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As you walk into Brooklyn’s Colonie restaurant, you’re welcomed into a serene space accented with exposed brick, reclaimed barn wood and a green wall practically exploding with live greens. It’s a serene space totally removed from the chaos of Atlantic Avenue.
The menu at this “farm-to-table” restaurant is determined by what farmers have to offer. Chef Andrew Whitcomb, who has been in charge of Colonie’s kitchen for the past year, spends his days in the kitchen experimenting with techniques to use every part of the produce.
“The green wall is one of the things that drew me here,” he says. “I walked in and it immediately made me feel a different atmosphere. It’s a divergent energy. You get the idea of what is natural and living and pure and organic, and that’s our signature here.”
Colonie was the first place Whitcomb offered his talents in New York; after interviewing at Michelin star restaurants, he knew that he really wanted to root himself at Colonie.
“The atmosphere is unlike anything I’ve encountered,” he says. “The culture is different. All sides of the house get together: front of the house will pick herbs and greens and seeds and back of house will serve.”
Everything served at Colonie is local, sustainable or organic. Even the bar is stocked with local booze!
“We will always go the local route before we import,” Whitcomb affirms.
There are no white tablecloths on Colonie’s tables, and no air of pretentiousness — just truly excellent food.
The key to the restaurant’s success: relationships with farmers.
Whitcomb frequently takes his staff on trips to farms to help them connect with the food in its purest element. “I had staff who had never seen a live cow before, never seen the way a pig is. It’s really important for us to really know, start to finish, and have a great respect for the food,” he says.
At Mother Nature’s mercy
Though humane meat is key to Colonie, their menu focuses mostly on vegetables. “We won’t just serve a kale, we’ll have five varieties of kale that have different textures, flavors and tastes,” says the chef. “It can be really frustrating. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and something can go askew. I’m lucky that I’m a patient person so I usually have three or four modes of action behind my plan A, but it’s important to understand that nature is ruling the world. There’s no point in getting upset if something doesn’t go right; I can’t blame the farmer if there isn’t rain for a week.”
Chefs know they can’t expect every vegetable to grow perfectly, and imperfect produce provides character. Imperfect carrots, for instance, may end up in a purée.
Each day Whitcomb talks to at least 10 farmers to determine what crops he’ll use on the restaurant’s menu. “I ask farmers what excites them and what they want to grow. If they find something excitable, they’ll produce the best broccoli rabe ever.”
A minimalist approach, and a desire to reduce food waste is essential in Whitcomb’s kitchen. He routinely calculates seatings a few weeks out to determine how much food they’ll need in order to limit waste. The practice makes Colonie a more efficient business and provides consumers with a better product, he explains.
Whitcomb believes in treating every ingredient with respect, since farmers, not kitchen staff, do most of the hard work. “I had a cook who burned carrots and I had him call the farmer to apologize,” he says. “We need to take responsibility as chefs to respect the hard work that goes into farming. It’s an art.”
Ancient techniques revived
Colonie’s kitchen uses everything, from the stalks to the flowers, to get the most flavor and use out of any given product. Dehydrating, pickling, juicing, fermenting, salting and aging are just some of the tricks up the chef’s sleeve for efficient use of veggies — techniques that ensure unique flavors when certain produce is out of season. Cookbooks from the early 20th century — a time without refrigeration — offer methods for using and preserving seasonal produce.
The techniques used at Colonie are reminiscent of Nordic cuisine, like Rene Redzepi’s food lab at Noma in Denmark, which Whitcomb follows online. “We not doing this to be like Noma. We’re doing this because it’s necessary. A hundred years ago when it was dandelion green season you used as much as you could. … There’s always something cool you can do!”
But Colonie’s biggest secret is its simultaneously progressive and ancient way of using ingredients, so much so there isn’t even enough food waste to compost. The menus list only a few basic items for each dish, which vary daily depending on the local harvest.
“We know fermented asparagus juice will freak people out,” says Whitcomb, but his techniques lead to healthier enzymes and unique flavors that are popular with his diners. “We don’t want to be pretentious but want to give diners a pure dish. There are a lot of layers of surprise!”
And the surprise is totally worthwhile.
What’s the most unusual dish you’ve been served lately? Tell us in the comments below.