disease. His approach to cooking is so out of the box. He wouldn’t give up his tongue and taste buds when he was told the only way to survive the cancer was to do that. Instead he found a doctor who thought outside the box like he does, who used radiation and now his cancer is completely gone.

My cooks are the biggest reason I enjoy doing this. They’re young. We’ve developed students into 5 star level. It’s a lot to ask of a chef and themselves. Working with them every day brings a lot of pleasure to me.

[One of his young chefs] Colin came to me. He had only worked at burger places and he said he would do anything. Now he’s worked through every station in the kitchen.
I feel like I’ve accomplished my job if I’ve trained other chefs. Your aim and your legacy is to train other chefs.  Just look at the cooks who have come from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse.

This should be why you cook, to develop talent.

We have an understanding in the kitchen. We work really hard to push ourselves. At the end of the day, we clean, we go out, and, I’m not ashamed to say, I go out with my crew and crack a beer. I want them to be appreciated because being a line cook is hard.

I’m only 25. Only a couple of years ago I was there.

Chef Haugen shares two easy-to-make recipes: a Portuguese style dried bean soup and a Meyer lemon-vinaigrette.

Shelling Beans Soup

Serves: 4

Time: overnight soaking and an hour and a half

1 lb, heirloom-shelling beans (or another dried bean of choice), soaked overnight
4 oz, carrots, peeled and diced
2 oz, Spanish onion, peeled and diced
2 oz, leeks, white part only, washed and diced
4 oz, extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves, garlic, sliced thin
1 teaspoon, thyme leaves, picked
Kosher salt
Cracked black pepper
Sherry vinegar

1. In a large pot, combine the garlic, carrots, Spanish onion, leeks, and olive oil and sweat the vegetables over low heat until they are soft.  Add the beans that were soaked overnight and three times the amount of water to the pot.  Season with salt and fresh cracked pepper.  Add the thyme leaves and cook the beans until they are very soft, about an hour.

2. Puree the mixture in a blender and pass through a fine mesh sieve.  Season to taste with additional salt and pepper and a few splashes of sherry vinegar to balance the richness of the soup.  The soup should not taste acidic, but rather balanced.  Serve hot.


Meyer Lemon vinaigrette


Use the greens of your choice. In Seasons, field greens, thin slices of green apples, and macarona almonds are used together to accent the flavors of the vinaigrette.

Serves: 4

Time: 5 minutes

¼ cup, juice of 2 Meyer lemons, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons, champagne vinegar
3 oz, extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Cracked pepper

1.  These are the ingredients that we use to dress our greens.  We make this vinaigrette to order in the bowl with the greens.  We operate this with a proportion of fresh squeezed juice, vinegar, olive oil, and seasoning.  

2. The greens should taste bright but have enough oil to create a pleasurable mouth feel.  This process forces the person who is making the salad to taste the dressing, as every lemon is different and the salad will taste more fresh in the end.