hen chef Jason Wood took over the kitchen at Tavern, the Garrison restaurant nestled amid the bucolic landscape of Highlands Country Club, word started to leak out that something interesting was afoot. Although he and his highly touted predecessor Eric Gabrynowicz both espoused farm-to-table values, there were obvious differences. Instead of brawny braises and rich salads, a more vegetable-based cuisine was issuing forth from Tavern’s shoebox-size kitchen, done with a light touch and a musician’s sensitivity to tone, balance and composition. The two chefs’ pedigrees differed, too. While Gabrynowicz was a Culinary Institute of America grad and Union Square Café alumnus, Wood, who took over at Tavern in June 2010, trained at an unheralded Manhattan school called the Natural Gourmet Institute. Instead of long years of apprenticeship at the feet of masters, he deftly transposed talents honed as a bass player in the rock band Engine Down to a new medium, the local bounty of the lower Hudson Valley.
To Wood, 34, the career switch was in some ways not such a stretch. In both professions, he says, “you’re performing for people, you’re showing them your art.” And just as he liked working in a tight-knit band of musicians, he now enjoys the locavore equivalent, a close community of growers and purveyors who help stock his larder. “I don’t want to buy meat or vegetables from somebody I don’t know,” he explains, “there’s no story there to me.”
Nearly everything on a Tavern plate comes from the local community and from Brian Bergen, the full-time, on-site farmer for Tavern and its nearby sister-restaurant Valley, a fine-dining establishment that’s part of the golf course, inn and banquet facility complex known as the Garrison. Instead of dreaming up a menu, picking up the phone and ordering the ingredients he needs for it, Wood says, “Brian will tell me the five things I’m getting this week, and I’ll design a menu around that.” This week, for example, Bergen has supplied him with plenty of peas, pattypan squash, bronze fennel, cucumber and rhubarb, so the menu features an elegantly simple raw summer vegetable salad with those pattypans, peas, three types of cucumber, fennel fronds and the brilliantly sweet-tart tomato known as “ground cherry.” There is also a delicious dish of meatballs and hay-smoked gnocchi in chili oil–spiked Parmesan broth studded with freshly shucked peas, and a strawberry rhubarb cobbler.
Bergen, a lapsed PhD candidate in sociology, cultivates 3,200 square feet of raised beds and unheated greenhouse crops, the latter of which extends his growing season with early greens: kale, spinach and sylvetta arugula, a sharper, more winter-hearty variant. He doesn’t grow standard-issue “utility vegetables” (onions, carrots, potatoes) but instead puts effort into more high-value versions and rarer breeds: baby rainbow carrots, Russian fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, crosnes (also known as Chinese artichokes), celeriac and a small, densely flavored French strawberry called Mara des Bois. Wood values Bergen’s produce so highly that he won’t waste a scrap of it. Despite his lean kitchen staff of two, he finds the time to can and pickle. In July, he was just finishing up last summer’s marinara sauce, the byproduct of 70 quarts of excess tomatoes.
Another integral part of Wood’s community of suppliers is Glynwood, a 225-acre not-for-profit organization in Cold Spring, whose mission is to help strengthen farm communities and food systems in the Northeast. Tavern is the only restaurant that Glynwood supplies with pasture-raised beef and poultry; most of its limited production goes to its 100 CSA member families and other customers, according to Ken Kleinpeter, director of farm and facilities at Glynwood. “What’s great about Jason,” says Kleinpeter, who is also an occasional ramp-foraging partner of Wood’s, “is his commitment to sourcing local food products and the way he’ll say, ‘What have you got hanging around that no one else is buying?’ If we’ve got pig’s head, he makes head cheese.” (Wood’s inspired testa, or pig’s head pâté, is laced with stone-ground mustard, pan-seared then topped with an egg-yolk raviolo and garnished with house-made pickles.) Glynwood is interwoven into Wood’s personal and professional life in other ways, too. His wife, Sara Grady, is director of special projects at Glynwood. It was through her that Wood landed his job at Tavern after she connected him with Chip Allemann, chairman of the board at Glynwood and also general manager of both Highland Country Club and the Garrison.
Allemann’s vision for his two restaurants is increasing self-sufficiency, to have them work more closely with small regional farmers and move away from the large-scale industrial food system. With fewer built-in efficiencies and distribution mechanisms, it’s not an easy way to work. Allemann explains, “A lot of the responsibility falls to the chefs to build the relationships, to establish trust with the farmers around quality, delivery schedule and quantities. It’s a completely different way of buying food and writing menus, and chefs have to be willing and dedicated to do that.”
Allemann says he saw in Wood an approach toward food and cooking that matched this vision, and “the passion and the commitment” needed for the job. The chef ’s lack of traditional culinary school experience was in some ways a plus, since few schools teach budding chefs to do menu planning the way it’s done at Tavern.
