Picture-postcard farm dinners on Martha’s Vineyard
The greenhouse dinners that chef and farmer Chris Fischer, 35, hosts at Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark have become a perfect postcard of all things Martha’s Vineyard: exquisitely prepared local food in a beautiful setting, often with famous guests in attendance. Fischer, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and traces his family’s origins there to 1670, wrote “The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook: A Year of Cooking on Martha’s Vineyard” to give a picture of the island beyond summer, using the lens of local food.
“I wanted to tell the story of this community. The year-round community is what makes this place so special. Its traditional ways, pride in the environment of the island, and regulations which have kept it pristine and beautiful,” he says on the phone. Fischer worked at Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York, the American Academy in Rome, and London’s River Cafe before returning to Martha’s Vineyard full time in 2007 to take over the 5-acre family farm and work as a private chef. He was also executive chef at the Beach Plum Inn & Restaurant in Menemsha from 2013 until late last year.
Q. What’s your favorite time of year on the Vineyard?
A. Fall is the best. Most summers are very difficult because you’re working very hard to earn your living. Then everybody leaves, but the water is still warm. It’s still beautiful and there’s so much food. Everyone is happy that they made it through the summer. I hate to think of it as “making it through” a season, because we’re blessed to have the summers that we have. But everyone returns back to their lives on the island and off the island. It’s a beautiful time when we swim and fish. The [fishing] Derby is in the fall. You can grow food up until November and then in the greenhouse. It’s fantastic. That’s why we started the book with the fall.
Q. Why did you decide to move off island?
A. I pictured myself living on the Vineyard, making money, and traveling a bit. It wasn’t until I came to New York and had a meal at Babbo in Greenwich Village that I had my mind blown. I had a meal with a friend who said, “If you like the food here so much, why don’t you just work here?” I applied for a job the next day. I look back and they must have been very desperate because they hired me the day after that. I spent the next three years living away from the island and then splitting seasons for another four years.
Q. What brought you back full time?
A. It was really my mother passing away. My brother and I inherited her house. It was around 2007 and there was a huge emphasis on ingredients in the restaurants I was cooking at. They were putting farm names on menus. I started thinking about my family and how a lot of these products were sourced. I realized I could be much, much closer to them on the island. I was also broke. I started cooking privately for people. Seeds were much cheaper than heads of lettuce, so I started growing the food.
Q. How did the farm dinners begin?
A. I was at the farmers’ market and realized that so many of these farmers were growing the food, but didn’t have a relationship to the actual meal. At the same time, we had two goats and they were really annoying. One was named Kale because it would only be milked if we gave it a bucket of kale. So, we said, let’s have a goat roast. A photographer ended up photographing the meal. This was early on in social media and she was sharing the images with people and they started catching on. People would hear about it and want to come and so we had another one. The next season, we took it a little bit farther. At one point we filled the second greenhouse. So we had two dinners going at the same time. It was a little out of control because it was also illegal.
Q. The book is built around the menus from those dinners. Describe your cooking.
A. Because of the way we source products, the food is so incredibly good and so incredibly fresh, you don’t have to do much to it. It’s simple flavor combinations, simple uses of whole foods and herbs. Not bringing in ingredients from far off places or manipulating things in ways that you don’t have to. That’s my ideal. Having a nice fire to cook over, or a perfect piece of fish that doesn’t need anything. At the restaurant, the dish I was most proud of was a bonito crudo (a local fish served raw). The fish was so gorgeous, fresh, and perfect that we served it on the plate with no salt, no olive oil.