I recently had the opportunity to spend an incredible day behind the kitchen door of Peter Pratt’s Inn. I was welcomed into the inn by Chef/Owner, Jonathan Pratt, who is a just a bundle of culinary energy, and his extremely creative CIA trained Executive Chef, Nick Di Bona. Here’s what I learned during my kitchen adventure:
Restaurant: Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown
Description: This charming inn dates back to 1780 and is located on Croton Heights Road, one of the oldest sections of Yorktown. The main dining room, which was the barn foundation, is both rustic and cozy with low overhead exposed chestnut beams and a large open hearth fireplace. As the warm weather approaches, there’s outside dining on the patio, and Wednesday nights are real treats with special BBQs or La Caja China pig roasts.
Cuisine: A Contemporary/New American menu with local farm ingredients like Jonathan Pratt’s honey from his hive and maple syrup from some of the surrounding 200 year old maple trees. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between what is on their inspired menu and the historic building where you are dining. Although you seem to step back in time, the cuisine is all about the here and now.
Sous chefs: Nick Figora patiently allowed me to assist him, too, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Tim Short, who normally comes in for the weekend crush.
Kitchen staff: Garde manger, Daniel, works the cold station turning out salads, appetizers and desserts. Laura, from Natural Gourmet Institute, lends a welcomed hand in the kitchen as she completes her internship hours for graduation.
Signature dish: Duck can always be found on the menu in one incarnation or another. Currently being served up is a Seared Rohan Duck Breast served with warm duck-confit napa cabbage slaw, pan fried noodles and a tangerine-scotch bonnet glaze.
Bar scene: Located just off to the side as you enter the restaurant, the bar is a favorite local spot for both Pratt regulars and newcomers to socialize, enjoy a glass of wine, and grab a grass-fed burger from the bar menu.
Coolest appliance: The Lab 100B Ice Cream Maker is the granddaddy of my little Cuisinart, and when it’s time to make ice cream, it gets wheeled out from its little cubby.
Once it is warmed up (or more accurately cooled down), frozen goodness is only five minutes away. Talk about instant gratification! I helped to make the peanut ice cream which is served with the Baked Alaska Cupcake. The recipe starts with a puree of roasted peanuts (more on that later), cream and some seaweed. No, that wasn’t a typo. Nick adds a powdered stabilizer made from seaweed, called pre-gel, to the mixture which keeps the texture of the frozen ice cream just the way we like it – creammmmy. Since the flavors are only limited to the chef’s imagination, don’t be surprised to find on the menu fig balsamic, key lime, Italian cheesecake or Jon’s favorite, the very exotic lilikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit).
Don’t have any pre-gel in your pantry, but want similar results in your homemade ice cream? Nick’s suggestion to add in some vodka made perfect sense to me (the alcohol in the vodka doesn’t freeze), and I can’t wait to try it on my first batch of ice cream this summer. I promise to report back with the results.
Here’s another “cool” fact that I learned from Nick, foods that are warm are sweeter or saltier to our taste receptors, so a cold item like ice cream needs extra sugar to taste sweet.
Size of kitchen: It’s really one big room (approximately 40×40 feet) on the main level of the house that has been organized into a very efficient work space. Sunlight streams in from the windows on two walls making it very bright (perfect for taking pictures!). Because the dining room is located on the lower level, servers must be in good shape running dishes up and down the stairs. All in all, I thought it was extremely spacious, but I’m sure the staff might beg to differ when service is in full swing on a busy night.
Size of prep area: I counted about five different prep areas in the nooks and crannies of the room. Personal workspaces are easily created like the one on a side counter where Daniel was assembling a dessert or by the sink where sous chef Nick F. was fabricating (breaking down and cutting up into portions for service) a whole red snapper.
The main counter island has two sides. The one closest to the stove is usually in full force during service being used for menu components at hand (mise en place) and plating, but it is easily converted into prep areas during the day by positioning cutting boards to create workspaces. (Useful tidbit: To keep a cutting board from moving around while chopping, place a damp towel or a rubber non-slip pad underneath.)
Turning up the heat: Across the length of one wall is a huge 12 burner Jade stove with two ovens.
Right next to it is a grill, fryer, and a free standing dual door convection oven. Unlike a conventional oven that just heats up, a convention oven circulates warm air all around. This insures an even heat, which is a perfect environment for baking cakes and breads. On the other end of the kitchen, there is a double door, electric pizza oven that’s not only used for pizzettes (personal pizzas) but also for quick heating.
