As a writer, 8:30am is earlier than I usually have to show up anywhere, so I needed a little extra coffee before arriving at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan one sunny August morning. I was there to capture some of New York's best chefs "draft" summer's choicest fruits and vegetables for the Produce Playoff, a dinner to benefit No Kid Hungry – a non-profit organization committed to ending child hunger. The dinner, which would take place the following week at Betony, a Modern American restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, would feature six courses – each curated by a different chef, using the produce selected at the draft as its star ingredient.
You think of it as watery and fresh, but I'll cook it until it's dense and flavorful.
If I thought it was early, I can't imagine how Betony's executive chef, Bryce Shuman, and general manager, Eamon Rockey, felt. They'd no doubt been at the restaurant late the night before, yet they were cheerful and friendly as we stood in the morning heat and waited for the rest of the group to trickle in.
Shuman explained the rules: taking turns, the chefs and beverage professionals would have five minutes to "draft" one type of produce. Once a fruit or vegetable had been picked, nobody else could use it in their dish. "It's all about the way you frame it," Shuman told the assembled group. "If you say, 'I get onions,' then nobody else can have onions." "But maybe instead of eggplant, you could say, 'I get fairytale eggplant.'" There would be two rounds, with each participant claiming two kinds of produce.
Next to us, a chalkboard had been set up for the occasion, outlining the draft order: Daniela Soto-Innes, chef-de-cuisine at haute Mexican spot Cosme, was up first; and Rockey, who was designing cocktails, would be the draft's final participant. Amidst booths overflowing with the season's bounty, we were surrounded by tomatoes of every size, bushels of juicy peaches, ears of freshly picked corn, and piles of juicy berries awaiting their selection.
One of the first to arrive was also the youngest participant, by far. Flynn McGarry is 17 years old, but the teen chef is known for his creative cooking at EUREKA, a supper club he started at the tender age of 12 in his mother's Los Angeles home. Last year, he moved EUREKA to New York, but the pop-up ended in January. Since then, he's been doing private events and "putting together funding for a permanent space" that should open in fall 2017 – most likely downtown, he told me.
At Produce Playoff, McGarry would be in charge of one canapé for the evening's cocktail hour, plus a cold appetizer at the main dinner. "I have a dish in mind," McGarry confided, mentioning he had his eye on watermelon and tomatillos – a small green tomato originally from Mexico.
Let the games begin
Soto-Innes raced off looking for avocado squash, as a cluster of handlers and photographers (and at least one reporter) followed. She didn't find it, so with the clock ticking, she gave up and grabbed plump ears of sweet white corn, still in the husk, from Kernan Farms– a family owned grower in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
"Corn is the main ingredient for Mexico," explained Soto-Innes, a Mexico City native. "It will be easy and fun for us to do something" – maybe a stock, or something smoked with the corn husks, she mused. She was excited to be supporting No Kid Hungry, she added, because "kids help us to be imaginative and produce creative ideas."
The pop star of produce
Soto-Innes' pick was noted on the draft board, and McGarry went next – hurrying off in the same direction. He scoped out a few stands, but finally stopped at the same booth – Kernan Farms – and planted himself in front of a table of small round watermelons. Noting the entourage surrounding the young chef – and his resemblance to a certain pop star – one passer-by questioned if it really was the singer.
Our pop star of produce decided on a round seedless black watermelon. "I want to make a condiment from it," he told me. "A very intense, fermented, yeast-based sauce." He elaborated: "You think of it as watery and fresh, but I'll cook it until it's dense and flavorful." That's a good technique for any piece of produce, McGarry advised: "First, think of it as a flavor – then how to extract as much of that as possible."
In the end, McGarry wound up with his tomatillos too, sourced from Migliorelli Farm – an Italian-American family estate in the Hudson Valley. He planned to use them in his hors d'oeuvre. "I'm going to ferment them and make a paste with olives," he explained. "Then smoke that, shave it like a bonito [Japanese dried fish flakes] and make a dashi [a kind of Japanese broth]."
There'd been a lot of speculation about who would draft the more traditional tomato – and the star of the Greenmarket at this time of year. The answer came during the next round, when Bo Bech nabbed some "South Jersey" beefsteak tomatoes from, you guessed it, Kernan Farms. The following round, the Danish chef would claim herbs – all herbs – for himself as well. "Bo's gone rogue!" quipped McGarry, smiling. "First he steals tomatoes. Now he's taken all the herbs."
Wrapping things up was Rockey, who designs Betony's drink menus – when he isn't too busy being general manager, that is. For his draft rounds, he grabbed a small fragrant cantaloupe from Sycamore Farms out of upstate New York, which he planned to make into a "perfectly clear and delicious" cantaloupe water: "Juice the fruit and let it rest, blend it into a fine puree, then put it through a filter like a cloth," he explained – adding that he'd blend in a drop or two of rum or pisco.
Rockey also picked up a few soft, ripe, brilliantly orange and red peaches from Breezy Hill Orchard, which produces "ecologically grown" fruit in New York's Hudson Valley, two hours north of the city. These were destined to be dried into a fruit leather as a garnish for a variation on the classic Manhattan cocktail – which sounds like reason enough to attend that cocktail hour.
The Produce Playoff
On August 24, No Kid Hungry supporters filled Betony's plush dining room to taste the artfully selected produce. The fruits and vegetables were transformed into dishes that evolved over the course of the week, then paired with a carefully curated wine selection and a signature Citi cocktail composed of fresh lavender, whiskey, and cream. Local foodies dined with a good cause in mind while Shuman and Rockey wrapped up what was another successful evening at Betony. As for working with No Kid Hungry? It's "one of the most rewarding parts" of managing the restaurant, Rockey said.
House Crème Fraîche, Olive Oil
(Bryce Shuman, Betony)
Champagne A. Margaine, Demi-Sec, Villes-Marmery, France, NV
(Flynn McGarry, Eureka)
Domaine Mittnacht, Gyotaku, Alsace, France, 2014
Avocado Squash, Okra
(Daniel Burns, Luksus)
Venus La Universal, Dido, Monsant Blanc, Catalunia, Spain, 2013 (Magnum)
(Bo Bech, Geist)
Adega Regional de Colares, Chao Rijo Branc, Colares, Portugal, 2014
Black Beans, Corn
(Enrique Olvera & Daniela Soto-Innes, Cosme)
A Tribute To Grace, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Grenache, Santa Barbara, California, 2014
(Mina Pizarro, Betony)
Weingut Nigl, Gruner Veltliner Eiswein, Kremsal, Austria, 2015
Citi is proud to partner with No Kid Hungry to help end childhood hunger and provide nourishment to our next generation. To learn more about No Kid Hungry and the impact of its work, visit nokidhungry.org/onedollar.