Farming is unbelievable. The learning style is anything but typical; you’re learning about life. It is invaluable. But it would crush most people. You have to be a very hardworking individual with little fear of making mistakes.
Part One / Restaurateur and Farmer of Michelin-rated Blenheim Restaurant, Morten Sohlberg
A modern-day renaissance man – Morten Sohlberg – on what led him to restaurants and farming, how his livestock inspires Blenheim Restaurant’s menu and the meaning behind “grown to order”.
How did you get into farming and what led you down this particular path?
I’ll give you the short story, since the long version would take a few days to tell! I was originally in design, and due to a non-compete when I sold my company in 2003, I had to choose an unrelated field that I could pursue. It ended up being restaurants, more randomly than anything else, to be frank. Our beginning was random, but as we started to build restaurants, I was extremely frustrated with the poor quality of ingredients and that we couldn’t trust where they were coming from. So we decided to get into farming. Not knowing anything about a field is usually the best thing, because I would not have gotten into it had I know how difficult it would be.
We imagine transitioning to a farmer lifestyle was a massive pivot.
Farming is unbelievable. The learning style is anything but typical; you’re learning about life. It is invaluable. But it would crush most people. You have to be a very hardworking individual with little fear of making mistakes. I make them all the time. We have had types of livestock that didn’t work out for us, that we’ve had to sell and stop raising. We’ve had crops that didn’t grow well on our land. There have been a ton of mistakes, but I don’t have much fear making them. Life goes on. Mistakes allow you to grow.
What piece of advice would you pass along to someone that plans to embark on a somewhat parallel journey?
You’re not going to know it all initially. You’re probably not going to know anything at all. Farming is a very specific field and oftentimes requires a lifetime to learn. It’s probably why very few do it but there are some others. Blue Hill has a connection to a farm, and they have a restaurant on that farm, so they’re very legitimate.
But you’re doing something very different.
The difference is that we breed all of our animals. Many others buy calves or piglets and raise them for meat. Or buy day old guinea hens. We hatch our own eggs, we develop blood lines for our pig breeds, that yield pigs with very specific meat qualities.
Can you speak about the collaboration between yourself and your chef and how that drives the creation of your menu?
There is always dialogue with Chef James about what is coming from the farm, what we can use in the dishes, and he creates beautiful dishes with the things we grow. It is about using what we have, not just picking and choosing. If we harvest a pig, we have to use the whole pig. There are no options there. Longer-term, our chefs are traditionally involved in the process of growing the produce. So in the spring, when you’re picking seeds, choosing crops and planning your season of growth, the chef and the farmers will get around a table to discuss what we want for the menu – we’ve coined this process, “grown to order”.
Part Two / Executive Chef, James Friedberg
Classically-trained executive chef and newcomer to the Blenheim family – James Friedberg – on how the farm inspires his menu and the temperament of his kitchen.
How long have you been cooking professionally?
I’m 31, and I’ve been cooking professionally for 10 years. I got my start in the restaurant industry at 15. It started as an after-school job and went from there.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what brought you to Blenheim?
It was a bit of a coincidence. My background is primarily in Michelin and NYTimes three/four-star restaurants, in New York at least – Le Cirque, Gilt, Aureole. I came here on a chance, and saw the potential in what Morten is creating.
I stood outside the kitchen for a little while on Saturday, and just watched. One of the things I was very struck by was the peaceful energy in the kitchen. Kitchens are notoriously loud and emotional places…
Yeah of course, I take it very seriously. I would say my approach is more meditative versus screaming like the old French guys. I think there is a new generation of chefs; more calculated, organized, so you’re not so upset. If everything is done properly before service then it doesn’t need to be this intense, angry environment. If the food is coming out how I like it, then I enjoy putting it on a plate and bringing it out to our customers.
Can you speak a little bit about the collaboration that takes place between you as the chef and the farm?
The farm drives the menu. We get little pigs and we use all their parts. It drives the menu because we don’t waste anything. I have carte blanche to create whatever menu I can imagine based off a set ingredient list.
What would you say to a young person that aspiring to create mission-based, sustainable food?
Focus on the food, and don’t worry about the drama that surrounds the interpersonal in restaurants. At the end of the day, it is about the food and that translates to the experience. Focus on what you’re doing and try to better it every day. That’s all you can do. Working in a kitchen can be very repetitive and factory-like in some ways, aside from changing the menu, which I do often. It t gets boring doing the same pumpkin soup, but the point is to try to do it better than you did the day before. That’s what makes it interesting.
What has been your biggest learning curve as a chef?
I guess restraint is the hardest thing for me. You want to do all these different things. I think I’ve gotten better with it, but when I was starting to create dishes years ago – you want to put all these different things on the plate – but you have to take one away. That’s when it’s good. Simplicity is the hardest thing that I’ve had to learn; to do focused flavors. The best chefs do that, and it’s only after many, many years of trying to show off a bit.
What are your thoughts on creativity in the kitchen?
I think it shouldn’t be forced. Creativity in the kitchen is ingredient-driven. I think it’s just to be happy, not angry. To enjoy eating good food. Not to force anything. A lot of the best dishes I’ve done have “come together”. They weren’t necessarily a product of me sitting down with a piece of paper.
What excites you about Blenheim?
I think it’s the whole package. I think we have huge potential to make this an even more popular restaurant, a great neighborhood restaurant.
This is just the beginning! We’re going to keep evolving and getting better!
Editor’s Note: Blenheim Restaurant recently received the coveted Recommended rating from the Michelin Guide. Very well deserved!
MOVERS + MAKERS / conversations that fuel our vision.