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7 Questions with Zak Pelaccio, a True Nose-to-Tail Chef and Local Foods Pioneer

The Hudson Valley chef talks fish sauce, the importance of a hot pan, and what “farm to table” means to him.

Published Sept. 14, 2017.

James Beard Award-winning chef Zak Pelaccio’s latest book, Project 258: Making Dinner at Fish and Game, is an exploration of what “farm to table” can and should be. With the help of his fermentation genius wife Jori Jayne Emde and his indispensable staff, Pelaccio has become a leader in the local foods movement. For Pelaccio, having a connection to the area in which one cooks—in his case, the Hudson River Valley—and especially to that area’s seasons, is of paramount importance.

Pelaccio wasn't always a country boy though. He spent a lot of years in New York City, where he focused his energy on urban foraging and bringing the "nose-to-tail" philosophy toward eating to the city. 

Pelaccio stopped by the test kitchen recently, and I chatted with him about chefy techniques all home cooks should learn, his favorite ingredients, and what farm to table means to him. That conversation—lightly edited for clarity and length—is below.

What restaurant chef skill do you think is most useful for the home cook to have?

Knowing how to properly heat your pan before cooking. For instance: If you’re going to saute a piece of fish—putting your pan on the stove, turning on the burner, and letting your pan heat up till you see a little bit of white smoke coming off your pan. When you put your hand over the base of the pan, and you can feel the heat coming off. This is incredibly valuable because that’s the point at which you want to cook a piece of fish so your skin doesn’t stick. I think a lot of home cooks run into this problem. Being patient with your pans and allowing them to heat up is an important nuance to cooking that I think a lot of people miss at home.

What’s your all-time favorite kitchen tool, and why?

I think my answer has changed over the years. Initially it was a spoon, then it was a sharp knife. I think I once said it was a telephone, because it allows me to connect with my farmers and have conversations with them and actually talk to them about what’s coming up so I can plan my menus. The latest evolution, though: a competent crew. Talented people—skilled, bright people who can make my job easier and who are only going to make the restaurant better.

Pelaccio offers wife and partner Jori Jane Emde a taste of what he's cooking. | All photography by Peter Barrett

What’s your favorite cuisine type?

I don’t know if I have a favorite, but if I were forced to give an answer I’d probably say Thai cuisine. The balance between sweet and salty, spicy and bitter, the textures, the vibrancy, the freshness—to me, that’s everything I want in a meal. That’s not to say that I love it more than any other cuisine, but if forced to give an answer . . .

What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?

One of my favorite ingredients is fish sauce. It enables me to season dishes and give them a depth of flavor that salt just doesn’t achieve. And I’m really lucky because my wife and I make our own fish sauce in our barn made from all different kinds of fish. There’s one she made from squid three years ago—we’ve made mackerel sauce, trout sauce. Sometimes we also make garum with fish guts. We salt them with anywhere between five and 10 percent salt by weight and let them sit and dissolve and allow for the enzymatic process autolysis to take place and convert these stinky, funky fish into a golden, beautiful liqueur. That’s the stuff. (Ed’s note: That’s not the only ingredient Pelaccio and Emde make in their barn. Check out this New York Times article about their homemade fermentations.)

Do you have a favorite meal to cook for friends and family?

I think like many other busy people, a go-to for me is making a simple pasta dish with a fresh salad. I always have some beautiful noodles in the cupboard, and we have tomatoes from our garden that we put away every year. It’s a pantry dish. Even though I have a couple restaurants that are filled with fresh ingredients, when I go home I haven’t necessarily remembered to go shopping, nor has my wife, who’s also working at the restaurants. So the two of us look at each other and say, “We don’t have any food here.” So we have to go to the pantry. It’s either that or steaming some rice, frying an egg, and mixing in one of Jori’s kimchis.

“Farm to table” and “nose to tail” have in a sense turned into ubiquitous buzzwords, but what do they mean for what you’re doing at Fish and Game?

Farm to table has sort of become meaningless. I equate it to the word “gourmet” before “deli.” Gourmet used to mean something, and then every corner store put it on their awning and now it doesn’t mean much. The same is true with farm to table. Sure, every single restaurant uses food that was grown on a farm. But it’s really about considered sourcing and understanding seasons. Understanding how to work with products, how to plan your menus around what’s coming. Taking it beyond farm to table is having a relationship with the area you live, and understanding the rhythms of the seasons.

More Test Kitchen Visitors

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out our visits from bread guru Peter Reinhart, cookie legend Dorie Greenspan, Momofuku's sweet genius Christina Tosi, world traveler Naomi Duguid, Top Chef star Karen Akunowicz, Tested.com host Will Smith, and wine geek Bianca Bosker. 

What do "farm to table" and "nose to tail" mean to you? Let us know in the comments! 

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