René Redzepi and Jacques Pépin Help Send Kids to College With a Connecticut Benefit Dinner
Where was René Redzepi, one of the world's most famous and innovative chefs, on the third Friday of June? Relaxing on the beach at Tulum after his daring and reportedly spectacular pop-up in that Mexican resort community? Back home in Copenhagen, working on the resurrection of his ground-breaking Noma, named World's Best Restaurant four years straight?
No, actually, he was cooking in a muddy field on Stone Acres Farm in Stonington, in eastern Connecticut a few miles from the Rhode Island border. He wasn't alone. The eminent Connecticut-based French chef and cookbook author (and Daily Meal Council member) Jacques Pépin was there, too. So were half a dozen other acclaimed chefs, from as far away as California and as close as Mystic, just down the road.
The occasion was an exclusive $5,000-a-head benefit to raise money for the New London Education Foundation's Last Dollar Scholarship program. New London, about 15 miles west of Stonington, was once a prosperous city — it was a major nineteenth-century whaling port — but today almost a fifth of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line. Over the years, New London High School has graduated many students who were admitted to various colleges but couldn't afford to attend, even with financial aid. The Foundation's goal is to make up the shortfall, estimated to be $4,500 per person, for between 25 and 30 students each year.
How did Redzepi and the rest of this illustrious culinary company get involved? The short answer is: Dan Giusti. The onetime executive chef at 1789 in Washington, D.C., the New Jersey-born Giusti was chef de cuisine at Noma from 2013 (replacing another American, Matt Orlando, who left to open his own Copenhagen restaurant, Amass) through late 2015.
Giusti left the restaurant to return to the United States and tackle a challenge that interested him more than cooking rarified food for an exclusive clientele: Helping school children to eat right. Last year, he launched Brigaid, whose mission is to install professional chefs in public school dining facilities. The forward-looking New London school district was receptive to his ideas, so he set up shop there. Students at six area schools are now enjoying such lunch offerings as chicken tikka masala with roasted sweet potatoes and ginger brown rice and Hungarian goulash with pasta and roasted paprika potato wedges. “Nobody knows about this around America,” the city's superintendent of schools, Manny Rivera, told guests at Stone Acres, “but it's happening in New London.”
Though helping local students go to college isn't Brigaid's main mission, Giusti wanted to help not just feed but educate the community's young people, so he invited his illustrious former boss, Redzepi, to add his star power to the event. Redzepi was happy to participate. “In Denmark, we have a different system,” he told me, over Rhode Island oysters and muscadet at the reception before the dinner. “If you want to go to college, you can go. It blows my mind that because I come here to cook, 30 young people will have this opportunity.”
The other prime movers for the evening were Dan Meiser and his wife, Jane Simmons-Meiser, and James Wayman. The Meisers are co-owners of the acclaimed Oyster Club and Engine Room restaurants in Mystic, and Simmons-Meiser's family has owned the 63-acre Stone Acres property for ten generations. Wayman is Oyster Club's executive chef, and the personification of the vigorous locally sourced food movement in this corner of Connecticut — and also the main reason we've named this comparatively little-known establishment, well outside the mainstream, as one of our 101 Best Restaurants in America.
Stone Acres, established in 1765, grows about 200 varieties of produce and flowers in the open air and in three high tunnels, or hoophouses (unheated round-top greenhouses), and two conventional greenhouses, one of which is the oldest such structure in Connecticut. (The farm also has beehives, and plans to begin raising chickens for both meat and eggs, as well as pigs, sheep, and goats.)
It was a rainy evening, but Redzepi and an all-star cast prepared a knockout meal, mostly outdoors on a sprawling, just-built fieldstone oven and grill complex designed by Wayman — “It's right out of The Flintstones,” said Pépin, who was accompanied by his daughter, Claudine, and her husband, the chef and Johnson & Wales culinary professor Rollie Wesen — and served it family-style in a candlelit, flower-bedecked barn nearby. The participating chefs included, besides Pépin and Redzepi: Gavin Kaysen, longtime former chef de cuisine at Café Boulud in New York City and now chef-proprietor of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Bellecour in nearby Wayzata; Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon and Esters Wine Shop & Bar in Santa Monica, California; Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions and The Progress in San Francisco; and four-time James Beard Award-winning chef and food activist Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave. The dinner guests were pressed into service, helping the chefs prep under a long tent and then joining them at the cooking fires.
Jacques Pépin was present more as an inspiration than a hands-on participant — though he did say, looking at the “Flintstones” oven and grill arrangement, “When the weather is better, I'd like to come back here and cook” — but he applied his talents as an artist to producing a colorful menu.
Redzepi's course was a “poultry farm chowder” made with tart gooseberries and wild rose petals, with an egg yolk to be stirred in. Fox grilled some of the excellent little deepwater red shrimp fished out of Stonington harbor and tossed them with snow peas and lemon cucumber. Kaysen's course was wilted Swiss chard and fire-roasted beets with Champagne-currant vinaigrette and wisps of lardo. Brioza prepared sweet carrot dumplings in roasted eggplant dressing, while Krasinski prepared rye flour and beer beignets to be served with charred rhubarb compote and fresh strawberries. Nischan's course was a “risotto” of “ancient grains” (including black barley, rye berries, and spelt).
Wayman and his fellow chefs grilled locally caught black sea bass and fluke, and Wayman tended to the beef. This was no ordinary beef — the meat was from a 21-year-old grass-fed cow from Stonington's Firefly Farms, aged 40 days by the producers and another 40 by Wayman. He rubbed beef ribs, strip loin, tenderloin, sirloin, and brisket with a paste of fermented black pepper, yarrow, green chiles, and salt, then blackened it directly on glowing logs.
The wines, selected by David Barber — co-owner, with his brother, chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill at Stone Barns — from the blue-chip cellar of his friend the financier Peter Kend were dazzling. All in magnums or double-magnums, they included 1988 Lanson Brut Champagne, 2006 Raveneau Montée de Tonnerre Chablis, 2014 Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive Fleurie, two Domaine Tempier Bandols (1998 Cabassaou and 2004 Migoua), and on and on.