The Gathered Table

By Elise Hugus / Photography By Daniel Cojanu | May 12, 2014
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people gathered around table talking and drinking

On the electric stove in the basement kitchen, tall metal pots emit bursts of steam. The air becomes thick, fogging up the windows, with frost settling on the panes outside. Despite the heat, the two chefs exhibit grace under fire as they bustle between the stoves, the coolers, and the prep table. It’s almost show time.

Welcome to The Gathered Table, a bi-weekly gastronomic event hosted by David Haddad and Corey Phillips. Since October 2013, the two young chefs have delighted diners with creative multi-course tasting menus served from a pop-up kitchen at Coonamessett Farm in Hatchville. The name derives from the randomness of the people who assemble two Mondays a month in the impromptu farm stand dining room. Or, it could simply refer to the artful ensemble of gathered ingredients they savor—the element of surprise.

The clock above the stove is over an hour off, but Haddad and Phillips listen for the sound of footsteps and chairs scraping the floor above them to plan their moves. With a seven-course menu, timing is everything—meaning diners can’t arrive more than 15 minutes late. Tonight, they’re ahead of schedule.

The planning begins well before curtain call, in daydreams and flashes of inspiration that come to the foodie-minded pair as they stroll the beaches and woodlands of their hometown of Falmouth. Some ingredients, like the pine sorbet or maple birch water, take days to prepare—the chefs do everything from tapping the trees in their neighborhood to boiling it down to an edible elixir. Other inspirations might arrive at the last minute, like the just-picked tatsoi flowers that farm manager Stan Ingram brings by, fresh from Coonamessett Farm’s greenhouse.

“The woods are our farmers’ market in the winter,” Phillips says. “There’s so much food out there, we just have to take a walk to find it.”

Drawing on the flavors of the season, the chefs literally sketch out their meal plans and ideas for presentation. In the first few months, they gave a theme to each evening (“Chinese takeout” and “breakfast for dinner” were popular). But they’ve given up on themes after exhausting most of the items on their to-do list in February’s “Willy Wonka” molecular gastronomy event, an 11-course meal that began with gin-and-tonic-flavored gum and ended with a sweet and sour “gobstopper.”

With six months of events under their belts, the chefs are content to base their menus on the produce coming out of local farms and greenhouses.

“We’re trying to brighten it up for spring, but we’re still waiting on lots of vegetables” says Haddad, stirring a pan of sugar-snap and snow peas, lima beans, leeks and scallions, garnished with delicate pale purple rosemary flowers. Taking a bite, he comments, “It’s like spring in your mouth.”

***

One Monday in early spring, at 6:30 on the dot, diners begin pulling into the farm. Greeted by maître d’hôtel Sam Messer—a childhood friend of the chefs—they choose seats at one of two long tables placed among the hanging woven baskets and shelves lined with Coonamessett Farm-made sauces. As the sun dips behind the still-fallow fields, the farm’s laying hens head for shelter, while the assorted sheep, goats and alpacas roam their pens, munching hay. Corks on the bring-your-own wine are popped, and the conversation begins to flow.

The 16 diners, who sign up for a seat at The Gathered Table on a first-come, first-served basis, are not sure what’s on the menu for the night. They’ve been told the basic ingredients and flavors they’ll be tasting, in order to watch out for allergies and choose a wine pairing. The rest is a mystery.

“We’re not protein-centric,” Phillips says. “We’ve done dinners that are mostly vegetables without trying to be vegetarian. Whatever works, whatever’s in season.”

As they say, the proof is in the pudding. So far, the jury is unanimously in favor of the chefs’ modern-art approach.

“I really like the atmosphere and the small number of people that come here. It’s just like the menu, with an element of surprise,” said Barbara Nickerson, a Gathered Table veteran.

On the same evening, Gathered Table first-timer Elizabeth Sherman joined her friend Abby Fay, who had attended once before. Fay loved the food so much that she drew a heart for the chefs to see in the beet juice staining her empty plate. After leaving the farm that night, Sherman was motivated to post on the Gathered Table’s Facebook page, “Unreal! Food artistry at its best!!!”

If the diners have anything in common it’s a sense of adventure. Robin Littlefield, who attended a recent Gathered Table with his food-blogger companion Joy Belamarich, said he was glad to find a food-conscious community away from the constraints of a formal restaurant.

“Events like The Gathered Table offer a relatively low-pressure opportunity for chefs like Dave and Corey to be extremely creative. I imagine that helps to keep the cooking fun and that certainly carries over to the customer,” said Littlefield, who counts local ingredients on the menu as a top priority when dining out. “Eating local is extremely important. It builds community, puts you in touch with other people who grow and prepare food in your area, and is typically more environmentally responsible.”

***

Down in the kitchen, Haddad and Phillips plate up the first course, a Sippewissett Oyster, pulled that day from the Coonamessett Farm-affiliated aquaculture grant in Buzzards Bay. But it’s not a run-of-the-mill oyster on the half shell. Nestled in a white bowl filled with chilled rocks, drizzled with nasturtium-seed oil, and garnished with nasturtium leaves, it’s a sign of the creativity—and humor—to come.

“These are local rocks, the best ones in town,” says Haddad in a deadpan tone. “Straight from Surf Drive Beach. Not from Stoney Beach, as you might think. The rocks there are no good.” The rest of the kitchen explodes with laughter.

In a flurry of activity, the bowls are transferred to trays, which Haddad, Phillips, and Messer carry up a flight of stairs to the dining room. Everyone waits to dig in until all 16 bowls are served, and listen attentively to the chefs’ explanation of the ingredients and concept as they’re cleared. A diner asks where the oysters came from.

