It seems like some people were born to host holidays and dinner parties. Everything from the perfect place settings, succulent starters and show-stopping entrées. Oh, and let’s not forget those sugar-dusted miniature monuments of dessert perfection.You can’t help but wonder who has the time to learn and prepare all that. Unfortunately, hosting dinner parties isn’t going anywhere. Fortunately, we’ve found a few ways to make the hosting a whole lot easier.
Your dinner party solution might be somewhere you’re already visiting on a weekly basis.
If you’re short on planning time or used to spending more time in your living room than your kitchen, it’s completely understandable to be on edge at the thought of hosting. Not all of us are primed to be the next Master Chef or prepared and willing to cook for more than two or three people. That being said, your dinner party solution might be somewhere you’re already visiting on a weekly basis.
If you haven’t caught on to the food bars at your local Wegman’s and Whole Foods you’re missing out. You might be too busy trying to beat the rush of weekend patrons or after-work shoppers to truly have time to peruse the offerings, but both grocery chains have a wonderful array of cuisines ready to be packaged and taken home. They offer everything from noodle dishes, soups, sautéed vegetables and sauced meats which means you really can’t go wrong. If you’re up for a quick trip to the hot bar you can have food ready for your party in under an hour (just don’t forget to stop by the bakery section to pick up some tasty desserts).
Consider going bold with a cuisine that wouldn’t normally come from your stove top.
That being said, one of the biggest steps in your planning would be deciding just how secretive you wish to be with your guests. If your friends are aware that you’re not the Anthony Bourdain of your household and you’re willing to admit that you picked your palette pleasers up from an out- side source then consider going bold with a cuisine that wouldn’t normally come from your stove top. Choose a local restaurant that caters and go for Mediterranean, Asian, or Indian dishes and make a theme of it.
You may be thinking Theme? You need a theme to host one of these things? Not necessarily.You’re more than welcome to dust off your regular kitchenware and provide enough wine that no one cares whether they’re attending a “Night in Morocco” or “Casino Night”. If you want to go the route of having a theme (and trust that it’s probably much more fun) you can do it with only a little effort if you plan accordingly.
If you’re planning to host this autumn and are in need of tabletop decorations, stop by a local craft store.
Assuming you don’t have a stockpile of china, tea cups and lace doilies (Tea Party Dinner theme) to accommodate your number of guests, don’t stress out. After you have picked a theme do a little reconnaissance work. Find out if any of your local stores are doing sales at the moment and if so make a stop at somewhere like Target or Home Goods to find a nice set of dinnerware, place mats and table runners. If you’re planning to host a party for this autumn and are in need of tabletop decorations you could always stop by a local craft store to pick up discounted fall decorations. As we all know, once October arrives fall decorations re sales occur to make room for shelving of Christmas decor.
If you would consider yourself crafty, some cheap and brag-worthy craft ideas include buying wire and stringing beads to make your own napkins rings or personalizing place cards (think tiny gourds and pumpkins tied name tags). Regardless, a quick Pinterest search yields unending suggestions for memorable party decorations, fall themed or otherwise.
While there are plenty to choose from, we wanted to highlight one and give it a test run for you.
Now you might have an idea for a theme but let’s say you’re not set on shopping at a local grocer’s hot bar? You could always hire a catering service. While there are plenty to choose from in the Lehigh Valley and beyond, we wanted to highlight one and give it a test run for you. We asked around and double checked online reviews of our top choices and decided to use Sumac Catering of Bethlehem.
As started in their 5 star reviews, Sumac is dedicated to making every catering event their best yet and, lucky for us, they do more than just dinner.You can cater breakfast, lunch, dinner and desert. The way it works is you just head to their website, we recommend not doing this on an empty stomach, and pick from one of their 30+ dinner options. Once you know what you want for the main course, check out all the sides, salads, apps and desert options to put together the perfect menu. The best part about this is, you never have to leave the living room! You can order it all over the phone and they’ll deliver it to your house the day of your party. Just worry about how you’d like to set the table and you’ve just made hosting a dinner party as easy as pie!
One of the best parts about fall, besides the perfect temperature and great fashion trends, are all the fall inspired drinks. We’re sure you’re already enjoying an early pumpkin spiced latte or hot apple sider on the cooler mornings, but we’re here to talk about the drinks that will really warm your soul as the days grow colder.
Home + Table sat down with some of Easton’s best mixologists to see what they are planning to pour in the coming months and gather some opinions of optimal supplies to store in your liquor cabinet this autumn.
