Something special is cooking in South Jamesport.
One weekend per month, Peter Berley, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning cookbook author and chef, opens his home there to up to eight students seriously looking to improve their culinary skills.
They enter his sunny home kitchen, which features butcher block counters, a 12- to 14-seat baker’s counter, a wood-burning oven and brightly colored tiles. Using high quality ingredients — like eggs and raw milk from Ty Llwyd Farm in Riverhead or kale from Berley’s own backyard garden — they learn to cook like pros.
“In terms of teaching, one thing that’s really important to me is the quality of the products that I’m working with,” he said. “In most culinary schools, you don’t have the option to choose what you’re going to cook with.”
Berley was once the chef at the Angelica Kitchen in the East Village, which closed this year after 40 years in business, and has been teaching various classes over the past two decades. He also works as a private chef on the South Fork and has written lauded cookbooks, including “The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen” and “The Flexitarian Table: Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone in Between.” Now in his sixth year of offering classes in his home, he said he prefers to teach non-professionals rather than career chefs.
“I really wanted to focus on the needs of ordinary people,” said Berley, who along with his wife, Meg, splits his time between the North Fork and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. “Improving their lives. Impacting the quality of their life. To me, it’s very powerful learning how to cook.”
For the most part, he isn’t teaching individual recipes. Instead, Berley focuses on technique. Last weekend’s course dealt with making fermented foods.
Items like sourdough bread or sauerkraut are not that difficult to make — they’re “stupid simple,” he says — they just take some preparation and a little know-how. But the result is worth the additional effort.
“It’s not just open up a box add some water stir and you have a meal,” he said. “It’s much more involved than that.”
The two-day course also features a sumptuous dinner on Saturday and lunch on Sunday incorporating the dishes made in class. The meals give way to convivial discussion of topics like the state of the restaurant industry and the proliferation of niche food trucks.
This class focused on simple fermentation methods suited for urban living. For instance, a jar of fermenting kim chi can be stored in a cool cabinet, rather than buried underneath the ground.
That is one of the reason the course primarily draws New York City-dwelling students in search of a country weekend getaway.
Victor Gao of SoHo, co-founder of health care startup Click Therapeutics, he has attended Berley’s weekend classes four times. He noted that one of the things he gleaned during his latest visit is to wait 30 minutes between a “stretch and fold” of sourdough bread dough.
“There is a lot of art to it,” Gao said. “You get a real hands-on experience here. Everyone is making their own kimchi, everyone is making their own bread.”
Summer White, a nutritionist and founder of Soma Nutrition, which delivers meals customized to its clients’ metabolic needs, was drawn to Berley’s fermentation classes. As someone who was diagnosed with gut diseases, she said she buys microorganism rich sauerkraut “by the gallon” and was looking forward to making the fermented dish on her own.
“Bringing that ancient wisdom into our current lives is essential for our health in the long term,” White said.