IGI and Zephrus cook up a feast
"Someone just sent me 12 pig heads," Robert Lionette announces - a bizarre delivery to be sure unless you are executive chef of Zephrus restaurant in Vineyard Haven. "They have these beautiful jowls that I'm going to cure into guanciale, which is this really nice roman-style cured meat, almost like a bacon," chef Lionette adds.
Full of culinary daring, a surplus of ideas, and a knack for resourcefulness, Mr. Lionette has more food than he could ask for with the Island's seasonal harvest. Once a week he makes the Island's local bounty the centerpiece of his menu.
Every Wednesday night Zephrus, in conjunction with the Island Grown Initiative (IGI), offers a three-course, $25 prix-fixe locally grown menu. IGI is a consortium of Island farmers dedicated to increasing the supply of, and demand for, local food, and to preserving the Island's agricultural tradition. Twenty percent of the proceeds is donated to IGI.
This past Wednesday night, the special included an impossibly rich buckwheat crepe stuffed with chicken confit, leeks and creme fraiche, a hearty sugo di carne gnocchi, a short rib risotto, bluefish over a succotash, infused with applewood smoked bacon, and a crumbling apple cranberry crisp as the encore.
While many diners ordered from Zephrus's regular menu, possibly not aware of the IGI feature, Mr. Lionette expects the special, which changes from week to week, to become extremely popular.
"It was crazy [this past] February and March," he says, "the IGI menus last winter were chosen four to one over the rest of the menu."
Two diners from Edgartown, John Cherchio and his wife, Roberta, came for the special after seeing Mr. Lionette give a recent cooking presentation at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury.
"We were just very impressed," says Mr. Cherchio who discussed the strategies for drying homegrown peppers and berries, as well as the comparative merits of the mortar and pestle versus the food processor, with the approachable chef. Mr. Cherchio found consolation in Chef Lionette's admission that he has had some difficulty in growing corn this season.
"It's good to hear about someone of his stature having problems like that," Mr. Cherchio says. "When I screw up I'm so upset with myself, but you realize everybody does."
In addition to pig heads, Mr. Lionette receives a variety of other unusual delicacies from local farmers who know that he will put them to good use. "I've got pigs feet that I'm pickling," he says. "I just talked to one guy who wants to send me some lamb's livers for a sort of shepherd's pie inspired dish, some lamb kidneys. Fun stuff - well, fun in a nerdy gastronomic kind of way."
The chef indicates boxes upon boxes stamped with the insignias of local farms stacked in the walk-in refrigerator, and calls out: "There are the chokecherries, the garlic, the peppers, the herbs, cranberry beans, the corn, the watermelons, the apples, those steamers are from Chilmark, the littlenecks are from Katama. It's a lot of work putting together all this local food," he says, catching his breath. "It's absolutely nuts, but I'd have it no other way."
Every week at Zephrus, the IGI menu changes to reflect the seasonal nature of Island food, but Mr. Lionette does not seem constrained by using the local ingredients. He explains that for the next month or so poultry will be at its peak, and that in two weeks scallop season starts. Shortly afterwards, from November through April it is prime slaughter season for four-legged animals. "Then it's the start of the summer and the fish start reappearing," he says. "It sounds hokey, but it's just that amazing cycle."
Mr. Lionette fondly remembers the first IGI benefit about a year ago, when 38 local farmers came in to enjoy their harvest. "I was like - that's it: I'm sold on this. Occasionally I will still get people who come in and say something like, 'Hey I grew this spinach.'"
Simon Athearn of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, is grateful for his partnership with IGI and for the chance to work with Mr. Lionette, "He's great," he says. "Most chefs will take one or two local ingredients and make it part of their signature dish. Robert's really dedicated to the whole lifestyle and mission of locally grown food."
Mr. Athearn is impressed by the chef's more adventurous cooking forays. "I said, 'You want the pig's heads?' I couldn't believe he wanted them. 'You got 'em.'"
Wednesdays, 5 pm to close. Three-course, $25 prix-fixe locally grown menu. Zephrus, with the Island Grown Initiative (IGI). Reservations not required. 508-693-3416.
Peter Brannen is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.