The first stop was Pearly Baker’s, a bar and restaurant housed in a building that dates back to 1869 and original home to Easton’s YMCA. It’s possible it was named after Purley Baker (a major player in pro-prohibition movements in the early 1900s). One of Pearly’s bartenders, Melissa Vazquez, introduced an array of important fall spices and herbs like cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and allspice before setting to work to craft a Pumpkin Spice Martini. She used a base of Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, Licor 43, Pinnacle Vanilla Vodka and a small spoonful of pumpkin puree. It’s a drink that’s shaken and then poured smoothly into a martini glass rimmed with cinnamon and sugar. Garnished with a simple cinnamon stick, this elegant cocktail taste even better than it looks.
Next on the docket was a Harvest Moscow Mule that included Tito’s Vodka, Autumn Spiced Simple Syrup, a splash of apple cider, topped with Crabbie’s Ginger Beer and garnished with a cinnamon stick and lemon twist. Melissa believes that a good vodka like Kettle One or Tito’s is a great choice to have in your cabinet year round.Vodka, she said is“so versatile and can be flavored or infused in any number of ways.“ Her resulting drinks were a delicious introduction to the nuances of autumn spices and a warm up before a short walk down the street to 3rd and Ferry Fish Market.
A fish market for a fall cocktail? Yes. In fact, if you haven’t been to 3rd and Ferry you’re undoubtedly missing out on some of the best cocktails and the freshest seafood selections in Eastern Pennsylvania. Head bartender, Danya Kinsman, created seemly complicated drinks that she assured wouldn’t be out of reach for those at home who want to get a little crafty in the kitchen. Her Whiskey Smash was comprised of Jack Daniels, lavender simple syrup and muddled orange. The lavender simple syrup may seem like a hang up to some but if you want to make your own simple syrups you can lean on the fact that simple syrup is true to its name. It’s a mix of equal parts water and sugar reduced down and then flavor ingredients added which can be anything from oranges to rose petals to marsh- mallows (yes, really).
You can make simple syrup infusions with just about any of your summer herbs and carry them through your fall and winter drinks.
A theme that seems to ring throughout these meetings is the use of herbs and spices. Danya assured that for any fall cocktails an essential ingredient is the herbs you put in them,“Try your herb garden for some ideas. Thyme and honey, basil and orange, mint and orange, lavender and citrus of any kind work well and are great flavor combinations.” You can make simple syrup infusions with just about any of your summer herbs and carry them through your fall and winter drinks.
Danya also introduced a Autumn Old Fashion that used baked apple syrup that was created by another of 3rd and Ferry’s mixologist Robin Capner. Robin tried syrup creation a few times before she was satis ed. It’s combined with Amador Whiskey, cranberry bitters and topped with Breckenridge Autumn Ale and truly tastes like something you would drink on a crisp fall morning.
Fresh fruit and herbs are important while making drinks.
Last stop on the cocktail train was Two Rivers Brewing, which was once the home of the historic Mount Vernon Hotel, where bartend- er Naomi Jensen excitedly mixed up a Hot Toddy. It’s a personal favorite of hers and an acclaimed “cold curer” that she uses every winter when the sniffles arrive. It’s an easy to make and delicious hot drink that includes brandy, Creme de Cassis, fresh lemon slices, honey and hot water. You might be tempted to buy lemon juice while shopping but Naomi was adamant that fresh fruit and herbs are important while making drinks. She suggests nixing the bottled citrus mixers and dried herbs and using real fruit and herbs in all your drinks with her assurance that there is a definite difference in the quality of flavor.
Naomi also made an equally tasty Dirty chai Martini. It’s built in a shaker with chai tea, coffee infused vodka and Rumchata and strained into a martini glass with cinnamon sugar coated rim. If you’re using chai tea bags and not pre-brewed and boxed chai tea Naomi suggests a dash of plain simple syrup to add sweetness.
No matter what drinks you wish to make this fall, it seems the takeaway from these wonderful ladies was to use of fresh ingredients and a little bit of experimentation in the kitchen. If you want to do a bit of “research” before mixing these at home visit Melissa, Danya and Naomi and they can show you how it’s done and what its meant to taste like. Above all else, be adventurous! Don’t shy away from making your own simple syrups or picking ingredients from your herb garden. If coffee infused vodka seems like a pricey buy, make your own at home! Remember, the only bad drink is one that goes to waste and with these recipes in your cabinet a bad drink is impossible.
Melissa Wieczorek didn’t study at a prestigious culinary institute, didn’t apprentice under a stern chef and she didn’t pay her dues as a line cook. What she did was approach the kitchen as an entrepreneur who loves to cook. And it’s paying big dividends, professionally and personally.
