By Samantha Marsh | Photographs by Dominic Perri
Gnocchi, English muffins, bacon, sausage, XO sauce, and beer cheese ... just a handful of the ingredients made from scratch at the Alvah Stone. Howard Wein’s restaurant and bar in the picturesque Montague Mill location (previously the Night Kitchen) celebrates its first anniversary this April.
“We would never do it any other way,” says chef David Schrier when explaining why their menu has such a focus on housemade ingredients.
Cooking “from scratch” is certainly not a new restaurant trend, however, an increasing number of restaurants are placing even more emphasis on this aspect of their cooking in order to ensure the quality and taste of every dish that leaves the kitchen. The Alvah Stone has experimented extensively with re-creating “store-bought” favorites—using fresh, quality ingredients in lieu of their processed counterparts.
“We have a problem with the ingredients, not the actual food itself,” David explains.
One of the Alvah Stone’s first experiments was to create a burger that they, and their diners, wouldn’t get tired of. David explains that if they were going to serve a burger, it “had to be really good” ... and so they went to work to re-create the classic American burger, gooey “American” cheese and all. Clearly the experiment was a success, as the burger hasn’t left the menu since the restaurant opened.
The Alvah Stone burger is prepared with local, dry-aged beef from River Rock Farm in Brimfield, which is then ground and formed into patties, grilled, topped with onion marmalade, pickles, melted cheese, and mayonnaise. It’s served on a housemade English muffin. In the summer, David adds a juicy tomato slice to the burger, but outside of the season “I won’t even look at a tomato.”
The cheese is meant to replicate the texture of individually wrapped American cheese singles, evoking nostalgia for the simple days of childhood. It’s no lab experiment, however—it is made from aged Grafton cheddar cheese and emulsified to enhance its creaminess. The English muffin recipe, in similar fashion, has been refined to taste as good as, if not better, than the classic Thomas’ English muffin that so many know and adore.
“We love the taste of Thomas’ muffins, but we would never dream of using them,” David says. Pastry chef (and David’s wife) Jessica Schrier has perfected the experience of the English muffin with all the nooks and crannies that we remember from our Thomas’ muffin-eating days, sans the long list of unpronounceable ingredients.
“[Cooking from scratch] is fun. It’s a constant challenge to make something as good as the original,” David continues. He explains that it is all about trial and error—recipes will not come out perfectly every time. The first time David attempted to make soba noodles, for example,“it was horrible,” he admits with a chuckle.
David and the kitchen team have mastered other housemade pastas, however. Pastas such as pappardelle, cavatelli, tortellini, agnolotti, and gnocchi are always served—a gnocchi dish has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening.
“We have housemade pasta on the menu every night,” David explains. In the spring or summer, pasta may be served in ham broth with ricotta cheese and pea purée, while winter dishes tend to be heartier. David continues to describe why he loves making pasta, “it’s something that’s simple” but that he and his team “don’t get tired of looking at [it].”
The culinary mindset behind the Alvah Stone isn’t so much about adhering to the trendiness of “DIY” food and using local and in-season ingredients as it is about simply doing what makes sense.
“‘Farm to table’ is hilarious,” David says of the recent popularity of the phrase to describe restaurant cuisine. He feels that every restaurant should be using local, seasonal ingredients. There should be no need to call it out and draw attention to it, because “it just makes sense,” he concludes. “We would never define ourselves using this terminology. It’s overused and disrespected.”
Howard and David have strong relationships with many local farmers and vendors, including Snugg Valley Farm in Southern Vermont, Four Star Farms in Northfield, BerkShore in Northampton, Clarkdale Farm in South Deerfield, Red Fire Farm in Montague, Mapleline Farm in Hadley and Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland. “Whatever they have, we’ll use,” David says of the process of ordering produce from farms.
“Last year we sold the Alvah Stone a lot of shishito peppers, salad greens, peas, garlic, radishes, tropea onions, treviso radicchio, fennel, all kinds of herbs, heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes, cauliflower, celeriac, and lots more,” said Caroline Pam, co-owner of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland.
Wes Malzone from BerkShore is the fish supplier for the Alvah Stone. BerkShore delivers fish from the shore of Massachusetts multiple times a week to restaurants in Western Massachusetts, allowing restaurants like the Alvah Stone to serve some of the best seafood that the state has to offer (learn more about BerkShore in the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Pioneer Valley).
David trusts his local vendors, and is happy to experiment with different vegetables, unfamiliar types of fish, or different cuts of meat if a supplier has something exciting to bring to the table.
Caroline adds, “We love working with David because he really appreciates and knows how to use some of the more unusual specialty vegetables we grow. He is always excited to try anything new and we can feel confident that our vegetables will be highlighted on the menu with respect and skill. We are often in contact throughout the week by text. If I have something cool like shiso or okra but not enough to put on the list for everyone, I can text David and he’s usually happy to work it into his menu.”
“It’s all about making good food,” David says. “We use whatever tastes the best.”
It is clear from the Alvah Stone menu that the focus on the ingredients is first and foremost, and allows them to stand out. David explains that the process of creating the menu each night is very democratic. Most of the kitchen crew has been at the restaurant since it opened, and David trusts their opinions and skills when it comes to deciding what sauce to pair with a meat, trying out a certain plating technique, or experimenting with a new flavor combination.
For example, when David asked Dave Clegg, a line cook, what flavor he thought would go well with carrots, his answer (sesame seeds), became a new roasted carrot and sesame seed dish.
“Eli [the sous-chef] is the gnocchi master,” David says about another member of team. “We’re always learning,” David says of himself and his crew.
“We’re the opposite of traditionalists,” Dave explains. It just has to taste good. “Seasoning is important—but not just salt. We use a lot of acid and vinegar in our dishes.”
“And as much fat as it can accept,” he adds with a laugh.
It’s an exciting time for restaurants (and restaurant-goers) as the focus on specific cuisines shifts to a focus on quality ingredients and a chef’s personal style of cooking. Restaurants that cook everything from scratch are no longer one in a million, but are becoming increasingly popular. The Alvah Stone is leading this charge and are committed to getting others to join them—making good food from scratch is the right way to cook.
Samantha Marsh is a writer and food lover based in the Pioneer Valley. She holds a BA in journalism and anthropology from UMass Amherst and works as a literary associate at The Lisa Ekus Group in Hatfield. When she is not writing about food, Samantha can be found teaching dance, practicing yoga, or testing out new baking recipes at her home in North Amherst.