A Chef's Hand in the Dirt
You can place a juicy, vibrant tomato in front of a customer, but you can’t make them understand the path that tomato took to reach the plate without effectively depicting the tale. Some restaurants do that with words. Others do it with pictures. DZ does it with an invitation to its farm, the very place of origin. Bringing the table to the farm is the root concept of the DZ operation.
To bring the food experience full-circle, David and Roslyn Zecchini, the husband and wife duo behind DZ restaurant group in Saratoga County, New York, bought a farm in Galway and began growing their own produce to supply their restaurants and bring diners a little closer to the agriculture that eventually graces their plates.
“It’s a way to respect the ingredient at hand,” says Roslyn, executive chef at Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs. DZ also owns Pasta Pane in Clifton Park as well as Forno Bistro and Chianti, both in Saratoga Springs. When it is common for some chefs to call up a vendor and request any given product to be delivered near-immediately, growing, harvesting and cooking one’s own produce serves as a reminder that food is limited and considerable resources and skill must be employed to create it.
The Zecchinis had not originally planned to purchase and operate a farm, however. While the DZ restaurants have flourished and remain popular options in the Capital Region dining scene, opening another restaurant didn’t seem like the right choice, for now. Roslyn had spent time cooking in Italy, where just-picked produce is hauled through a kitchen’s back door to facilitate the night’s menu. She also worked on various farms in California’s lush agricultural communities.
“I always wanted to do this. I told myself that one day I’d like to own my own farm,” she says. Studying at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, allowed her to see the relationship between agricultural production and the culinary arts firsthand. To her, being a good chef means being a good steward of holistic food consumption.
After a little convincing, David was also on-board, and the couple bought DZ Farm in October 2013. They have toiled to expand the existing gardens to grow a variety of produce for their restaurants—primarily tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and herbs, but also garlic, beans, carrots, turnips, Brussels sprouts and greens.
The farm and house itself date back 200 years and underwent a complete renovation in the 1980s. Its history includes time as a potato farm, and several barns and outbuildings contribute to the bucolic nature of the 65-acre property. A koi pond is a favorite among visitors, and a 14-acre beaver pond is visible from the house and gardens. This year brought the addition of beehives (with 50,000 bees), managed by Marquis Snyder, who works in the kitchens at DZ restaurants.
Though captivated by its charm, Roslyn was unsure about the prospects of the farm. It seemed to her in some ways to be too precious and not capable of fulfilling the image she had for time with her hands in the dirt. However, the proximity to the restaurants and the potential for more than just farming drew her in and convinced her that this was the exact place she was meant to be.
“The basement has become my plant lab,” she says. Roslyn threw herself full-force into the farming project and grew 1,000 plants from seed this year. When not at the restaurant, she is usually found among the tomato plants in the nightshade plot, which was nearly doubled in size this year and features an intricate trellising system to help optimize yield. Since the DZ restaurants lean Italian in their concepts (David is native to the country), tomatoes are a critical menu item. DZ uses theirs for nightly specials in July, August and September, which also happens to be the busiest season in Saratoga Springs thanks to the local horse racing, music and arts scene that flourishes each summer.
Restaurant staff is encouraged to spend time at the farm, and much of what is grown is driven by chef demand. As much as farming satisfies a part of Roslyn’s soul, she is motivated by creating a deeper understanding of the farm-to-table process among her chefs. The Zecchinis also hope to spread this knowledge to the general public as well and have plans to turn the farmhouse into a sort of culinary education facility.
So far, DZ Farm has already hosted many events—both public and private—to foster this plan. Patrons of DZ restaurants are invited to special occasions at the farm that allow them to walk among the gardens and sample food that highlights the farm’s seasonal bounty. A wedding took place at the farm, and local charities embrace the laid-back, natural and convivial vibe the place emits. Cooking classes are slated for future programming.
“It’s another way for our guests to come and experience DZ as a whole,” says Roslyn. DZ is committed to sustainability, customer satisfaction and safety, not just the Zecchinis’ own gain. She hopes that her team’s efforts at the farm will accrue a certain trust with diners and generate a more circular appreciation for the journey of food.
In ways, DZ Farm is a means to give back to the community and the customer, but in the daily toil and trials of the farm, it is Roslyn’s gateway for fulfillment and contentment not found in the kitchen.
“This is my happy place, my sanctuary,” says Roslyn, as DZ Farm brings together her passions and her craft.