The chef’s coat may not have been Wieczorek’s first choice, but it fits her just fine.
Too many among us have been there, are mired there now: Hemmed-in-verging-on-suffocated-by an unrelenting work schedule that left little room for anything else. The only rays of hope, the increasingly frequent daydreams about living an entirely different life.
Melissa Wieczorek was there 15 years ago, advancing within the administration of Temple University’s Fox School of Business, but, in the back of her mind, thinking about cooking.
“I knew I wanted to do something in food,” she recalls, “but it had to be conducive to having a family. So a restaurant was out.”
Ironically, while Wieczorek was studying for her own MBA at Fox, an independent study led her to the personal chef industry. She created a business plan as part of her coursework and presented it to venture capitalists. Later, in 2005, she’d put it to use, founding the Newtown-based A la Maison Personal Chef Service, now Zest Culinary Services, which she owns with her partner, Theo Petron, another corporate dropout.
Initially, Wieczorek operated primarily as an in-home personal chef, but she’s since pivoted to prepared-meal delivery, a $1.5 billion market that’s expected to at least double over the next few years. Wieczorek may be at peace with herself in the kitchen, but she’s clearly thinking beyond it. It’s that savvy that landed her in the book, Behind Their Brand, Chefs Edition, Vol. 1, published last September, which offers narratives by Wieczorek and several other chefs who followed non-conventional paths.
We caught up with her—after her trip to Cuba—to find out what’s trending in her kitchen now. —Mike Madaio
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Wieczorek in the kitchen in Cuba and strolling the streets of Havana with Petron.
How is a personal chef different from the chefs we read about and see on TV? MW: Great question. That’s part of why I participated in this book, because so many people think the industry offers a single career track, working the line in a restaurant and eventually becoming executive chef. But there are so many different culinary careers. For me, cooking is only one part of the skillset. It’s an entrepreneurial venture, so I’m everything from bottle washer to business strategist to salesperson.
Meal-delivery subscriptions are blowing up. How are you
We offer a more complete experience. First, it’s like having a personal trainer. This is a one-on-one program, customized not only to your likes and dislikes, but also to your lifestyle. Second, our clients are not cooking at all. They’re taking something out of the fridge and heating it up within a few minutes, which is life-changing for busy people.
What advice would you give someone who’s looking to be more efficient in the kitchen?
Cook once. Eat twice. It’s something often overlooked because people don’t want to eat leftovers. But if you reinvent it into something else that doesn’t look like Monday’s dinner, it’s more exciting.
What kind of food are you passionate about? I rarely meet a food I don’t like! But, right now, ethnic cuisine is something that consistently excites me. I’m always on the lookout for lesser-known ingredients, that next new thing to try.
What’s your ingredient-of-the-moment, then? Well, we’ve been working a lot with quinoa—
—Come on! That’s so last year.
[Laughs.] True. We actually just got back from Cuba, where we learned to make a stew that was traditionally made with whatever protein they could find, monkeys, rats, snakes, you name it. But I’m not going to say rats. My big takeaway, seriously, was plantains. They’re versatile and delicious and readily available here. Though, unless you are from a Latin culture, you probably don’t know what to do with them.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love making a peanut butter-and-jelly with potato chips on the sandwich. I know, this does not exactly fit with our vision of “eat well, live fit, have fun,” but I’m a big fan of everything in moderation. Though, sometimes I do OD on chocolate.
Just because we Pennsylvanians can buy wine pretty much anywhere we want now—or, at least, at the supermarket—doesn’t mean that we should.
By Mike Madaio
The only thing keeping that corner of the grocery store that seemed to spring up overnight from looking totally alien is that it’s a totally common sight almost anywhere else we’ve been beyond our own borders. Yeah, we Pennsylvanians are now free to buy our wine at the grocery store like the rest of civilization. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. There are a few wrinkles that, for some, may outweigh the convenience.
Prepare to be hassled
Your supermarket, you may have noticed, is handling its wine (and beer) sales more like a store within the store rather than just another section. There’s a specially designated register, a separate set of hours and, in many cases, a separate entrance. There’s also this inconvenient rule: You’re restricted to buying three liters at a time. Of course, there’s nothing really barring you from depositing your purchase in your car and returning for more. And why wouldn’t you? Little about the experience is seamless anyway.
But not pay much more
The industry standard is a 30 percent wholesale discount. But Pennsylvania licensees are relegated to 10, which should translate to significantly higher pricing. Yet it hasn’t.
“It wouldn’t be convenient if our cost was higher,” says Mike Kier, who oversaw the incorporation of Wegmans’ wine and beer inventories, which match state-store pricing. “Our customers shouldn’t have to shop around for price.”
