A chef with a local sensibility
By: Lynn Ogryzlo
“We’re in my favourite season, the abundant season,” says Executive Chef Oliver Wolf of Seneca Niagara Casino & Resort. Oliver is European born and trained and he just can’t shake the obsession to buy fresh foods that grow around him from people he knows.
Local food has been the buzzword around restaurants for the past decade and it shows no signs of slowing down. It’s consumers’ insatiable demand for it that has many chefs scrambling to fill their kitchens. But in the Wild West of local food distribution where there are no systems, definitions or rules, often times, chefs will take the “make it up as I go” approach: but not Wolf.
Wolf has a balanced approach to local food that is both supportive to local farmers as well as feeding the hungry appetites of his dining room patrons. He makes sure his milk, butter, eggs and as many other staples come from the surrounding New York State. He’s most proud of his New York State, grass fed, high quality beef.
He insists on the prime cuts being aged for a minimum of 21 days, once in his restaurant, he allows them to “breathe” for minimum of half a day. After these details are attended to the steaks “wait” for the dinner orders to come. Once ordered, a spice rub gets massaged into the tender flesh and it hits the super hot grill with a sizzle. They’re seared on high for the perfect combination of flavor and maximum juiciness. This combination of local quality, patience and skill is what makes The Western Door the best steakhouse in upper New York State.
Wolf knows there are many kinds of local foods. Those with full availability such as beef, chicken and dairy, locally processed foods like sausages, cheese and honey and the summer harvests with their fleeting availability like strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes.
“Summer is when the garden just doesn’t stop giving,” says Wolf. I ask him to name a favorite fruit or vegetable and he frowns. So I narrow my question down to a favourite dish. He smiles and gets a gleam in his eye, “my favourite summer fruit is tomatoes.”
Wolf knows there is little that can be done to improve the flavors of freshly harvested tomatoes. New York State is blessed with a warm growing season and really cold winters that somehow bump up the acidity in all the fruit and vegetables that grow here. The produce is so different from that grown in a warmer climate such as California. California doesn’t have the cold so the acidity in the produce is flat, doesn’t have that burst of freshness that enhances the flavors in everything in New York State from peaches to tomatoes.
Like any chef, he prepares for the first tomato of the season. “First I make sure my kitchen is stocked with a high quality salt like Maldon flaked salt because it’s a finishing salt with more flavor than the salt you throw in your pasta water. Then I use a very high quality, extra virgin olive oil because it will give you loads of flavor.”
Once he’s totally prepared, he focuses on simplicity to feature the fresh flavors of a summer tomato. “I wash and core them. Then I quarter them and toss them with a bit of fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper and basil.” Wolf recommends the fresh basil leaves be chiffonade. That is, roll a few leaves into cigarette shapes and slice them as thin as possible. “You want as large a cut surface as possible to release all the oils and aromas – then add some shaved pecorino cheese,” he leans back in the banquette in total satisfaction of the memory of his luscious tomato salad.
Wolf frequently canvases Niagara County happily putting his stomach to work to seek out some of the best growers. He’s compiled a short list of Niagara’s most trusted farmers and he’s happy to share his personal list.
In the summer season you can sometimes find him at the Farmers’ Market on Pine Street in Niagara Falls or the North Tonawanda Farmers’ Market squeezing the tomatoes and smelling the melon. He may be out of chefs uniform but you can recognize him as the tall, enthusiastic shopper who is buying much more than he can carry.
Buying local starts at home for Wolf. In his home in Amherst, New York, you’ll find a giant glass jar in his refrigerator. It’s almost empty except for the soft, bloated strawberries swimming in the bottom. It’s a traditional rum pot and “my mom (in Germany) made one every season. Right now it only has strawberries in it, but by the end of the season it will be full of the most delicious fruit mixture that we’ll (Wolf, his family and fortunate dinner guests) will eat all winter long.”
He looks forward to layering each fruit harvested throughout the season. It takes patience and will power not to eat it all before the winter, but if you can manage it, “it’s wonderful to eat Niagara County summer fruit all winter long. Wolf explains, “just a spoon of it over vanilla pudding or ice cream is so simple, yet so brilliant too. And you can’t really do it as well with imported fruit, it just doesn’t have the freshness or flavor you need for a good rum pot.”
But the ugly truth in the “local food” world is that sometimes quantities are just not sufficient (small farmers working with large corporations) and other times it’s too perishable to navigate through the quagmire of our modern food systems. Isn’t that a kicker? Consumers demand it for its flavor, quality and freshness, yet we can’t get it through a food system that’s designed for foods with extended shelflife and transportability. It’s the local paradox.
While Wolf understands the local food challenges that all chefs who run restaurants face, he’s happy just to know he’s doing the best he can. Personally, I think he’s doing much better than most, but then he would beat most chefs in a humility contest too.
Niagara County farmers that Seneca Casino purchases from throughout the year:
Senek Farms, Zittle Farms, C & P Farms, Robinson Farms, Freatman Farms, Hurtgam Farms, Eden Valley Farm, Zastro Farms, Wagner Farms and Weinke Farms.
Local food in the Seneca Casino kitchens from staples to seasonal:
Butter, dairy, eggs, meat, chicken, lamb, honey, beans, snap peas, strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, peaches, nectarines, peppers, squash, tomatoes, apples, broccoli, celery, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, potatoes, pears, pumpkins and squash.
Chef Wolf’s Grilled Watermelon & Local Farmers Cheese Salad
1 small watermelon, seedless
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups baby arugula
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice from half a lemon
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup Farmer cheese, crumbled
(preferably Friendship, All Natural
Slice the watermelon into 1-inch thick slices and remove the rind. Cut into 8, 3-inch squares. Set aside. In a small saucepan bring the balsamic vinegar to a simmer, add the honey and reduce to half, or until it resembles a thick syrup. Set aside to cool.
On a red, hot grill, grill the watermelon slices, a minute to a minute and a half each side or until grill marks appear.
Toss the arugula with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season well. When ready to eat, divide half the arugula among four plates. Lay a warm piece of watermelon on each mound of arugula and sprinkle with the crumbled Farmers’ cheese. Drizzle with the cooled balsamic reduction and repeat, stacking another layer of arugula, watermelon, Farmer cheese and a final drizzle of balsamic reduction.