How 7 Women Brought the Finger Lakes to the Beard House
Exploring the region through cheese, chocolate, wine, cider, and moreAlexandra Jones
January 31, 2020
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Alexandra Jones reports back on a recent Beard House dinner exploring the best food and wine from New York's Finger Lake region, and profiles some of the chefs, purveyors, and producers who have helped the area blossom into a hub of agricultural productivity and culinary creativity.
Seven chefs, artisans, and craft beverage producers who have helped make New York’s Finger Lakes region an international destination for food and drink brought a bounty to the Beard House on January 18. Over the course of the evening, the women presented a menu showcasing the region’s exponential growth over the past 25 years.
“Every single little growing region in the Old World has its own cuisine and its own beverage scene, its own varietals,” said Nancy Irelan, owner and winemaker at Red Tail Ridge Winery in Penn Yan. “I feel as though we've finally come [into] our own in respect to the things that we can do really well.”
Irelan, a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer, brought along eclectic mix of bottles—skin-fermented whites produced with indigenous ferments, pét-nat rosés, lesser-known reds, and Rieslings. These selections reflect Red Tail Ridge Winery's “core values”: producing small lots, harnessing indigenous ferments, and experimenting with cool-weather European vines that thrive in the region’s climate.
Food has flourished alongside wine in the region, too. But when chefs Samantha Buyskes and Trish Aser first opened restaurants in the early 2000s, farm-to-table dining was brand new.
“People were just bringing me their produce,” Aser said of the early days at her Brown Hound Downtown in South Bristol, now located in Rochester’s Metropolitan Art Gallery. “It occurred to me that there was all this opportunity to work with my neighbors, and it would be a win-win situation.”
Aser highlighted the versatility of winter roots by stacking slices of juicy red, Chioggia, and gold beets with layers of Lively Run Goat Dairy’s fresh chèvre. Served alongside was a velvety celeriac soup with crisp bacon and olive oil, a bowl of wintertime comfort.
Restaurants like Aser’s and Simply Red Bistro, which Buyskes ran in Trumansburg from 2002 to 2012, created demand for fresh, quality farm food that would shape the region’s culinary and agricultural landscape for years to come.
That “opened up the opportunity for people who were thinking about growing produce, raising animals, or making cheese,” Buyskes said. She prepared an entrée of tender leg of lamb rubbed with fragrant Moroccan spices and brightened with pomegranate molasses.
When cheesemaker Susanne Messmer and her family took over Lively Run Dairy in 1995, “We got a lot of these reactions of, ‘Eww, goat cheese,’” she said. Today, it’s the longest-running goat dairy in the United States.
Messmer highlighted two American Cheese Society award-winners for the cheese course: nutty, musky Finger Lakes Gold Reserve and mellow, creamy Cayuga Blue. Eve’s Cidery’s pommeau, a lush dessert blend of five-year-aged apple brandy and fermented bittersweet apple juice, and Autumn’s Gold 2017, a rich, complex Old-World cider with natural carbonation, were poured to pair.
Autumn Stoscheck, Eve’s cider maker and orchardist, has been making dry cider and perry using traditional methods and heirloom varieties since 2002. For her, Finger Lakes food and beverage are inextricably connected.
“It’s a positive feedback loop that just keeps increasing the level of quality and…engagement of smart, visionary, hard-working people being involved in food,” she said.
Linnea Shumway represents the next generation—and not just because she’s the youngest of the group. Her dish, a crunchy salad of sprouted lentils made fragrant with Thai basil, served as a refreshing first course.
In her role as culinary director at FLX Hospitality, a rapidly growing restaurant group with fine dining and fast-casual concepts across the region, Shumway and her colleagues are setting new standards in the industry.
“We want to grow...[so] we can supply good jobs,” she said. “We want to make this a career that you can actually hold on to so you don't burn out when you're 35.”
For dessert, chocolatier Claire Rey Benjamin created a dish as eclectic as Rue Claire, her Seneca Wine Trail property. There, she sells her confections, raises honeybees, and grows lavender.
“My contribution in this region is to highlight what everyone is practicing, to follow those footsteps on the legacy of the chefs around here,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin played with the concepts of land and sea for her course, blending local ingredients and global flavors. Her signature sweet, the “chonion”—caramelized red onions and honey-infused walnuts embedded in dark-chocolate—sprouted from a porcelain eggshell cup of dense, moist Oaxacan-spiced brownie “dirt.” A hand-painted truffle filled with local turmeric and ginger-infused cream sat in a “sand” of crushed Cork Flakes and maple sugar, while another, flavored with bright, floral passion fruit and lavender, was nestled in an oyster shell among jalapeño-infused tapioca pearls.
At the close of the evening, Irelan addressed the dining room. “I think we all are pretty well known in our community but never had a chance to actually be a team,” she said. “This was really that once-in-a-lifetime thing where you can bring together people who represent various parts of the community to act as a single unit.”
Alexandra Jones is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, USA Today, Civil Eats, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and more. Follow her on Instagram @arockjonestown.