That isn’t to say, though, that prices, by and large, compare favorably to those found in neighboring states. Only that they’re relatively consistent throughout this one.
Don’t expect to discover any obscure bottles at the grocery store. “Given the speed to market, retailers are operating from our standard catalog, the items we have in our warehouses,” says Elizabeth Brassell, the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. “Yet, many have expressed interest in developing customized portfolios.”
In other words, it’s a vanilla, but fluid, selection.
Still, it’s progress
It’s easy to complain because it feels like a fairly straightforward process is being overcomplicated. But, to the bureaucrats’ credit, they appear to be listening. We were frustrated by the dictatorship-like rule over our drinking supply. It finally loosened, and there’s a little more give all the time.
“This is an industry in its infancy,” Brassell says. “It’s too early to predict where it’ll go. But this is an exciting time and we’re embracing these challenges as opportunities.”
They’re really more of an update than a total departure, but they’re still going to turn up the flavor on your favorite dishes.
By Kendra Lee Thatcher
Rules provide us with fundamental foundations. But that doesn’t mean they’re untouchable. Everything’s worth a second look. It’s part of evolution. I especially love heading into my kitchen and challenging the establishment. It’s less about how I can do it better and more about how I can do it differently, because cooking is a study in nuance. The same recipe altered by a degree or two will yield completely different flavors.
Here in the heart of braising and stew season, I got to thinking about cooking with wine. Winemaking is progressing by great leaps and bounds. Yet, we’re still cooking with wine in a lot of the same ways that Julia Child taught us (use the cheap stuff, apply liberally). I decided to experiment with coq au vin, and what I found is that some small changes yield big flavor.
What follows are a couple of the more critical lessons I learned that afternoon. I’ve since applied them to scampi, risotto, even baking, all with crowd-pleasing results.
Cook like you drink
We’re finally catching up to the fact that freshness matters. Veggies from the farmers market taste better than veggies plucked from the produce aisle. So why, then, would you dump a $7-bottle of Yellow Tail into the pot? The point of the wine is to coax even more complexity from those delicate flavors. But a cheap wine is only going to drown them.
A better-quality wine usually means less sugar and artificial tampering, which translates to more pronounced flavors and textures. And all of that will come through in the cooking. Basically, stop thinking in terms of wine that you drink and wine that you cook with. You’ve honed your standards with the former. It’s time now to do it with the latter.
And drink what you cook with
In that vein, serve the rest of that bottle with dinner. And have more of it waiting in the wings. The pairing will add a whole new dimension to the wine. Waves of cassis and tobacco were suddenly coming through the burgundy I used in the coq au vin. As prominent and pleasant as they were, they spilled down my throat unnoticed before.
Be bold, not reckless
Once you get a couple of successful meals beneath you, resist the urge to take bigger risks. The idea here is to update a few rules, not rewrite them entirely. Think changes by degrees, not by miles. I swapped the traditional Chianti in my grandmother’s Sunday gravy with Lambrusco. I made scallops and scampi with Prosecco. And I marinated pork in sake. Treat the wine as you would any other ingredient in the dish. Consider its flavor profile and the dish’s before cooking anything. If they seem like they’d marry well, go for it. If it requires too much blind faith, move on.
Respect the one hard and fast rule
Unless you’re making a crockpot meal where everything goes in together, take the time to layer your flavors. When you let the wine mingle with the other ingredients before you start introducing stocks and the like, you’re giving the alcohol a chance to cook off. And that’s a good thing because the wine’s flavor profile will then meld with the dish. Rush it, and no matter how good the wine, all you’re really going to get is the alcohol.
There’s nothing new here, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s a technique that too many of us gloss over. I wouldn’t want you to try this on your own, only to rush the wine and think that’s nothing’s changed.
It’s the easiest dinner party you’ll ever host. And maybe the most productive. But there is some planning involved, mostly to ensure you don’t end up with 25 pounds of chili.
By Scott Edwards
It’s a joke that I wore out a couple winters back, but it’s no less true now: Every crock-pot dinner’s good for a few extra pounds. The aroma hooks me in the morning. My brain’s confused—Is that short ribs? We just ate breakfast—but my stomach’s always prone to persuasion, no matter the hour or the circumstances. By afternoon, there’s nowhere to hide. The scent’s everywhere. It’s on my clothes. And every whiff is a distraction, to which the reply is always, Sure, I could eat.
This time of year, we’re eating crock pot three, four times a week. Why not? It’s about as low maintenance as cooking gets. Plus, the recipes skew heavily toward stews, braises and soups, the kind of piping-hot, hearty dinners that blunt the end of another gray, numbing day.
