Many vegans are repulsed at the sight of meat and fish. Chris Gerdes is not. Holding up a huge side of quality beef on a tour of Blackwells Restaurant’s well-organized kitchen, the chef proclaims, “I love my job. If it bothered me in any way to cook meat and fish, I would not be able to do it. I strongly feel that my personal preference does not matter.”
Executive Chef of Blackwells at Great Rock Golf Club, Wading River, Gerdes’ cuisine is primarily French and Northern Italian, but he can cook anything—from a sizzling, juicy porterhouse steak or sautéed sea scallops to homemade fettuccine.
“My philosophy is to take the best ingredients and do the least with them to bring out the flavors,” Chef Gerdes says. He is adamant that a good chef can work well when he knows his craft and uses the best ingredients—meat, fish or vegetables. As a vegan, he respects animals and is careful to waste little in food preparation, using what he can in soups and sauces.
A vegan will not eat animals or animal by-products like dairy, eggs and cheese. They choose natural foods unaltered by additives or preservatives. Food is treated as a vehicle to nourish one’s body, and proper treatment of animals and respect for nature is encouraged. Veganism is a moral, rather than health-related practice, but Gerdes says being a vegan is his personal choice and insists that he does not impose his philosophy on others, especially in a restaurant known for its steaks.
Reading the autobiography of Gandhi is what changed Gerdes’ life. It taught him to have a reverence for nature. His wife, Kathy, introduced him to Ashtanga, or eight-limbed yoga, and its spiritual aspect. The calming effects of yoga and meditation are useful in his fast-paced work environment. “I am a craftsman, not an artist. I meditate to stay calm. If I stress out, it does not set a good example for my staff.”
Gerdes and his wife own a five-acre farm in Port Jefferson Station. They rescued two thoroughbred racehorses, Wind in the Willow and Pilgrim, and ride whenever they can. They also raise chickens and grow fresh produce in season.
Gerdes is inspired by chefs who use sustainable and organic produce. Among them, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY. He remembers an amazing six-course tasting menu at Blue Hill, which included a simple, but delicious Scotch egg (soft-boiled egg coated in bread crumbs and fried).
Chef Gerdes has no desire to make any moves. Blackwells’ location in Wading River appeals to him because of its easy access to the North Fork’s sustainable and organic local produce, cheese and wine. He loves the elegance of the dark-paneled mansion overlooking the golf course, especially the library, and he’s looking forward to Blackwells’ new catering facility.
In the meantime, despite his personal choices, Gerdes will cook any steak to order and remain calm and respectful doing it.
Signature Dish : Catapano Dairy Farm Goat Cheese Soufflé
Chef Gerdes was introduced to this light and airy soufflé years ago in SoHo. The goat cheese adds a unique flavor. Served with watercress and heirloom tomato salad, and garlic crostini, it is perfect for company or a quick dinner.
Catapano Dairy Farm Goat Cheese Soufflé with Watercress & Heirloom Tomato Salad, Garlic Crostini
4 oz. Catapano Dairy Farm goat cheese*
2 whole eggs
2 oz. heavy cream
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. shallots
½ tsp. fresh dill
Combine all ingredients in blender. Blend 30 seconds. Pour contents into two 4 oz. ramekins.
Bake at 400º for 15-20 minutes until golden brown on top.
*Catapano Dairy Farm is in Peconic on the North Fork of Long Island.