Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cooley's Farm

Where others saw nothing but a sprawling parking lot behind the Airport Marriott, Ellis Cooley, Executive Chef of the hotel’s Amp 150 restaurant, saw potential. The far end of that asphalt field was bordered by a long, narrow strip of grass and weeds. He piled on 40 yards of good soil, planted seeds and seedlings, and now thanks to seriously hard work, loving care, the right combination of sunshine and water, and what he considers a kind of magic, the guy’s got himself a flourishing quarter acre farmette. It’s supplying his kitchen with an astonishing amount of hyper-local produce. Not bad for someone who’s the first to admit he was a total novice when it comes to partner with Mother Nature to coax food out of the ground.

I was amazed and frankly charmed by what I saw when I went out for a look. There’s no picturesque meadow that would prompt you to bust out singing tunes from Oklahoma but there are rows and rows of corn that really look “high as an elephant’s eye.” He’s just started putting it in a puree with yellow Aji Amarillo chiles to use in a scallop dish, and told me he wants to do a smooth corn pudding with :juiced” kernels; corn tarts; salsa; and tamales grilled Mexican style. Like everybody else with a backyard garden, Cooley has zucchini in abundance. Get it julienned, sautéed and served with toasted almonds, preserved lemons and pecorino cheese; in the rabbit cacciatore; or grilled for a salad made with fresh oregano, red grapes and a feta cheese vinaigrette. Of course where there’s squash, there are squash blossoms, and he planted in stages to insure a steady supply throughout the summer. At the moment, the flowers are getting stuffed with house made ricotta and crème fraiche and are served with green tomato jam (made from the garden’s bounty as well).

Around ten varieties of heirloom tomatoes are flourishing in his parking lot plot, along with sweet potatoes, Anaheim chiles, fennel (he roasts, tosses with figs for a salad and puts on the plate with Walleye); the lemongrass that goes with his mussels; green peppers for shrimp and grits, and braised Hungarian ones to complement a smoked and grilled pork chop. Some of this stuff will likely soon show up in jars as pickles and preserves too.

Jeremy Lisy, a chef who traded in stove work for soil toil, has helped Cooley every step of the way, donating the plants along with bushels of free advice. Lisey has two greenhouses and acreage near Pymatuming, and his company KJ Greens is a wholesale supplier to a number of area restaurants Lisy’s fruits and vegetables supplement what Cooley's able to grow, and they get a special shout out on Amp 150’s menu.
The same farm fresh goodness is available to home cooks too. Call Lisy to find out how to order and where the nearest pick up spot is located. (440-339-4639).

Management’s been supportive. What Cooley’s doing fits in well the larger goals of the hotel to be a green operation. And manpower comes from the kitchen crew-nobody’s obliged to help but there are some willing to volunteer. The beneficiaries are of course all who dine here. Unless you’re harvesting ingredients from your own backyard, it doesn’t get any fresher-or more delicious- than this.

1 comment:

joe said...

I've dined at Amp 150 before and all of the ingredients seemed really fresh. We ordered the chef's tasting menu. The chef came out and talked to us before he cooked our meal, during the meal and after the meal to make sure we were going to like it. It was a great experience and the chef seemed like a really nice guy. I would definitely recommend the restaurant (if they still have the malted panna cota, it is a must).