Allemann characterizes Wood’s cooking as lighter, less heavily seasoned and more experimental than Gabrynowicz’s. While many have embraced the change wholeheartedly, it’s not easy to cater to such a varied clientele: golfers, club and non-club members, those who want their traditional meat and two vegetables sides and those who, like Wood, with his focus on healthy, sustainable cooking, prefer smaller, less protein-centric plates. “Eric did big quantities,” says Allemann. “With Jason, there are no take-home bags.”
On a recent July afternoon, Wood emerged from Tavern’s kitchen, still looking every inch the sensitive aesthete/rocker with his pale skin and shock of blond hair falling over his eyes. Before telling his story, he settles into a wicker chair in the restaurant’s glassed-in sunroom that connects to the 1898 main building. Adjacent is a cozy, dark-paneled tavern room and a grand ballroom used for banquets and functions.
Life began for Wood in Roanoke, Virginia, as the son of a contractor and a homemaker. Although his grandparents had largely lived off what they grew on their land, Wood’s parents embraced suburban life and grocery stores. Wood identifies more with his grandparent’s way of life; he recalls sitting in his grandmother’s lap and snipping the ends off of green beans from her garden, and the rows of canned fruits and vegetables in her cellar.
Shortly after his 1995 high school graduation, Wood joined a band called Engine Down. The group, whose music he likens to the louder side of Radiohead, toured successfully, making four records and for a brief time enjoying a major-label contract with Atlantic Records. The band was at the height of its popularity in 2005 and on tour in London when it struck Wood that, “maybe we should end this before anything bad can happen to us.” He explains, “Music, just like food, is extremely important to me and very, very precious.” None of the band’s members wanted to make the kind of compromises that growing bigger would entail. They did one more tour then called it quits. “It shocked a lot of people,” Wood recalls.
He went on to become manager for his friend the punk/indie rocker Ted Leo and his band for the next two years. During his rock and roll years, Wood says that eating vegetarian was a way of ensuring “that I was getting clean food” in what were sometimes limited restaurant choices on the road. His cooking repertoire was limited to pastas and stir-fries.
It was Grady, his girlfriend at the time, who in 2007 suggested that he try out the Natural Gourmet Institute, and from the first day, Wood was hooked. As he learned about the role growing and butchering animals played in the farming ecosystem, Wood began eating meat again. “I was surprised by this ardent feeling after his first visit,” recalls Grady. “He felt really strongly that this was his future. It combines a lot of natural talents and inclinations he has: he loves people, he loves nature, he’s an artist. This is a way of combining all of those things.“ For Wood, cooking is a way of taking care of people. When Engine Down’s guitar player became a father, Wood’s gift to him and his family was to travel to Richmond and cook for three days straight to stock his former bandmate’s fridge.
Wood loved his internship at locavore landmark Savoy in Manhattan, and being the only man on a calm, nurturing “allwomen line of bad-ass chefs.” His search for on-the-job experience continued after finishing his nine-month Natural Gourmet program, taking him to Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn and its sister restaurant, Diner. From there he moved on to a short-lived flexitarian restaurant called Broadway East, did some catering and private chef work, hosted a series of private supper club dinners with Grady, then headed to Washington, DC, where he worked for chef and sustainable seafood advocate Barton Seaver at Seaver’s restaurant Blue Ridge.
Seaver, now a National Geographic fellow who is working with the medical community to establish the link between the health of ecosystems and the health of people, calls Wood “one of the most intuitive people that’s ever passed his hand over a flame,” a chef with “a gentle touch who was never wowed with the center-of-the-plate aesthetic, the protein-plus-two that so dominates our culture.” Wood was so driven to succeed, Seaver adds, that “he was on the hot line within weeks of arriving, and manning the grill by himself within months. He just kept absorbing more knowledge.”
Still, no one thought Wood was ready for an executive chef job yet when he applied to Tavern in 2010, just two years out of the Natural Gourmet Institute. Allemann gave him the sous-chef job, but the slated executive chef never showed up and Wood just slid into the position. Wood admits that the first months were rocky, and there were moments when he thought, “Maybe I’m not prepared for this.” He often had to remind himself of advice that another Washington mentor, chef Teddy Diggs, used to give him: “It’s only food.”
There’s an earnestness to Wood, a purity of purpose that evokes the idealistic musician he once was, the guy who would rather quit than compromise. Cooking and serving straight-out-of-the ground locally and sustainably grown food, respecting both the product and the people who grow it, providing pleasure, value and transparency on the plate is not a passing fad for him, he says, it’s a way of life. If three appetizers and three entrées is all he can in good conscience put on his menu, he declares, “That’s what I’ll do. I’m sticking to my guns.”
955 Route 9D, Garrison