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Foodservice Forum: New York's Finger Lakes

by Christina DiMartino | December 03, 2009

Passion and love of the Finger Lakes region of New York served as the inspiration for husband and wife Debra and Dave Whiting to launch new careers in the restaurant and winery business in 1999 when they opened Red Newt Bistro & Cellars in Hector, NY. Throughout the past decade, the business has evolved into one of the more popular eateries and wineries in the region. Also during that time, both have become highly involved in and dedicated to locally grown initiatives and movements.

Neither began their careers in the food and wine business.

"I have a bachelor's and master's degree in microbiology," said Ms. Whiting. "My early career was in research, mostly at Cornell University. I'm self-taught in culinary arts. It was always a goal to start my own business. I started producing cheesecakes, and from there I went into the catering business."

Mr. Whiting's degree is in biology, but he was always interested in making wine. He became involved with local wineries many years ago, and began commercial winemaking in 1988.

The Finger Lakes, a popular tourist destination, gets its name from the chain of lakes in the west-central section of upstate New York. The area is the state's largest wine-producing region with over 100 wineries and vineyards. The great depths of the lakes that flank the vineyards result in lush grape crops.

"In 1998, the stars aligned for Deb and me to start plans to open our own restaurant and winery," said Mr. Whiting. "We opened the following year. The restaurant sits 60 people inside and another 30 or so outside."

"I was always inspired by Alice Waters, a champion of locally grown fresh ingredients in California," said Ms. Whiting. "Although we're not in California, and I can't get local products -- especially produce -- every month of the year, the Finger Lakes region has a tremendous amount to offer. I wanted to promote our great agricultural area and the wonderful products produced here."

The Whitings support New York state's "Pride of New York" branded program by promoting it in the restaurant and winery. They are also actively involved with Taste of the Nation, which supports non-profit organizations that work to end childhood hunger.

Local growers keep Red Newt Bistro well supplied with fresh produce in the summer months, but it gets a little challenging in the fall and winter. The restaurant is closed from late December through January.

"There is a full range of fresh local produce in the summer," said Ms. Whiting. "Some items, however, are available for only a short time. I call my farmers and ask them what they will have in the coming month, and I build a new menu around what they are harvesting each month. Stored root vegetables and apples are available throughout the year, and we take great advantage of them. Our free-range meats and cheeses are also local. For produce, my primary sources are Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, New York; Stick & Stone Farm in the town of Ulysses [NY]; and Muddy Fingers Farm in Hector."

Red Newt Bistro deals directly with some farmers, and it has joined with Regional Access in Ithaca, NY, a purveyor of natural and specialty foods that offers blanket coverage of New York state.

Mr. Whiting explained that when the restaurant and winery were in the planning stages, both he and Ms. Whiting were working at other jobs, leaving no time for them to produce their own grapes for Red Newt Cellars' wines. "I sourced from other regional grape producers," said Mr. Whiting. "But we have now contracted with several growers to produce 20 acres specifically for us. We serve a full line of wines in the restaurant, but they are all produced by wineries in the Finger Lakes' area. The region embraces Riesling wine due to the grape varieties that grow here, and we produce Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and some other aromatic whites. We also produce some reds, primarily Cabernet Franc and Merlot."

Helping Ms. Whiting to extend the season on locally grown produce for Red Newt Bistro's menu are the hydroponic operations popping up in the Finger Lakes region. When she cannot procure field greens, for example, she turns to local hydroponic producers. Even so, some fresh produce items are too seasonal or cannot be produced locally, such as celery, red onions and citrus. For produce items such as these, she turns to Maines Paper & Foodservice Inc. in Binghamton, NY, a full-service food and equipment supplier.

A good example of the locally grown slant on Red Newt Cellars' menu is the pork chop stuffed with rhubarb, swiss chard, onions, walnuts, Riesling wine, herbs and cornbread. The pork chop is stuffed, seared and then baked. She reduces the liquid from the dressing and uses it as a sauce topping when serving the dish.

"Rhubarb is a great local product, and you'll see it in different places on our menu," said Ms. Whiting. "We make all of our own desserts, which is another great place to utilize rhubarb. New York apples are yet another perk for our menu. They are available year round, and we use them in many ways -- from appetizers to desserts."

Ms. Whiting still serves her popular cheesecake, changing the toppings along with the seasonal varieties of fresh fruits or dried fruits when fresh are not available. One example is her hermit bar cheesecake with spiced dried fruit syrup. It incorporates several dried fruits and is heavy on the spices. Matched with the creaminess of the cheesecake, the result is an elegant and delicious end to a meal.

Red Newt Bistro's salad menu also reflects the time of year. It includes a standard house salad of field or hydroponic greens. Ms. Whiting also offers an apple salad with roasted beet vinaigrette, both strongly representing local produce available in the fall and stored items.

Fresh berries and cherries can present a challenge to a restaurant chef trying to utilize local produce. Ms. Whiting said that when these items are in season in the region, she buys as much as possible and freezes them for later use. "Local growers are working on increasing their supplies of these types of items each year," said Mr. Whiting. "When we started our business 10 years ago, there were only a couple of local farmers. But the whole scheme of agriculture in the Finger Lakes area has changed tremendously in the past decade. Today, many professionally operated farms and growers are expanding into hoop houses and hydroponic production."

Ms. Whiting serves on the Watkins Glen School Board's Health Advisory Council Wellness Committee, which was developed to improve school food in the area.

Both are active members of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, an organization that strives to link the region's farms, food producers, wineries and foodservice operations to provide local consumers and visitors with a unique culinary experience. Ms. Whiting served as chairperson of the organization for six years.

"The Culinary Bounty was founded about 10 years ago by about five locally produced advocates," said Ms. Whiting. "Today, the membership is at 175 restaurateurs, chefs, media representatives, wineries, farmers and interested individuals from the 14 counties in the Finger Lakes. We have a full-scale board of directors, and we hold several events each year such as symposiums, festivals, cook offs and more. Many of our events are held at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York."

Ms. Whiting has also been involved with New York Farm Days for five years. Brought to life by Hillary Clinton while serving as New York's junior senator, the annual reception is held in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC. Leading New York restaurateurs, producers and other representatives join to showcase the state's bounty of products at the event. The 2009 Farm Day was held Oct. 7.

"Red Newt Bistro was one of the pilot restaurants to promote local products," said Mr. Whiting. "It started out slowly, with only about 10 percent of the items used on our menu being locally produced. Today, at the height of the season, about 90 percent comes from local producers."

Concluded Mr. Whiting, "It is incredibly rewarding to see what is happening in the Finger Lakes area today -- and to be a part of it."