The morning I arrived at Tarry Lodge’s kitchen, chef de cuisine Sam Epps was not exactly where I expected to find him. He had his sleeves rolled up and was in the process of moving an unwieldy retired pasta cooker out of the restaurant. The team work was impressive, and I knew if this much effort was going into getting a brand spanking new piece of equipment installed, I was in for an adventurous day behind the kitchen door.
Restaurant: Tarry Lodge
Description: The main room has an old fashioned feel with a decorative mosaic tiled floor in the entryway, a center dining area with marble topped pedestal tables and scrolled wood backed chairs. The dining room is broken up into sections with the main area having the most casual feel. Up a few steps up or around the corner brings you into more formal white tablecloth sections. The room is bathed in calm yellowy ochre with high ceilings accentuated with white crown moldings. Dark wood floors are a nice contrast to the white open cabinets that double as an efficient workspace for the front of house staff. In total, the restaurant seats 220, which includes an outside terrazzo that is open in the summer.
Cuisine: With two of the restaurant partners being Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich (okay, I have to admit just writing that makes me giddy), the cuisine couldn’t be further from pizzeria red and white checked plastic tablecloth Italian. The easy to navigate one page menu is creative and progressive, punctuated with mouthwatering ingredients like prosciutto, ricotta, pepperonata, fregula, baccala, caponata, and polenta. It’s a celebration of the flavors of Italy ranging from a full scale dinner to a quick pizza. Each month a different region of Italy is highlighted for the specials, like these Palermo Style Artichokes with chilies, mint and bread crumbs from Sicily.
Executive chef-partner: From starting out in Mario Batali’s kitchen at Po and Babbo, to partnering with both Batali and Bastianich to open Casa Mono and Bar Jamón in NYC, chef-partner Andy Nusser brings his culinary force to his home turf in Westchester at Tarry Lodge.
Mark Vergari / The Journal News
He splits his time between Manhattan, Port Chester, and Westport (the newest Connecticut location of Tarry Lodge). Although I only saw him briefly while I was in the middle of my pizza making lesson (we did the cheffy elbow touch greeting since my hands were full of dough), I could tell he was very much present in this kitchen.
Chef de cuisine: French Culinary Institute grad and chef de cuisine Sam Epps is bringing to this kitchen a level of experience and creativity that’s frankly surprising for his young age. He runs this kitchen in a confident and relaxed manner. He was on an early culinary track, growing up in a restaurant family in Ithaca and then heading off to NYC for culinary school. Most students do an externship (think on the job training) as part of their curriculum to graduate. Sam went to Tuscany to work and teach at Toscana Saporita, a culinary school that offers Tuscan cooking vacations (side note: interesting coincidence that a friend of mine actually did an amazing culinary vacation at that very school and gave me the next best thing to being there — the handout of the recipes they made!). This was where Sam crossed paths with Mario Batali and staff from Babbo while they were there (what do chefs do on vacation? — cook!). It was this twist of fate that brought Sam an extraordinary opportunity to work at Babbo, gaining experience at all stations on the line and ultimately getting to know chef Andy Nusser. So, connecting all the culinary dots, that’s how Sam was brought in to join the team at Tarry Lodge.
Sous chefs: Sous chefs Gerard Assue and Fabian Marquez are a big part of this kitchen team. When Gerard came in, he quickly got to work checking the prep list which had a curious salutation at the top.
When I asked him about it, he answered with a mischievous smile that he likes to leave little love notes for the staff. Although this one was a reference to a movie about longboarders, it seemed to describe the kitchen gang appropriately.
Kitchen staff: When in full swing for dinner service, there can be up to eight line cooks between the hot line, salad, pizza and dessert stations. Some of them, like Hilmer Santos at the pizza oven, started as a dishwasher. Finding another female in the kitchen, I immediately bonded with line cook Lauren Tocci. Don’t let her petite frame fool you — she’s a powerhouse. Working in the kitchen at Tarry Lodge for the past two years, she is learning as she goes (sounds familiar except she’s a generation or two younger than me). She’s passionate about her craft, and is building confidence along the way. She knows she’s going to make mistakes, but it’s the only way to learn.