Chef’s favorite dish: This is how Nick wrote his favorite dish on the menu — Mmmmm … Chicken and Waffles — and it couldn’t be more accurate. It’s a happy marriage of the American South and the Caribbean Islands. The uniqueness of this dish is what’s so appealing to Nick. It’s something different to find on a menu in this area, and it has nothing to do with either his or Jon’s background. It started when Nick wondered what would happen if he put the batter from Jon’s polouie (fritters made from lentil flour) in the waffle maker. The poussin, a young chicken, is cut up and has a good 24 hour soak in a bath of buttermilk, sriracha, herbs and spices. After that, it’s dredged in flour and fried gently to ensure a crispy crust and tender meat. The “syrup” for these waffles is a sweet, sour and a little fruity tamarind sauce.
Most complicated dish: The Berkshire Pork Belly Stuffed Clams appetizer is very time consuming, but good things come to those who wait. Pork belly is how that bacon with your morning eggs starts out before it is cured and smoked. Nick takes this cut, made up of alternating layers of fat and meat, and cures it for a day in a mixture hot pepper, salt and sugar. Then, it gets braised low and slow in the oven for over three hours. The clams, scrubbed clean by intern Laura, are then steamed with white wine and garlic. The clam meat is scooped out and the shells are sanitized in the dishwasher so they can be stuffed with the clam and pork belly mixture. They are baked to a golden crisp in the pizza oven.
Secret ingredient: The answer to this question was way too easy for Jonathan Pratt: Umami, the fifth taste sense along with bitter, sweet, sour and salty. He’s an umami expert and has been known to describe it as culinary crack because it’s so addictive you will want more and more. It’s found in ingredients like parmesan cheese, duck, mushrooms, wine, truffles and basically anything that is fermented or cured like soy sauce or bacon. Pratt’s menu is punctuated with umami flavors, but if you want a full umami experience, visit Jon’s and Craig Purdy’s restaurant in Croton named (what else?) Umami Café.
Chef’s culinary mentor: Nick credits his father and Jon Pratt for his interest in food. Nick’s father comes from Abruzzi, Italy, and growing up eating meals around an Italian table was a big influence. Under Jon’s guidance at the restaurant, he has the freedom explore new dishes, and their creative partnership is like a chef mélange which is apparent in the restaurant’s diverse menu. Nick has a notebook where he jots down ideas, and his culinary inspiration comes from looking through food photos on the web, watching the Food Network, or simply going out to dinner to see what other chefs are doing.
Favorite kitchen gadget: Jon laments about a now missing in action serrated zester/peeler that could thinly zest a lemon and was so sharp it could even peel a tomato. Nick thinks it’s pretty fun using the cotton candy machine to spin vanilla bean cotton candy for the Foie Gras Brulee. For me, it was processing the roasted peanuts into a paste for the ice cream using a Champion combo juicer/super grinder.
What’s cooking in the kitchen now: I helped to make the delicate dough for the avocado gnocchi that accompanies the Masa and Manchego Stuffed Chicken. Because of the soft texture, it was important to have a gentle touch kneading, rolling and cutting the little avocado, lime and potato dumplings.
What’s on the prep list:
Cacavella is a unique basket-shaped pasta, which is filled with a ricotta cheese and garlic mixture. The dish is finished with a morel mushroom ragu on top.
The time consuming task of breaking down a whole 20 pound rib eye into steaks was Nick’s job. Cutting away the marbled cap portion gave him the ability to get two uses out of one cut of meat (there’s no waste in a restaurant kitchen). He grills up portions of the cap with shaved asparagus dressed in a bacon vinaigrette and twice fried potatoes. The fries are cut exposing a lot of surface area and are blanched (basically pre-cooked) in 250 degree oil for 8 to 10 minutes. They are then finished at a higher temperature to get the outside super crispy yet keeping the inside nice and soft.
Kitchen music: There was some serious rock and roll playing in the background as we worked, and I found myself singing in my head (at least I hope it was in my head) tunes from Meat Loaf and Rush. Excellent station choice!
My random insights: The low boy fridge at the main station had drawers that pulled out instead of doors. I thought it was so convenient to be able to see and grab any item, instead of having to physically get down and reach in almost two feet to retrieve that container way in the back.
Because of the necessity to have precise measurements, a scale can be found every professional kitchen. I guess it’s not sexy enough to get into the gadget category, but it’s the first piece of equipment to grab when you need five ounces of flour.
The restaurant kitchen is usually an amazingly fast paced environment, but sometimes a specific task, like cutting veggies in a 1/8 inch cube (brunoise), demands time, patience and a precise hand.
Details: Peter Pratt’s Inn, 673 Croton Heights Road, Yorktown, 914.962.4090. Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5:30 – 10 pm. Also available for private parties and off-premises catering.
Patrice Costa is a passionate foodie who is on a personal culinary mission to learn it all from local chefs. She looks forward to sharing her experiences as she goes behind the kitchen door in some of her favorite restaurant kitchens. When not on foodie assignments, she can be found working in the open kitchen at Thyme Restaurant in Yorktown.