Shortly after it was discovered that many of our friends were following the same routine, a flurry of link-sharing erupted, everyone eagerly offering up their tried-and-true recipes. From that, a proposition emerged: We should throw a crock pot party.
It’s as easy to pull off (and filling) as it sounds. And unlike the potluck, which always (always) ends up turning out like a buffet of nuked and cold afterthoughts, the crock pot party ensures a smorgasbord served at its height—as long as it’s done right.
Think counter space, not seating
Not to push this on anyone unwillingly, but the host should be the one with the largest kitchen. Ample counter space is critical. (Tables count too as long at they’re within reach of outlets.) Think how much your one crock pot eats up. Now multiple that by five or six.
In that vein, include as many friends as you want—there’s going to be more than enough to go around—but limit the crock pots. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And don’t worry about seating or table settings. Lay out stacks of plates, bowls and napkins (disposable is perfectly acceptable), along with some flatware, and leave it at that.
Menu planning and parting gifts in one shot
Among the cooks for the night, coordinate recipes. This serves two purposes: Foremost, it removes the possibility of redundancy. Awesome as pumpkin-turkey chili may be, one crock pot of it is enough to cover seconds. If anyone’s left wanting more, they can make it themselves. Which leads us to the second point: This party’s doubling as a tasting, so make the recipes available to everyone. Save yourself the trouble of keeping track of who wants what and compile them in an email, either the recipes themselves or the links to them, and send it out to your guest list.
There will be leftovers, rest assured. So encourage your guests to bring their own Tupperware. Just make sure they don’t start poaching their shares prematurely. Before everyone starts digging in, make an announcement along the lines of, “The leftovers are fair game when the kitchen’s closed, and only then.” That’ll free you up from the burden of policing the crock pots all night long.
Everyone not charged with bringing a crock pot is responsible for supplying the booze. Don’t worry about coordinating who brings what. People tend to gift whatever they enjoy drinking. And, really, pretty much everything pairs well with crock-pot meals. They’re easy like that. Which is kinda the point here.
Don’t worry. Your drive’s probably even shorter than it was. And with that convenience comes even more incentive to grab your apron and put those new knife skills to the test.
By Kendra Lee Thatcher
Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman, our trusted guides in this bountiful but sometimes-confounding new landscape.
While you were having a good ol’ time last month, what with all the eggnoggin’ and mistletoin’, one of our most creative and entertaining kitchens picked up and moved about 15 minutes downriver. News of The Farm Cooking School’s relocation to Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville, New Jersey, came as a bit of a surprise. Its chef/owners, Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman, appeared to be planting roots at Tullamore Farms, with talk of additional Airbnb rentals there and programming that catered to those overnight guests.
Gravity Hill, though, offers what Tullamore could not: a more central location. Lambertville (and New Hope) sits about 10 minutes to the north and I95, about 10 minutes to the south. There’s also a larger movement unfolding there, in which The Farm Cooking School will be playing a prominent role. Whereas, at Tullamore, Knauer and Wiseman were the farm’s one and only draw, for the most part. Coinciding with the move, Roots to River Organic Farm is taking over Gravity Hill’s fields and its onsite weekend market, where Knauer and Wiseman will be selling prepared foods. (Roots to River owner Malaika Spencer is a former Gravity Hill apprentice.) The impetus for all of this? A new facility called The Barn at Gravity Hill, which’ll be used for workshops and retreats with the aim of turning the farm into a sort of locally-grown hub.
Knauer started The Farm Cooking School about four years ago. From its inception, he and Wiseman nurtured a loyal following of aspiring cooks and enthusiastic eaters through a user-friendly—actually, friendly, period—approach to locally sourced cooking that preaches fundamental techniques and constant enjoyment. Their quaint teaching kitchen at Tullamore became known, through both an extensive roster of classes and regular dinners, as the place to savor elevated food of almost every kind in decidedly unpretentious ways.
Most of us have entered this brave new world through a farmers market only to then discover we’re pretty much on our own to piece the rest of it together. Sure, there’s no shortage of blogs, cookbooks and shows, but little of it is personalized to our experience, living here in this moment, and none of it is interactive. Which makes Knauer and Wiseman practically necessary, whether you’re simply curious (craft an authentic French brunch) or all-in (butcher a side of venison and make terrine with it). And now, with some breathing room, you can expect the subjects and dinners to only become more adventurous—Northern Central European cooking, real-time recipe testing. After all, this is unchartered territory.
