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Master chef sets place for local ‘soup kitchen’

Recorder/Geoff Bluh
Chef Isadora Sarto.

Recorder/Geoff Bluh Chef Isadora Sarto. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Tucked away in the downstairs parish hall of All Souls Church, a few dozen people gather for their Saturday lunch at Stone Soup Cafe with long, tablecloth-topped tables adorned with fresh-cut flowers, with music and one another.

And of course, there’s the food, almost beyond description: fresh-baked brioche-stye rolls, cream of heirloom tomato soup with garlic croutons and fresh dill, seasoned pork spare ribs, rice pilaf, stuffed collards, homemade creamed spinach and roast butternut squash For dessert, there’s mango-spiced flan.

If this Babette’s Feast — to which the entire community is welcome, week after week, for a “pay-what-you-can” donation — seems to bowl over preconceived notions of “soup kitchen,” that’s thanks to the creative efforts of people like chef Isadora ‘Izzy’ Sarto.

Sarto, one of dozens of volunteers at this meal — a handful just in the kitchen — as with community offerings around the region, found herself in Greenfield by accident. But if this is a hiatus for her, it’s the community’s luck to have a trained chef with experience in some of the finest kitchens in New York, Boston and beyond.

“I’m really at a crossroads in my career, at a place where I should be opening my own place,” says Sarto, a curly-haired Los Angeles native with culinary arts training from Johnson & Wales University and a list of credits that including The Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Extreme Chef’” series.

Sarto, who was executive chef at Boston’s fashionable Tremont 647 and cooked at New York’s Cafe Boulud and Ritz-Carlton hotels in New York and Marina del Ray, Calif., says, “Over the last five years, I’ve really felt the need to do something more. I’ve spent 20 years in this profession and I’ve worked for very rich and famous people, but I feel there’s something more to give, something more out there that I really want to be involved with.”

Sarto, who was part of a “Food Forum” panel last week to discuss the seemingly endless need for soup kitchens, food pantries and dinners to feed the hungry in this region where more than 10 percent of the population risks hunger, has volunteered in the past at the Women’s Lunch Place and at “Share Our Strength” events in Boston.

After pitching in at Greenfield’s Free Harvest Dinner this summer, where she ran into Stone Soup organizers, the expectant mother explains, “Part of me working in this community is to figure out exactly what I want to be doing and how I incorporate my passion for food and fine dining, my passion for agriculture, local ingredients and farm to table, and being able to give that to everyone. This type of food and culinary artistry, and the magic that happens in these places, should be accessible to all.”

Sarto grew up with a classically trained pianist for a mother in Los Angeles, where she was drawn more to the culinary arts, watching Julia Child and “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr from age 4 on public television. By the time she was 9 or 10, Sarto was enrolled in a children’s culinary class at the local community college. And when she was 13, her mother announced suddenly, “We’re out of L.A. We’re moving to Woodstock.” Once they’d relocated to New York state, Sarto enrolled in culinary training at her high school’s vocational education program, and two years later, in 1997, earned her culinary degree from Johnson & Wales.

“Then I jumped into the work force,” Sarto says. A year of cooking at a resort on Cape Cod, followed by three years of traveling around the country, an, just 20, she landed a job as a sous-chef in San Diego, overseeing an all-male, all-Latino crew.

“I got my first taste of how to lead and get people to respect you,” she says, “because they didn’t want a 20-year-old woman bossing them around. But I wound up winning them over.”

Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey transferred Sarto to New York for the opening of its Battery Park City hotel in 2001, just a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero, but after 9/11 the opening was pushed back for six months, and Sarto’s French executive chef suggested she travel to France to work as a stagiaire for some of his friends. Helping out in restaurants in Giverny, Normandy and Paris, “It was an amazing experience,” recalls Sarto of her three-month adventure — at least in part because as a 21-year-old American woman, she felt less than appreciated.

“They were kind of like, ‘What the heck! Stick her in pastries. She doesn’t know how to cook. I really had to work twice as hard to try and prove myself. It was a real eye-opener.”

She next helped open Battery Park City but soon left for the high-rolling, high-pressure Cafe Boulud at East 76th Street, where she worked for five years.

“As far as technique, ingredients, and culinary knowledge, that was by far the greatest accomplishment of my career,” she says, “It was very intense. He really ran it like the French do: You rarely got paid and you were there 13, 14, 15 hours a day, six days a week.”

Working her way up from “garde-manger” through poissonier, entremetier, to the coveted saucier post, she says, “Quite often, I’d be the only women out of 20 guys … It was like working in a locker room. You really have to learn to be one of the guys, because if you’re not, they’ll just eat you for breakfast. The other cooks will weed you out and they’ll force you to quit if you can’t cut it.”

Asian cuisine,
reality TV

Sarto decided she’d had enough of that endless intense schedule, and left to recoup by backpacking through southeast Asia. From Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, she volunteered as a stagiaire in kitchens, immersing herself in the techniques and local ingredients — a host of chilies, durians, rambutans, lychee, cilantros and more.

