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A Culinary Fundamentalist

A Culinary Fundamentalist

Sustainability, local sourcing and green practices are imperatives many onsite kitchens are trying to incorporate into their operations. But it's fair to say that few are practicing it with the focus Matthew Weingarten has.

Weingarten is the executive chef for the Sodexo operation at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue and 51st Street in the heart of Manhattan. His primary responsibility is Inside Park at St. Bart's, an indoor/outdoor restaurant located on the grounds of historic complex.

The 200-seat terrace portion opened earlier this year with a limited “casual” menu, while the more elaborate 130-seat indoor restaurant is expected to open in June.

In addition to Inside Park, Weingarten oversees catering on the premises, primarily corporate events and wedding receptions.

A former chef de cuisine at the celebrated Savoy Restaurant as well as a veteran of various other New York culinary landmarks (An American Place, Quilty's, Tribeca Grill, Tuscan), Weingarten has become noted for a kind of culinary fundamentalism that emphasizes a connection with traditional methods and the origins of dishes and ingredients.

A serious student of culinary history, he has put into practice at Inside Park such traditional crafts as fruit preservation, pickling, meat curing and “nose to tail” product usage (he likes to buy whole carcasses and use them completely, citing an ecological imperative not to waste anything).

The restaurant even makes its own farmer's cheese and smoked meats, as well as exotics like juniper jam, rose hip jam and even head cheese. He sources as much as possible from local suppliers, but also tries to emphasize heritage breeds as a way to keep a connection with culinary traditions.

This isn't just a “green” operation…

My focus has always been on artisanal and what I call the lost culinary arts. It directly correlates with the way that I purchase. The focus of Inside Park is really on heritage, on Old World artisinal practices and the culinary arts. The fact that we're in such a beautiful historic space makes it a perfect marriage.

Nor is it an “intimate little space”…

No, this is no joke. I wanted to get away from small boutique restaurants, though I'm not sure I was prepared to jump into a 300-person pond! On the other hand, I have worked with a number of restaurants about this size, so I know what this feels like. Still, I've never been as gung-ho about being artisinal and traditional as I am now.

How did food figure into your growing up?

Eating was always a big part of my family life. It wasn't about eating in fancy restaurants, but more about our house being the place where everyone came for the holidays. Both of my parents cooked, and every night we had to eat what was served, except for one “bye” each. Mine was liver.

Did you have a favorite meal?

Not especially, though my mom's chicken cacciatore was great. She made it on a tabletop skillet.

What about an interest in cooking?

Once we were old enough there was a rule: whoever got home first started dinner, the second one set the table, the third cleared the table and the fourth did the dishes. I always wanted to be the one to come home first. My mom would leave the flank steak out and my forté was to get every salad dressing out of the refrigerator and make up a marinade.

What about college?

I went to Ohio University and majored in English. In my junior year we moved into this beautiful farmhouse with an organic garden. I got involved with that and started reading more cookbooks and having friends over for dinner. I just became enamored with the natural world and what you could do with different things. I started baking bread after learning about wild yeast starters.

When did you get interested in the so-called “nose-to-tail” approach?

There was a moment in the kitchen of Larry Forgione's An American Place when we were getting whole lambs in. I'd been reading about preparing lamb kidney skewers with Madeira in an old British cookbook, so I suggested we make that to use up the kidneys. It was served and actually did okay, but it really got me to thinking about looking at the whole animal.

Why do you read old cookbooks?

In general I like recipes that don't have amounts — I look at them for inspiration more than quantities. Also, there are always side stories to tell: where and why and how these different ingredients came to be used. I don't believe in the invention of anything, especially culinarily.

Can your standards be maintained in such a high-volume environment?

Most of the work is in planning and in doing all the prep work — all the canning and the curing — which requires skilled hands to do the work. My goal is to touch food every day.

Favorite dish: Really good sausage with pickles and good bread

Favorite restaurant: Penzion Trattoria in Presov, Slovakia

Book recommendations: The Old English Herbals, by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde; The Complete Book of Herbs & Spices, by Sarah Garland

Favorite dish to prepare at home: Pot au feu

Chef hero: Peter Hoffman

Favorite movie: Eat Drink Man Woman

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