Photos courtesy The Farm Cooking School / Guy Ambrosino
Though our suburban dining scene isn’t always hip to the food world’s latest and greatest, the poké revolution is no ordinary trend. It’s the culmination of several widespread trends: raw fish features prominently, along with a rainbow of healthy ingredients. It’s served in a bowl and it adapts easily to fast-casual dining.
Poké (pronounced poke-ay)—the name is derived from the Hawaiian word for cut—is traditionally made from cubed, marinated ahi tuna served over rice, a style that originated with fishermen as a more appetizing vessel for their leftovers. Chefs, however, have been treating poké more as a technique than a recipe, opening it up to an endless array of variations.
Enter Andrew Danieli, a Jersey Shore surfer who fell for poké during a tour of Oahu’s North Shore, where it’s served everywhere in every shape—roadside snack, appetizer, entrée. Danieli’s also a restaurant veteran. This fall, he claimed his spot at the head of the curve with the opening of PokéOno in Ardmore, which provides yet another twist: build-your-own bowls.
Where’s he draw the line? Poké should remain “within the realm of the ocean,” Danieli says. “Salmon, shrimp, other shellfish, sure. But cut-up pieces of chicken would be too much.”
Novices should begin with the Shoyu Classic, which highlights traditional flavors before moving on to the radical-by-comparison Umma’s Tofu, a Korean-inspired blend named after Danieli’s girlfriend’s mom. If it wasn’t already obvious, he’s a perceptive guy.
A rash of craft distillers is now freckling our region, all of them making some truly elevated hooch. Reforms passed in Pennsylvania in 2011 and in Jersey in 2013 ignited a small-batch spirits boom, the likes of which our region hasn’t seen since the halcyon days before Prohibition, or even much further back in some areas.
You’ve likely heard of (and probably tried) the first to bear fruit—Dad’s Hat, in Bristol; HEWN, in Pipersville; Manatawny, in Pottstown—now the established guard of the movement. But the landscape’s filled in around them over the last year or two. Whiskey, vodka, rum, even if you’ve been a lifelong drinker of one or the other, this latest generation of artisans is finding its niche in nuance, crafting variations that are, in equal shares, truer to form and far more exotic than anything you’ve tasted before.
With some long, gray months ahead of us, the time’s come to meet the most appetizing of these new makers. After all, their spirits may become our sole salvation.
After a 25-year career in the military and far too many nights spent away from his family, Chad Butters’ retirement plan was purely personal in its inception: Run a family business. Nearly a year in, Eight Oaks is, above all else, just that. His daughter oversees the tasting room, where his son tends bar. Her husband is the master distiller. His sister is the distillery’s attorney. And her husband, Jesse Tyahla, is Butters’ partner. (It took me a few passes, too.)
In the waning months of his service, Butters and Tyahla attended distilling workshops at Michigan State and Cornell universities and toured about 25 distilleries. Then, they interned at another in Spokane, Washington. When they returned home, full of confidence, Butters and his wife promptly sold their home and bought a farm, where, in short order, they began growing grain—wheat, rye and barley, along with corn—and constructed the distillery.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka, gin, rum and applejack (In the works: rye whiskey, bourbon, aged applejack and spiced and aged rums.)
THE LOWDOWN What you get in Eight Oaks is a self-contained process steeped in tradition. “Really, for us, it’s back to that whole concept of grain to glass,” Butters says. “That sounds simple. And it sounds a little bit like a marketing term. In reality, the application is exceptionally difficult.”
With so many variables at play in the distillation, not to mention the farming, Butters defers to the historical precedent as often as it’s appropriate. And science when it’s not. In fact, the very first spirit that came out of Eight Oaks’ still was a nod to the craft’s history.
As rum grew scarce during the Revolutionary War, farmers stumbled upon applejack, which Butters describes as “the original American spirit.” It’s basically fermented cider—that grew more potent as the winter wore on and the farmers removed the ice. When we talked, Butters was favoring a far more subdued version, an applejack hot toddy, as a cold remedy.
Like so many other great ideas, Skunktown Distillery was born during a liquor-fueled night around a bonfire. “I said, ‘We’re smart guys. Let’s figure out how to make this.’ We both kind of laughed it off,” Caine Fowler says, referring to himself and longtime friend Paul Hyatt. “The next morning, he called me up and said, ‘You know, you had a really good idea last night.’ I said, ‘No. That was a stupid idea.’ ”
Fowler (pictured, left) is an IT project manager in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s traveled all over the world for his work and drank just about everything there is to drink in the course of it. But Hyatt (pictured, right), a tile-setter, has the far more sophisticated palate between them. He comes from a long line of drinkers. Not happy-hour mainstays. Drinkers.
