Chef Peter Berley’s Local, Sustainable Cooking School

01 Jan, 2012

When a renowned chef decides to embark upon a business venture, it is usually a restaurant and it is commonly in the center of a thriving metropolitan area. But Chef Peter Berley—former executive chef at New York City’s Angelica Kitchen, cooking instructor and award-winning cookbook author—decided, instead, upon a cooking school. And when he built and finally opened his North Fork Kitchen in a remote area of Long Island, his motivation extended well beyond self-promotion and financial gain.

“I have been teaching on and off for about 25 years in various settings, mostly in New York City,” Berley told Organic Connections. “I’ve always found that the schools that I teach in are lacking in several things. One is atmosphere: they tend to be industrial, noisy, and have harsh lighting. So I’ve always wanted a kitchen where I could have people come to, and equip and design it the way I want, and have it in a place that I like to be.

“The second thing is that typically classes can be anywhere from fourteen to eighteen people. To me, that’s just too many; I think it’s much more effective to teach in a smaller group. So I’ve limited my classes to eight, and that seems to be a perfect number. It’s intimate, but there are enough people to make the class exciting, to bring different personalities into the room, and so on.”

However, Berley’s third—but not by any means the least important—motivation stemmed from a philosophical belief. “I really didn’t have any control over the quality of ingredients in the institutions that I worked in,” Berley said. “Now I have a lot of flexibility: I can decide to get my produce from whatever farm I want. I can decide to join a CSA. I can decide to get eggs from my neighbor. And, I can really teach seasonally.

“The goal, the ideal, is to be able to get most of our food from our local agriculture, our local artisans, our local producers, because I think, going forward, centralized ways of producing goods aren’t working. There is a dominance of the corporate sector to the great disadvantage of the populace. I believe one of the possible cures for that is developing local economies everywhere, smaller but many more sources of food.”

Berley chose a location that was perfectly suited to a locally sourced operation. “I’ve always loved the North Fork of Long Island, which is a historical farming, agriculture and fishing district area. I bought a cottage on the North Fork in South Jamesport, just about a five-minute walk from the Peconic Bay. The bay is a beautiful, clean body of water, and there are oysters there; there are scallops and all kinds of fish. I’m right by the water and I’m by many vineyards. I’ve got local livestock, local cheese, milk and produce. It’s just wonderful.”

Into the Kitchen

The curriculum Berley is evolving extends from his love of seasonally available local ingredients. “The philosophy is really driven by what I’m passionate about,” he explained. “So, number one is that the cooking style is seasonal and the products that we use are seasonally available. There is also learning how to use sustainably raised seafood, and learning all the techniques that go into good cooking, such as roasting and braising and sautéing.”

The seasonal aspect will extend outside the kitchen too. “I haven’t started my garden yet, but it is going to become an integral part of the classes. I have a really nice-size area for gardening, and in the spring I’m going to plant a four-season garden there. I’ll have cold frames so I can produce winter crops during the winter as well. Where we’re located we have more sunlight than practically any other area in the United States, because there are three bodies of water that the sunlight reflects off of.”

The classroom environment Berley added into his cottage was completely suited to his purposes. “It’s a beautiful kitchen,” he said. “It’s skylit, there are windows all around, and I built a wood-burning bread oven inside of it. I can teach my bread-baking classes in a wood-fired oven as well as in conventional home-style gas ovens, because I have two of those as well.”

Bread making is something Berley dearly loves, and he wants to help his students tap into the great enjoyment available from it. “I feel that bread baking is really essential, not only for sustenance; but I really believe that there is incredible opportunity for connectivity and spiritual development. When I say bread, I’m talking about naturally leavened artisanal bread, using wild yeast that you cultivate. You learn how to develop that yeast into loaves that are slow rising and stay very fresh for a long time, and are much more nourishing than breads leavened with commercial yeast.

“Bread is also rich as an opportunity for people to connect. You get into baking more than you need, so you’re going to end up giving bread to people. That’s just a great gift. Nothing makes me happier than when someone makes something for me, and bread is a beautiful craft to learn. It’s something that people can learn at any age, in any walk of life. It’s inexpensive to do, it’s a great hobby, and it’s a wonderful way of connecting with your friends, neighbors and family.”

Another aspect that Berley is passionate about is cooking with wood—and he is conveying this to his students as well. “I love cooking with wood,” he continued. “I feel the vibration of wood is much different than gas, and certainly much different than electric or microwave. I think it produces much deeper, sort of more stable food.

“There are many ways someone can go about building a wood-fired oven, and such ovens properly insulated are incredibly efficient and inexpensive to run. The life cycle of the heat is long. In my oven, seven split pieces of hardwood is plenty for 36 hours of cooking time.”

Berley also sees wood as a sustainable alternative to natural gas. Natural gas is now being extracted through an extremely harmful method called hydrofracking, in which poisonous chemicals are forced deep into the ground, creating fractures through which natural gas escapes and can be captured. “When you light a fire, you are much more connected to the food that you cook than when you just turn on the gas flame,” Berley said. “We’re dealing with hydrofracking in New York State, and there’s a huge debate going on about it. It’s already occurring in Pennsylvania in a big way and other parts of the country. From what I know, this gas that they’re searching for is not even benefiting America anyway—it’s being sold to China. So gas doesn’t have a huge future to it.”

The End Product

“The movement in local, sustainable food is growing, and I’m simply part of that movement,” Berley concluded. “This is the way I’ve chosen to get involved—just to have a place where people can come and study cooking, using locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, in an intimate environment.

“I hope my students take away inspiration, encouragement and energy to go back home and to continue developing themselves as cooks. I hope that they’ll cook for friends and family and help nourish other people. It will be great if they are inspired to use more local ingredients instead of relying on big corporate interests for their food supply. Individuals can make a huge impact on our culture, and one by one I’m just trying to influence people in a more positive direction than the way we’re currently going.”

For more information on Peter Berley’s North Fork Kitchen, visit http://peterberley.com/classes-in-my-north-fork-kitchen.

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  • JeanLittle

    Peter Berley’s kitchen is amazing. I took a class with him, I highly recommend his classes! He is a great teacher, and Jamesport is beautiful, and close to the city!