Back in this country in 2007, Sarto went to work opening Boston’s Liberty Hotel, housed in the old Charles Street Jail and worked there before going to work at Tremont 647.

While there, she started getting calls to appear on shows like “The Extreme Chef,” where for a handful of episodes, she and six other of the “fearless chefs out of their kitchens” were dropped into “extreme locations,” from the scorching California desert to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in which they scavenged for ingredients and tools.

The part of her that has had a passion for theater loved the TV work, Sarto said, but she was disappointed by the overall lack of quality in television and has balked at other invitations to appear on battling-chef shows.

Sarto spent seasons running a restaurant in Londonderry, Vt., and the exclusive Pequot Inn on Fishers Island on Long Island Sound. Still she saw these shows as“the last straw” before moving to Greenfield and yet, she sees similarities between the outlandish culinary survival shows and whipping up wonder in the small All Souls Church kitchen for Stone Soup.

“It’s funny: Many of the things I’ve done on these competition shows have been ‘Here’s this weird ingredient, now make a gourmet meal.’ In a way, that sort of prepared me for this challenge. That’s what I love about what’s going on in this community in particular. You have SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the benefits of vouchers for farmers markets that’s already going on here. I think it’s brilliant: Here’s a voucher for $15, go to the farmers’ market where you’re going to find kohlrabi, bok choi, baby turnips, and teaching people how to use those things. In this valley, it’s so amazing, there’s so much grown here. How do we continue to get it from the farm to the table and teach people how to use that stuff?”

Sarto originally was fascinated with food as “the glue of a community, the glue of a family,” but says, “What we’re losing in society today is everybody sitting down at the table together, everybody enjoying the holidays, or even Saturday dinner. I’m endlessly intrigued by my grandparents and generations before us, where that was a big part of family, and I really feel it’s getting lost.”

Her hope is to play a role in bringing that back to the community, and maybe even the planet . (Her fantasy is together with her husband-to-be, who’s now taking pre-med courses at Greenfield Community College, she can someday travel the world , he providing medical attention, she providing nutrition. as what she imagines as “a sort of doctor and chef without borders” team.)

Sarto admits there’s some “culture shock” finding herself in Greenfield — something like when she was transplanted in Woodstock, N.Y., after L.A. But she adds, “I’m a person who believes you are the environment you make. I can come here and say these are things I miss — “being able go out late at night for Chinese food or to a museum — or I can come here and do things and be a positive force, and try to help move things in the right direction. That’s sort of where I am.”

There are budget realities in any kitchen, but especially with non-profits, in which chefs have to balance their creativity with the limits of how much they can spend, Sarto says. “But I really like pantries. Really enjoy that challenge. For instance, if I have 50 pounds of dehydrated potatoes, but I have fresh kale and pinto beans, I think, ‘What can I do with this? How can I make it nutritious and delicious? The challenge is how do we do this so we’re not just slopping food on a plate?”

Sarto decries the kind of extended-shelf-life, nutrition-less foods that people are accustomed to eating, especially if they’re forced to stretch their budgets, and sees her role as trying to introduce people to farm-fresh foods that are readily available here but which they may have never imagined tasting.

“That’s part of the dilemma,” she says. “For years and years we’ve had food that’s cheap and easy but it has no nutritional value. So people are conditioned to going to McDonald’s where they can feed a family of five for 30 bucks. So what’s the draw of going to the farmers’ market and making something with kale?”

At Stone Soup, she finds, “You can make something with kale and baked squash, like a gratin. And wow! This is actually really good. So they’re not saying I miss the big slab of margarine and the baked potato and the prefab Salisbury steak. When you’re smelling and tasting, and the eye appeal of these things has now blocked out the other need for that sort of food that has no nutritional value.”

For all the panache of a restaurant like Tremont 647, where the kitchen opened into the restaurant, the pace of putting out dishes on a busy night left little or no time to engage with guests. That’s what makes Stone Soup so special, says Sarto.

“It’s a different level of appreciation, and a different level of face time with the guests,” she says. “I’m able to go into the dining room and take lunch with these people and hear their stories. You’re putting a face with the people you’re feeding. People are so appreciative. It’s such a remarkable thing when someone comes and says, ‘That was such a remarkable meal! Thank you so much! You made my day.’ And you get to hear their stories. We have people who live in their cars, people that are homeless … It makes it so much more meaningful to be treated this way.”

Sarto, who says ideas for the future include putting together a soup-kitchen cookbook and helping teach basic cooking skills to users so they can learn how to prepare fresh vegetables and be able to find a restaurant job, adds that volunteering here has been rewarding in ways she didn’t see at many of the fine dining kitchens of her past.

“That’s the real bonus doing this work,” she said of their little ‘cafe,’ with tablecloths, flowers and music. “To me, the food and the warmth of the kitchen and the dining room is the glue that keeps families together, that keeps the community’s families together. For these people to come in off the street and feel like an uplifted member of society, even if only for three or four hours, that can do wonders. Someone cares. We don’t want it to feel institutional, we want it to feel like they’re coming to our little restaurant, or coming to our home, enjoying a meal with us.”

On the web: stonesoupcafegreenfield.org

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