Signature dish: With a baker’s dozen selection of wood-fired pizzas, it’s the Guanciale with Black Truffles and Sunny Side Egg that tops the diners’ list. The rustic well-baked crust and thin layer of cheese on this pizza is just a vehicle for the ultra rich toppings. From the rich piggy cheeks (a/k/a guanciale — for the DIY’s here’s a recipe from Mario Batali) to the unctuous truffles and ending with the eggy yolk which just begs to be gently broken and smeared evenly, it was heavenly.
Bar scene: When my hubby met me for dinner after my day in the kitchen, I thought it would be nice to have a casual meal at the bar — everyone else seemed to share my opinion since by 7 pm, even with tables available, the bar was teeming.
As we made quick friends with Paul Toro, the resident Barcologist and all around nice guy, we totally understood the appeal. For the record, he doesn’t exactly name his mixology creations, and basically associates drinks to specific people. I hope he remembers what he concocted for us because it was deeee-licious.
I lovingly named it the Culinary Goddess — Flor rose prosecco, St. Germain, peach schnapps, blood orange juice, and raspberry vodka. Take note though that wine enthusiasts will not be disappointed with an easy-to-read extensive Italian wine list, sectioned by region, with bottles ranging from $30 for a Bastianich Refosco to $1,100 for a 1.5 liter Conterno Aldo Riserva Granbussia.
Coolest appliance: This wood burning pizza oven and all that goes with it is the pinnacle of cool in this kitchen, in spite of the fact that temperatures inside can reach 900 degrees.
Hilmer Santos, the pizza master and oven tender, expertly stacked the hardwoods and got the fire started, carefully maintaining the flames throughout the day. The real fun began when the lunch tickets started coming in, and Hilmer took in stride making seven pizzas one right after the other.
When it quieted down, he demonstrated his technique in pizza making starting with working the dough into shape. Here’s the video:
I watched his every move, but somehow when the dough got into my hands, it just wouldn’t behave. I did manage to wrangle it into a decent circle, but there’s lots more practice in my pizza future.
The kitchen: The main kitchen area is T-shaped with the hot line at the top and the pizza and cold station running perpendicular to it. There are two separate areas off to the side for pastry and daily prep of veggies, meat, and fish. There’s one walk-in refrigerator near the hot line which holds items in back up for service (when the chefs need to replenish an item in their station, it’s just steps away). There’s another walk-in fridge downstairs for items waiting to be prepped, but beware that even for this height challenged blogger, the ceiling was quite low and no amount of “watch your head” could keep me from banging it a few times.
Turning up the heat: There are three Jade French tops, one right after the other measuring 9 ft x 3 ft of white hot real estate. On one side of the line is the shiny new Desco pasta cooker and at the other end is a Jade grill. Underneath two of the cooktops are ovens, while one cooktop and the grill have conveniently located refrigerated drawers holding items at the ready. There are also two sets of double stacked Blodgett convection ovens.
Chef’s personal favorite: Simple comfort food to Sam is the Brasato al Barolo, which is beef braised in Barolo wine, and it is best enjoyed with a nice glass of that same bold red wine. I was able to follow this dish from early start to dinner finish. Line cook Lauren was busy browning the brasato as I started my day in the kitchen.
When the meat was finished, Lauren sautéed a mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot. Next, tomato paste was added and the pan was deglazed with (here it comes) Piedmontese Barolo red wine. After the wine had time to reduce, chicken stock, thyme, and fresh bay leaves were added and the meat was returned to the mixture to braise low and slow for about three hours.
It was done when the meat was fall apart tender. The Brasato was served over soft polenta (cornmeal) with that flavorful sauce and topped with fresh strips of horseradish. Sam explained that the horseradish is a very authentic garnish, and although I was surprised by its addition, I enjoyed the unique and bright spice it brought to this hearty dish.
Most complicated dish on the menu: Sam likes to stay true to the tradition of Italian comfort food like the Pork Osso Buco. It’s not exactly a challenging dish, but one where a good deal of thought goes into its ingredients. Sam makes sure his dishes have spicy, sweet, salty, and acidic components. He especially likes acid because it makes everything pop. In this dish, there is a jalapeno pesto (spicy), grilled corn gremolata (sweet), lemon zest (acid) and, of course, seasonings like pepper and salt (salty).