“Oh, from our friends at Sippewissett Oysters. Just brought in today,” Haddad replies nonchalantly, heading back downstairs to plate up the next course: a thick cut of roasted beet, topped with whipped feta and blood orange sauce, served with a warm oat scone. As Phillips explains, it’s a play on biscuits and jam.

Taking the first bite, the diners wonder aloud about the flavors they’re experiencing. It’s a conversation-starter as they decipher the layers: the graceful end-notes of maple water and shaved almonds atop burrata-filled tortellini; mustard seed “caviar” striking a perfect contrast with the duck liver paté and wilted carrot tops; the refreshing but hard-to-place taste of pine in the sorbet, melting like snow on the tongue.

It seems that surprise is not pleasant for all. “I keep getting a weird taste,” one woman says. “It’s not that it’s bad, I just don’t like not knowing what it is.”

“Perhaps it’s the beet,” jokes her seatmate.

***

Haddad and Phillips met on the bus in junior high. They come from families that emphasize slow cooking and good eating, and they both credit their mothers for their talents in the kitchen.

“I think most guys start cooking because of their moms. It’s either because their mothers are terrible cooks, or because they’re really great at it and their sons want to learn how to do it for themselves,” says Haddad. “We were lucky in that sense.”

After graduating from Falmouth High School in 2004, the two friends parted ways. Phillips headed to the Culinary Institute of America, while Haddad went to a four-year college, followed by a degree at the New England Culinary Institute. After stints in contemporary cuisine kitchens in Minneapolis and Boston, the pair found themselves in Falmouth again in 2013. They took jobs at local restaurants, but both yearned for more creativity in the kitchen. Despite their culinary connection, the pair never planned on cooking together. In fact, their first time working in the same kitchen was their first Gathered Table event last October.

“It went well, but we played it safe at first,” Phillips recalls. “We got to try out some dishes we always wanted to do, but we knew we could push the limits even more.”

The Gathered Table’s creativity stems from solid roots in local foods and traditions. The two chefs lament Cape Cod’s lackluster culinary landscape, which they say emphasizes high turnover rather than quality.

“Our food got destroyed on Cape Cod by tourist food,” says Phillips. “We want to get back to native food—and not just the Eastham turnip. That’s part of what we’re doing, creating social connections around local food. Because the people who come to The Gathered Table are really into it.”

While their winter meals require trips to Quincy Market and wholesalers in Boston, produce from Coonamessett Farm, Pariah Dog Farm and Cape Cod Organic Farm will be prominent features in spring and summer menus. But Haddad and Phillips are taking their dedication to local food a step beyond the farmers’ market. They’re investigating culinary uses of native plants like sumac, sea cucumber, borage flower, and beach plums.

“Apparently cattails taste like corn on the cob,” Phillips says. “We’ll try anything. If it works, it might end up in the dinner.”

Experimentation is the name of the game in a menu-less kitchen, giving the chefs freedom to adapt their plans as they go. The chefs freely admit that their ideas don’t always translate well on a plate. During their Willy Wonka dinner, the “pea foam” had to be replaced last-minute with lettuce purée. More recently, their plan to float a morsel of poached haddock on a bed of “fish foam” tanked.

“Oh well, it’ll be fish sauce instead,” Haddad says, adding a dollop of bright yellow egg yolk to the pool of creamy white. Upstairs, no one was the wiser for it.

***

Not content to merely tantalize the diners’ taste buds with surprising flavors and combinations, the Gathered Table chefs consider presentation an integral part of culinary seduction.

Although flavor comes first, the chefs take pleasure in playful presentation—to the delight of diners. The “Soil and Greens” on a recent menu featured wilted greens and “slow n’ low”-cooked mushrooms as soil; the “Rabbit in Mushroom Forest” course served at the Willa Wonka dinner featured a pink rabbit roulade served with a bright green bacon parsley cake spiked with yellow and purple pickled mushrooms.

Served to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” the only complaint from diners is that sometimes the food is “too pretty to eat.”

“The presentation shows our pride in the food,” Haddad says, arranging pale pink radishes like rosebuds in a garland of sautéed broccoli rabe “You can eat with your eyes as well.”

Part of The Gathered Table’s mission is the break down the barriers between the kitchen and the dining room. Serving the food and helping clear the plates give the chefs honest feedback on how their creations are received, they say.

While Haddad and Phillips hope to offer more frequent seatings and dates in the future, they’re adamant that The Gathered Table will remain small—keeping the connections between farm, chef and table close.

“We get to personally connect with every customer. People appreciate it more—and we appreciate it more,” Haddad says. “It’s like being a private chef, but for 16 people.”

Phillips points out that the intimacy of the meals, and the fact that their business is mostly word-of-mouth, make quality imperative.

“There’s a small amount of people on Cape Cod who are into food like we are,” Phillips says. “There’s less room to make mistakes. We really have to be on top of our game here.”

Gathered Table events take place every other Monday at Coonamessett Farm, 277 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth. Reservations are $65 per person (cash only) and can by made by email to gatheredtable@gmail.com. Notices are posted alternating Tuesdays via the Gathered Table Facebook group.

Elise Hugus is a writer and video producer based in her hometown of Falmouth. While not pondering local connections to global issues, she enjoys growing food in her ever-evolving garden. More of her work can be viewed on her company’s website, undercurrent-productions.com.

Daniel Cojanu is a photographer and filmmaker originally from Romania, who fell in love with the salt air and Cape Cod’s beautiful nature. When not framing, lighting or editing fabulous shots, Cojanu can be found playing basketball, fishing, or teaching black and white film photography. See more of his work at danielcojanu.com.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/eat/gathered-table
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