Blenheim, a seasonal modern American restaurant in the West Village, has raised the stakes on the notion of "farm-to-table." Taking ingredient sourcing a step further than the farmers market, this new-ish West 12th Street restaurant — launched by couple Morten Sohlberg and Min Ye — is not just procuring ingredients locally. Sohlberg and Ye are actually breeding, raising, then slaughtering their own pigs, cows, and sheep, in addition to growing an abundance of esoteric produce on their 150 acre ranch in the Catskill Mountains. Every week a driver makes the 160 mile trek between Blenheim Hill Farm and the West Village, delivering the property's weekly harvest, from sunberries to Guniea hen eggs to Mangalitsa pork.
And it's all a rather unlikely story. Ten years ago Sohlberg and Ye opened their first restaurant, Smorgas Chef, on Stone Street in the Financial District, with zero prior hospitality experience. Sohlberg hails from a design background. He founded an online school for design, then sold the business in 2003. And from there he and Ye turned to hospitality.
Smorgas Chef on Stone Street, a traditional Nordic restaurant, launched in 2003. Now 11 years later, they operate a total of six eateries: two Smorgas Chefs, three Crêpes du Nord, and Blenheim. The space that is now home to Blenheim previously functioned as Smorgas Chef, but they flipped it into a modern fine dining restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef to absorb their foraged chanterelles, scarlet runner beans, and Alpine strawberries.
Sohlberg's rise to farming and restaurants isn't totally unexpected. He grew up in Norway and can remember foraging chanterelles since he was barely old enough to walk. Sometimes his father would hunt animals, other times he would buy half a moose carcass, which he would age, then break down and freeze. The animal would feed Sohlberg's family for a full winter.
At the moment, Sohlberg commands an army of 10,000 bees, 100 pigs (three different breeds: Mangalitsa, Tamworth, Berkshire), 60 Guinea hens, 50 chickens, 24 Icelandic sheep, nine cows (Hereford and Black Angus), and one barn cat. The property, which he and Ye bought four years ago, has functioned as a farm since the late 1700s. And from the hundreds of years that the land has been farmed, there's an abundance of wild-growing plants that were once cultivated, like radish blossoms and marshmallow. Sohlberg comments that the neighboring farm doesn't have one tenth of the wild plants that they have.
Executive chef Ryan Tate joined Blenheim last July, about two months after the restaurant had already been up and running. He replaced initial opening chef Justin Hilbert (Gwynnett St.), who split from Blenheim early on. Tate most recently ran the kitchen at (now shuttered) Le Restaurant in Tribeca, where he earned a Michelin star for his artful new American plates. Prior to that, Tate clocked hours at Savoy, Lure Fishbar, and Cookshop. Because Tate was already well versed in inspired seasonal cookery, his transition into the Blenheim kitchen proved relatively seamless.
From chef to chef, Blenheim's ingredient-driven philosophy has not wavered, and while the farmed ingredients have remained constant, their care at the restaurant has changed. For a chef, the biggest boon of helming the Blenheim kitchen is the ability to work with the restaurant's farmers to grow bespoke plants, pretty much anything that can live in a North Eastern climate. Or a greenhouse. But Tate admits that the advantage involves a bit more planning on the menu side. In the past he would frequent a farmers market and be inspired to create a plate based on market availability. But now, the power to request almost any plant requires patience waiting for that fruit or vegetable to actually grow.
Having a farm at your disposal is likewise a challenge. Whatever the farm grows must be incorporated into the menu, oftentimes at the very last minute as plants mature. For example, right now the farm is producing seven types of mint, which need to be harvested to prevent waste. Tate plans to dry some of the leaves and turn them into tea. One of the most interesting types of mint the farm grows is a purple-green Aztec mint that tastes unnaturally sweet, almost like a minty stevia leaf (stevia, too, is grown onsite). Tate is using it, plus several others mints, in a rich chocolate dessert that involves white chocolate and mint ganache, chocolate mint powder, white chocolate powder, Mayan mint, Aztec mint, spearmint, white chocolate and menthol gelato, and wild mint sorbet.
About 110 acres of Blenheim Hill Farm's 150 acre plot is forest. It's prime landscape for foraging wild mushrooms, tapping maple trees for sap, and collecting other wild-growing plants like purslane, milkweed pods, and garlic mustard. But, there's also a highly advanced greenhouse which, for the first time, will be fueled by firewood this winter. That means winter tomatoes, in addition to lettuces, beans, herbs, edible flowers and much more. The greenhouse is even growing barley, which is fed to Blenheim's flock of sheep. Several computerized systems like NFT, which stands for Nutrient Film Technique, deliver nutrients to plants. Via NFT, water is circulated from small spigots into channels where nutrients flow to the root base of plants, and then circulate back to a reservoir where filters measured by computers track what the plants are absorbing. Based on the depleted nutrient levels, the computer sends out a signal to increase or decrease nutrient levels, so every plant it always getting its optimal amount of nutrients.
Other areas of the farm are dedicated to bee hives, which produce about 30 pounds of "any kind of flower" honey annually, and maple trees. Blenheim's forest is filled with maple trees, and Sohlberg set up a tap system that collects about 6,000 gallons of sap every winter, which boils down to about 150 gallons of maple syrup.
Despite the profusion of rare and common plants, Blenheim Hills Farm doesn't yet produce enough to support the restaurant seven days a week, two meals per day. But hopefully in the near future the farm will meet this goal. And what the farm doesn't offer, Tate supplements with additional fruits and vegetables, proteins, and seafood from a laundry list of local farms and purveyors.
Tate follows the less is more approach to cooking: "We find the best ingredients and we do the least ... it's really just about a lot of respect for the ingredients," he says. He's planning to turn his menus, both the five and nine course prix fixe options plus a la carte list, eight times per year as crops come into and cycle out of season.
A meal at Blenheim leads with yellow-hued butter in the summer and white cultured butter in the winter, plus house-baked bread made with a sourdough starter and yeast derived from rotten cabbage. There's also red fife sprouted wheat berry bread, cheddar and Marmite rolls, and gluten-free flax crisps.
Matching Blenheim's obsessively local approach is its wine list and cocktail program. Wines focus on natural and biodynamic bottles, while seasonal cocktails are spiked with small-batch spirits and remain on the list as long as ingredients are available. Some drinks that incorporate unusual cocktail ingredients are the ice plant gimlet (Plymouth gin, ice plant, lime) and a mocktail with grapefruit and muddled red sorrel. Guatemalan coffee beans are from boutique NY roaster Irving Farm, and the teas not made in house are by Rare Tea Cellar.
Those who dine at Blenheim after October 21 will have the option to order fresh lamb. The farm has 17 animals ready to slaughter and Tate expects to run through about two per week. Sohlberg is also in the process of cleaning pasture to double production. Tate's ingredient-driven New American cooking couldn't have landed a more appropriate residence.
·All Blenheim Coverage [ENY]