Chef’s culinary mentor: Sam’s 16th birthday present was working papers and a busboy job application to work in the family restaurant, The Coddington in Ithaca. (it was in his mom’s family for 100 years!). Unfortunately, front of house was not exactly his calling, and in the nicest way possible, he was let go by a co-worker who would eventually become his wife (I guess he didn’t hold a grudge). He did go back sometime later as a dishwasher and then progressed to the salad and pizza stations and eventually to the hot line. Heading up that kitchen was his cousin Joe, who Sam credits with making him realize that he wanted to be a chef too. After graduating from culinary school, it was working with executive chef Frank Langello at Babbo that helped him to perfect his art. And finally, at Tarry Lodge working with executive chef-partner Andy Nusser, he has matured into a professional cook. Andy has given him a true understanding of all the aspects of the inner workings of a restaurant.
Favorite kitchen gadget: Sam relies on his Victorinox 8-inch chef knife valued at a whooping $32. What does he love about it? He uses it for everything, it sharpens up great, and when it gets totally beat up, he just gets a new one.
What’s cooking in the kitchen now: It was a real learning experience for me to observe Sam work on the lunch specials. He started with Taggiasca olives for the Salmon Crudo. These olives have a more buttery olive oil flavor than a briny bite. Here’s how Sam constructed the dish: To make the dressing, he combined chopped Taggiasca olives, along with some of their oil, small diced cucumbers, chives, fresh orange juice, and sherry vinegar (lots of tasting going on during the process to get just the right balance). He then sliced up some amazingly fresh salmon.
He topped the sliced salmon with the mixture and finished it all with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. A spectacular summery dish — light, flavorful, and simply good.
Next, he focused his attention to creating a Panzanella Salad. You wouldn’t think the combination of bread and tomatoes in a salad would be fancy, but the end result was a beautiful dish. Sam combined fresh toasted croutons, leaves of green and opal basil, whole chives, arugula, red onion, sliced cucumber, and a rainbow of red, yellow, and green heirloom tomatoes all lightly dressed with a red wine vinaigrette.
He then topped it all with sliced grilled chicken sauced with house made salsa verde (a vibrant green herbal sauce of basil, mint, parsley, capers, anchovies, arugula, olive oil and red wine vinegar).
What’s on the prep list: One of Lauren’s tasks was to de-bone the Cornish game hens before they were brined. Sam quietly stepped in to show us his technique. He was a very good teacher as he patiently and clearly instructed us how to cut down the back bone
and little by little, with short knife strokes, remove the bones.
For me, it was a lesson well learned since a few weeks later I managed to de-bone a roasting chicken without too much fuss to grill it flat on the BBQ. Thanks Sam!
Family meal: It was some leftover hot dog buns that sparked the inspiration for a family meal of sausage and peppers with potato salad with fresh made mayo. Seriously, this is family meal? Sam’s reply was simple, “If you don’t cook well for the staff, they will think you can’t cook!”
potato salad (before adding in the mayo) and sausage and peppers
First meal: In sixth grade, Sam and his friend, Mike Toscano, decided to make gravy (translation: tomato sauce) and meatballs inspired by scene in the Godfather where Al Pacino makes the dish. Unfortunately, their meatballs were inedible because they were a little heavy handed with the chili flakes. Not the best Sunday dinner at Grandma’s, but it was a start.
My random insights: I love ingredients that are unique and just a little strange like sea beans. When I’ve eaten them, I always assumed these seaweed-like plants were floating around in the ocean before they showed up on my plate (they certainly look like something I’ve seen at the beach). Also called salicornia or seaglass, they grow on mountainsides or land near the ocean where the sea mist they thrive on gives them their salty taste. They have an interestingly crunchy texture along with that ocean flavor.
And speaking of ingredients, (warning: the following picture is not for the tentacle squeamish) here are some octopi just hanging out taking a little soak.
And lastly, just look at these gorgeous figs — my absolute favorite summer fruit.
Details: Tarry Lodge, 18 Mill Street, Port Chester. 914.939.3111. Tarry Lodge is open 7 days a week for lunch (starting at noon) and dinner (closing time varies depending on the day). Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3 pm. Two- course lunch special for $20 offered every day until 3 pm!
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. Come visit her every Saturday at the Pleasantville Farmers Market where she will be in the Ladle of Love food truck whipping up yummy & healthy Love Potion Smoothies.