“He can say, ‘This is what’s good. This what’s pretty good,’ ” Fowler says, “Everything does the right thing to me but tastes kind of harsh.”
Once they began to realize just how well they complement each other, the idea of a distillery started to sound a lot less, well, drunken. They founded Skunktown in September 2015 but only received the last of their licensing this month. When you’re the first distillery to launch in the county in 200 years, the scrutiny’s relentless, apparently.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka, whiskey and rum. (They’re expecting the first bottles to be available by Christmas.)
THE LOWDOWN The official line: Fowler and Hyatt are aiming for simple and pure, just as they regard the town in which they both live and after which they named their distillery. That would be Sergeantsville, NJ, formerly known as—I kid you not—Skunktown. No one’s entirely sure why. The obvious answer seems to be the most plausible: Lots of skunks at an unfortunate time, when naming rights were still up for grabs. But I digress. They’re using basic, local ingredients, doing little to them and distilling in a copper still, which is the oldest way, and still the truest.
The unofficial line: These are two old drinking buddies basically egging each other on. (Read: This could get fun fast.) They’re already working through the recipe for a scorching pepper vodka. Fowler, a lover of all things spicy, grows the Carolina Reaper, the hottest variety there is. “But that’s not the recipe that’s going to be bottled,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
Boardroom launched 10 months ago as an escape plan from corporate life, fueled by a renewed appreciation in heritage. Brothers Marat and Vlad Mamedov are Armenian. Zsuzsa, Marat’s wife, is Hungarian. Both are strong brandy cultures. Trouble is, ours isn’t. Another obstacle: Distilling brandy isn’t as forgiving as distilling the likes of vodka, gin and whiskey.
“If you mess up picking the wrong fruit, if you mess up fermentation, if you mess up distilling, you’re pretty much done,” Marat says.
So they opted to build their brand with the basics and revisit the brandy in the near future, being the experienced strategists that they are. With the help of a distiller in Europe, they spent a year working through recipes—85 in all. Once they settled on a line, they hired a master distiller here. Marat, Vlad and Zsuzsa stick to their strong suit: managing the operation. If a single, prevailing thought came out of the recipe trials, Marat says, it’s this: What I like doesn’t really matter.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka (straight and infused), gin, rum and a beet spirit. (In the works: whiskey and brandy.)
THE LOWDOWN Precision-crafted. No eyeballing here. The Lansdale distillery is the North American showroom for Hagyo Distilling, a Hungarian manufacturer with a reputation for state-of-the-art innovation. Where most small-batch makers will build their brand around the handcrafting, not here; everything’s fully automated.
Boardroom’s aim is to cherry-pick spirits from all over the world and turn them into household names here. “But at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re very precise in our distillation process”—it came up more than once—”so that they ring true to the category,” Marat says.
Example A: Their beet spirit, which was introduced this fall. They hauled in 2,000 pounds of beets, ground them down, then fermented and distilled them like a brandy. It’s the first installment in their periodical table-themed series. Thus, the capital B on the label. Next up: apple (A) and carrot (C).
“We want to keep things simple and let pure, natural flavors shine through,” Marat says. “When it comes to crafting our spirits, it’s all about, how do we derive the flavor naturally?”
Curiosity compelled Andrew Martin to follow his friends into home-brewing. Soon after, he happened upon distilling, and he immediately understood why they were all so entranced. He dropped brewing then and there and started reading everything he could find on distilling.
Martin grew up in Lancaster County and moved back to Lancaster proper 16 years ago. Every distiller in this portfolio carries a profound appreciation for the craft’s roots and their regions, but only Martin’s built his own still from scratch. And he named his distillery after a bird that’s become synonymous with Lancaster. Among the countless hex signs that appear in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, known as fraktur, you’ll often find a bird. That bird is a thistle finch, and it’s meant to represent happiness and good luck.
WHAT THEY MAKE White rye whiskey; black pepper rye whiskey; black coffee rye whiskey; straight, two-year-old rye whiskey; gin and vodka
THE LOWDOWN In case it wasn’t already obvious, Thistle Finch specializes in rye whiskey. The white rye whiskey, an unaged whiskey that Martin describes as “kind of like a high-class moonshine,” was the first spirit he bottled three years ago. Cut to present day, Thistle Finch just bottled a two-year-old, straight rye whiskey, becoming only the third distillery in Pennsylvania to offer it. “That’s definitely the biggest milestone since we opened,” Martin says.
“We’re doing rye whiskey because that would have been the historic spirit made here in eastern Pennsylvania,” he says.
