It was a long winter in Rumson, New Jersey. Chef Phil Deffina has been carefully tending his seedlings indoors, waiting for the right moment to transport them to the outside beds he built last spring. Blue tape marks up the trays that he hopes to soon see spilling over with tomatoes in their smart summer red and yellow uniforms, and herbs of all varieties. Already the pea sprouts are 3 inches tall and growing beautifully.
Spring has finally sprung, and the kitchen is restless with anticipation. Slowly the produce will start to trickle in, and then the dam will burst with the goodness of the earth on their counters. For Chef Deffina, it’s been a long time coming. “The spring and summer ingredients allow us to do more, to be inventive and interesting.” He recalls the produce he was able to grow last year and is proud to say there were months at a time that he didn’t have to buy herbs for the restaurant. “Rosemary, thyme, mint— so much mint—cilantro, and so many varieties of basil,” he reels them off. “Lemon and lime basil—I had never heard of lime basil before, but it’s awesome. Add it to fresh crudo or a nice chilled fish, and it’s great in drinks as well.” He also cultivated a decent crop of edible wildflowers, from borage to marigolds, a welcome splash of primary color on any plate.
This year, there will be a tangle of heirloom tomatoes in his garden beds—Green Zebra to Brandywines in addition to purple and Thumbelina carrots that you might find pickled and served with the bread basket at some point. “It’s a nice touch,” Deffina points out, “to have a starter without the carbs and gluten—it gets noticed.”
And while it’s fresh, they will use it: fava beans, ramps, you name it. Open up the back door to the kitchen and let it all in—along with the occasional cooler of fish, compliments of David Burke Group restaurant partner Jeffrey Citron, an avid fisherman. “Somedays we get a knock on the back door and it’s two coolers full of a couple of 300-pound fish Mr. Citron caught 12 hours ago,” Deffina says, clearly delighted at his luck. Fish is a big part of his summer menu as it is. This bonus makes for exciting specials. Fish sausages, perhaps? Don’t be too surprised! Fromagerie has quite the production going on when it comes to charcuterie. “We went from venison and boar in the winter to chicken sausages, using the necks as casings,” he explains. Next up, lamb and fish sausages. “Sausages is a great utilization tool in a kitchen, and I appreciate the artisan process that is a lost art in this day and age.”
It’s going to be an exciting next few months at Fromagerie, and Chef Deffina plans on enjoying every moment of it. In the kitchen or in the garden, with only a back door between them.