Few people are lucky enough to successfully live the “city during the week, upstate on the weekends” lifestyle on a consistent basis. One member of that lucky group is Michelle Nomi Warner – chef, cooking instructor, and restaurant operations manager in New York City. At various points in her life a set designer for Oprah, student at Kendall College’s much-lauded culinary arts program, and education director at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Kitchen, she currently oversees Rockaway Beach 97, a bar and restaurant complex in Rockaway, Queens.
Warner also founded and runs By-Hand Culinary, an operation exploring and expanding on the idea of the home-cooked meal through community classes, occasional catering, and intimate farm dinner events. I had the opportunity to experience the latter, an event she created in partnership with Kinderhook Farm, a 1,200-acre farm in Ghent, NY dedicated to sustainable farming. The Down on the Farm tour and dinner is an incredibly unique affair, sure to please everyone from the most rustic sect of city folk to more reserved but curious experience-seekers.
A far cry from the oft-documented factory farms of our country, Kinderhook was built on an ethos of responsible land and animal stewardship – their cattle and sheep are raised on a 100% grass and legume diet free of grain, antibiotics, growth hormones, and animal byproducts. Heritage breed pigs, free-range broiler chickens, pastured laying hens, and an apiary round out the farm’s animal offerings.The compassion, care, and methodical approach Kinderhook takes to raising animals shows – anyone used to the general disposition of animals at a zoo will be struck immediately by the genuine happiness beaming from these animals.
Earlier this year, Kinderhook became the first US farm to attain Certified Grassfed status by Animal Welfare Approved, an organization focused on promoting farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental conservation standards. The farm’s pioneering farming methods are the perfect complement to Warner’s thoughtful attitude towards cooking – a proponent of communal participation, slow and low simmers, and recipes that change with the season.
From the get-go, the tour is hands-on and experiential; making way from the immaculately designed farm kitchen a nearby pasture by way of the hay-padded bed of a pickup truck, you’ll have a chance to feed Kinderhook’s heritage breed pigs a midday snack of apples picked just yards away. Next you’ll make your way to the initially standoffish, but ultimately warm and playful flock of sheep. Finish off your farm tour with a visit to Kinderhook’s chickens – dozens of breeds from the white egg laying Silver Spangled Hamburg to the blue-green egg laying Araucana – and cattle – pasture-roaming Black Angus and Red Devon breed.
Next, you’ll wash up and head back to the farm kitchen for a quick rest and some sweet tea. Then it’s time to grab an apron and get to work! On the menu this night was picnic fried chicken, a simple kale and cherry tomato salad, black cherry braised pork butt, yeasted buttermilk biscuits, summer succotash, and a fruit cobbler. The dinner portion of the event is a communal effort, with Chef Michelle divvying up the prep responsibilities to everyone – there’s pork to be pulled, dough to be kneaded, corn to be husked, and much more.
Helping hands deserve a reward, and there’s plenty of wine and beer to go around. Growlers from local favorite Chatham Brewing are a highlight, with the Czech’rd Past Pilsner a perfect fit as the sun starts to set after a long day. Just as the quality of Kinderhook’s products is reflective of the compassion and respect they treat their animals with, Warner goes the extra mile to make the meal feel less like a group of strangers far from home and more like a Sunday dinner with family.
When everything is ready, fill up your plate family style, and make sure to get some of everything. Stack your biscuit high with pulled pork, drizzle some hot sauce and honey on your chicken, and take plenty of succotash before it disappears – it’s a real show stealer. There’s not much like eating and drinking outside on a summer evening, and the unspoiled beauty of Kinderhook’s property make the evening truly remarkable.
Dessert is a real treat – the sweetest berries and stone fruits are lightened by fresh herbs and topped with the perfect dough in a sturdy Dutch oven. Rather than cooking the cobbler in an oven, it’s placed in a fire pit where the fruits soften and the dough crisps up to a golden brown. Whether by accident or by design, the fire brought a smoky quality to dessert that was as surprising as it was delicious.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be joined by Kinderhook’s staff, family, and friends throughout the meal to share stories and drinks. From 11-month old Jude, son of the farm’s shepherd Anna, to West Virginia transplants Lee and Georgia Ranney, Kinderhook’s head farmers, you’ll be surrounded by people with an enduring passion for what they do. Linger for as long as you’d like, and don’t forget to stop by the farm store before you hit the road. It’s stocked with every cut of meat you can imagine, with enough chops, steaks, sausages, and various odds and ends to last an eternity, even for those with the most carnivorous diet.
The Down on the Farm experience is unique in the simplest way – its honesty. Everyone involved is sincere in their desire to teach, show, and explain the way things work on the farm and why these matter in the grand scheme. Chef Michelle hits the nail on the head in her quest to explore the home-cooked meal, effortlessly turning what is typically a private event into a symbiotic occasion, complete with all the trappings of a long-held tradition. Distinct in its humble nature, Down on the Farm is a must for anyone attracted to fresh air, benevolent people, and good food.
There are two more Down on the Farm events scheduled for August 8th and August 29th – for more information, check out byhandfarm.com. Though it’s booked for this season, keep the Kinderhook FarmStay in mind for the future. Just a stone’s throw from the farm kitchen, it’s an incredible building with views of the pastures’ rolling hills, grazing cattle, and marching geese.