When thinking about the kind of store she wanted, Rose Willett started with the romantic notion, “Market day in Provence meets Morning Glory Farm.” Then, she went ahead and made that a reality with the opening of Fiddlehead Farm.
Fiddlehead Farm is a farm market-fromagerie-charcuterie that also sells groceries and prepared foods in an old farmhouse on State Road in West Tisbury. Ms. Willett missed the socializing aspect of grocery shopping: the corner store feel when the proprietor rips off a piece of butcher paper and writes down a recipe for turnips (which is something that does in fact occur at Fiddlehead) as opposed to pushing a cart up and down neon-lit aisles.
Ms. Willett got her start in the food industry in Chicago where she was the general manager of a jazz club. But after a season in the Caribbean, in 1994, Ms. Willett decided she couldn’t face another cold Chicago winter. She drove down the east coast, making a pit stop on Martha’s Vineyard, then continued on to Florida where she intended to open a restaurant.
At first glance she thought the Vineyard was interesting. She liked Oak Bluffs and saw the potential for an upscale restaurant in town where there wouldn’t be too much competition unlike in Edgartown where the fine dining scene was slightly more established. “It’s like an affliction,” she says, “but everywhere I go, and I mean everywhere, I’m always looking at buildings and at the architecture and thinking, ‘Oh, this would work really well here,’ or ‘this is what this place needs.’”
But Ms. Willett was still determined to be warm and it was February on the Vineyard, so after making a mental note to return she continued south.
Once she got to Florida she found that she didn’t quite like it. “I literally drove the entire coast,” she says. Eventually she found a space on Captiva Island that she liked well enough and spent months negotiating a lease that never worked out. She then returned to the Vineyard.
Lounging in an Adirondack chair on a sunny Monday morning in the grassy area next to Fiddlehead Farm, coffee in hand, Ms. Willett looks relaxed and at home.
She has raised two children on the Island, both of whom share her love of food. and she’s established a successful business while staying true to her vision.
Ms. Willett is eager to learn anything and everything she can about food, at one point she paused to ask me if I knew how to cook with Russian olives. She values the tips she gets from her customers who offer recipes and suggestions for new products. But she is also unwaveringly confident about what she sells. She’s tasted everything. She has an idea of how to cook, how to portion, and how to serve everything in the store. Ms. Willett makes no bones about the fact that if it’s in her store it’s exceptional.
Ms. Willett runs the store with business partner Bob Skydell. Mr. Skydell takes care of the garden, which supplies much of the store’s produce, and orders the steaks and other meat products while Ms. Willett takes care of the specialty products, prepared foods, and cheese.
To choose products for the store Ms. Willett does her research. She goes to New York and visits different markets and grocery stores. Occasionally she attends a food show. She likes to be in the know about foodie trends, but she’s wary of them. She’s not interested in selling the most popular products just because they’re popular. “I want to provide food that can make up a meal, whatever your cooking capabilities are.”
The cheese selection at Fiddlehead Farm and Ms. Willett’s knowledge of it has made a name for itself. “After the store opened, I suddenly found myself really interested in cheese,” says Ms. Willett. “I just started studying and tasting different kinds.” And now, she is able to direct her customers and help them navigate the cheese case.
At first glance, you might be surprised to see very little French representation and a lot of domestic product. Ms. Willett chooses to focus on American cheeses because, “They are getting to be really very good” and because most of the French imported cheeses we get here in the U.S. are factory produced and frankly, not very good. “I get asked about St. André about a million times a day,” she says with a laugh, “and I really like being able to say ‘here, why don’t you try this instead, I know you’ll like it.’”
“Good cheese is a luxury,” Ms. Willett says. “And it’s a bummer if you spend $20 for something that’s bad — and bad cheese is a reality. There is a specific way that cheese should be handled and served, depending on the style.”
Since Fiddlehead opened six years ago, Ms. Willett has been keeping a (top secret) list of products she hopes to find and things she’d like to serve. The ability to serve prepared foods is something she’s happy to have checked off that list. Ms. Willett maintains a commercial kitchen in Vineyard Haven where she and her staff make dips (the edamame dip is delicious with crackers or crusty bread), hummus, and different salads like quinoa with blueberries, preserved lemon, and pine nuts.
Ms. Willett hates to waste food. Last year when a volunteer squash showed up in the Fiddlehead garden and no one was able to identify it, Ms. Willett turned it into a lovely chutney. “It was really seedy and not great for cooking with, but it made a great chutney,” she recalls.
The disdain for wasted food is probably one reason she is so interested in preservation. “It’s so basic, but we consider some of these items a luxury [cured meats, cheeses], they were designed as a way to keep food for the winter.” This winter she hopes to work on her meat-preserving skills and next year offer different sausages, rillettes, and confits.
This year Ms. Willett added caterer to her list of things to do. She specializes in cocktail parties and drop-off dinners though she has done a few weddings as well.
“Cooking was a logical step in my career,” she says. She’s been cooking her whole life, kept going by small encouragements along the way — “Hey! That was the best rice pudding I’ve ever had.”
But until she could cook like her grandmother, intuitively rather than technically, by throwing ingredients together rather than with a measuring cup, it didn’t occur to Ms. Willett that she might be a good cook. Now she makes pastas and pastries based on the feeling of the dough rather than the called for measurements. “I’m very tactile in that way.”
Fiddlehead Farm is open until Columbus Day and will reopen just before Memorial Day 2013. Ms. Willett will continue to cook and cater all year long. Call 508-696-6701 for more information or visit them at fiddleheadfarmstand.com.