Typically, farmers around here planted rye in the winter to help preserve the soil. As such, back in the day, it was the cheapest grain that distillers could get their hands on and why rye whiskey was so prolific. But those distillers fell off the map with prohibition. This latest boom has brought a new wave of them, but few are like Thistle Finch.
Martin may be a traditionalist at heart, but he’s not making a traditional rye whiskey. The standard recipe calls for 100 percent rye or two-thirds rye mixed with a third of corn. Thistle Finch is making its from 60 percent rye, 30 percent wheat and 10 percent malted barley, which is what’s referred to as a “high-wheat rye” by those in the know. The thinking behind the move is that, where rye possesses a dry, spicy flavor profile and corn is sweet, the wheat will introduce a smoother, more robust taste. Basically, your grandfather’s rye whiskey, this is not.
Tara Buzan and Alex Hardy are hopelessly in love and they want the Main Line to know it. There won’t be any PDAs, don’t worry. Just lots of impossibly good eating.
By April Lisante • Photography by Matthew J. Rhein
They met by chance, a year ago, two chefs with everything and nothing in common. Alex Hardy is a tattooed culinary renegade, honed for more than a decade in Philadelphia’s greatest kitchens. Tara Buzan is a Main Line native whose passion for food and family inspire her home-cooked, catered meals. When they met, both had been on the local restaurant scene for years, having never crossed paths.
“He made me Chilean sea bass for our first date,” Buzan says. “It was the first time anyone had ever cooked for me.”
Last month, Buzan and Hardy unveiled At the Table BYOB, their first joint venture. It’s a 20-seat, upscale-American bistro in Wayne, just a stone’s throw from the Wayne Hotel on Louella Court. They want it to be a celebration of their love and a tribute to the passion they share for food.
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in hospitality, Buzan began her food career in 2001 with a small catering company called To the Table Catering, delivering meals to Main Line homes. As one of three children, she says, “I grew up in an Italian family, and the idea of not sitting down to dinner with family was foreign to me.”
The catering business, featuring her soups, salads and homemade comfort foods, quickly burgeoned. After operating for six years from a storefront in Eagle Village in Wayne, she had a son (now six) and became a private, in-home chef for Main Line families.
Hardy, who graduated from Johnson and Wales at 21, was thrust into the frenzied Philadelphia restaurant culture and loved it. Working for a who’s who of chefs, he trained with Peter Gilmore, Patrick and Terence Feury, Georges Perrier and Daniel Stern, the Le Bec Fin prodigy who earned Perrier’s Michelin Five Star rating. Hardy learned to approach food with a scientific reverence. And tweezers.
“People always say, ‘Why do you use a tweezer to place microgreens?’ ” says Hardy, who most recently applied his classical French training as sous-chef at the new Autograph Brasserie in Wayne. “That’s how I see the food. I’m the type of guy where, even if it comes out great, I say it could have been better.”
Buzan and Hardy fell in love at first sight, and quickly began to discuss their ultimate dream, an intimate BYOB where fresh, local flavors and Hardy’s creativity could shine. Last July, they purchased the former French café Creperie Bechamel at the corner of Louella Court near Lancaster Avenue, and the plan came to life.
“I originally was thinking of turning this into a lunch café, but now that he is the chef, I am able to do what I truly wanted to do,” says Buzan, who now lives with Hardy. “I can do now what I wouldn’t have the capability to do without him.”
The white-linen dining room evokes a date-night—or, more likely, engagement-night—experience. Its postage-stamp kitchen promises plates constructed with careful attention, relying on monthly menu changes. Hardy’s debut menu features appetizers ranging from $16 to $26, and entrées from $31 to $42. The appetizers include potato bisque with parmesan and truffle infusion ($16) and foie gras with blackberry purée and asparagus ($26). Among the entrées: Wagyu beef tenderloin with charred white onion, carrot and peas ($42) and Tasmanian Sea Trout with hen egg purée (Tara’s favorite) ($35). A special tasting menu runs from $65 for five courses to $95 for eight.
Buzan will manage the front of the house, along with private parties and the catering, while Hardy will man the kitchen nightly. They plan to shave truffles tableside when dishes call for it, and aren’t averse to switching up ingredients daily.
At the Table will likely see overflow from the Wayne Hotel’s Paramour (where entrees range from $27 to $42). The aim is to evolve into a special-occasion and “luxurious-dining” destination.
“Our goal is that every night, we have our chefs have the mentality that we are going for the next Michelin Five Star,” says Hardy, who is hoping they can make this a family venture.
“I feel like if you are a family, and you stick it out together, you can do anything. “