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January 2009


FEATURES

Homeward Bound
by Sarah Firshein
Photographs by Frances Janisch

MAX'S OYSTER BAR ELEVATES LOCAL INGREDIENTS TO HAUTE CUISINE AND CATAPULTS FARMERS TO CENTER STAGE

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If Scott Miller's story tells us anything, it's that you can take the boy out of Bridgeport, but you can't take the Bridgeport out of the boy.

It was there that Miller, executive chef at Max's Oyster Bar in West Hartford, first learned the value of cooking with locally grown ingredients. As a toddler visiting his grandmother for dinner, he began to take an interest in the backyard veggies used for meals. "I ate everything," he remembers. "I started to recognize ingredients I never saw elsewhere—in her garden she had peppers, lettuces and radishes. And she pickled eggplants and tomatoes."

Years later, working as a chef in Denver, Miller found other ways to indulge his fascination with homegrown fare. "The biggest influence from living in Colorado was getting involved in agriculture and living off the land," he says. "Most people think of Denver as this cold, frigid climate, but it's actually sunny 320 days of the year and there's some unbelievable produce." He cites his work with Colorado Proud, the Colorado Department of Agriculture's initiative to push for locally grown, raised and processed food and agricultural products to support the state's economy, farmers, ranchers, greenhouses and manufacturers.

So Miller, who now lives in West Hartford with his wife and son, easily took to FARM to CHEF (FTC), the "locavore" program the Max Restaurant Group introduced in all its restaurants, including Max Downtown in Hartford, Max Amore Ristorante in Glastonbury and the Oyster Bar, last year. The concept is about as organic as it gets: Each executive chef creates a three-course menu sourced from regional fishmongers and meat purveyors, as well as dairy and produce farms. Menus change a few times a week from May on, and a portion of each check benefits the Connecticut Farmland Trust, a private land trust that operates statewide to protect Connecticut's working farmland.

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"We've always been involved with local farms in Connecticut, but their level of experimentation with more energetic products has increased these last couple of years," explains Richard Rosenthal, president of the Max Restaurant Group. "So while we've always been using all these things, we just felt that it would be really fun to truly 'feature' them. We wanted to let our guests know where our food was coming from and give them more of a local awareness." To accomplish this, FTC menus are presented as a prix fixe option, and local farms are attributed on-page next to the dish they help craft.

"The whole idea of having restaurants engaged in using local foods is tremendously powerful, not just the freshness and the taste, but also for the impacts it has on land use," says Connecticut Farmland Trust executive director Henry Talmage. "The agricultural model enables a new marketing channel for farmers that can be very specialized, and it can really be the difference between whether or not farms survive."

One senses Miller's personal fondness for the farms he works with, and his deep-rooted interest in their survival. In describing how FTC melds with his own culinary philosophy ("beautiful, fresh and straightforward—I'm not here to build plates that are a foot high and have 40 different components,"), the word "guys" peppers the narrative, as in: "Those guys at Ox Hollow Farm in Roxbury" (a trusted source for meats and free-range chicken) or "The guys at American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingston (Rhode Island)." The initiative, it seems, is his chance to build solid relationships with those who help make his cooking—and his love of cooking seafood, in particular—possible. "It's a passion of mine to get involved with local farms because of the stories that you get working with these guys and having an understanding of what they actually do on a regular basis," he says. "And the food is freshest."

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Miller's FTC menus nicely marry his own tastes with the region's greatest hits (in late autumn, think apple granita from Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, a butternut squash bisque courtesy of Simsbury's Rosedale Farms and cod from Chatham, Mass., by way of wholesaler Gulf Shrimp Company in Plantsville). "It starts with farmers influencing me. I call them on Monday morning to get a list of what's in season, what products they have—maybe even things I've never even heard of before," he says, citing past adventures with such "holy moley!" ingredients as coconut mint and pineapple mint. "I'm going to start talking to them now about spring crops and what type of vegetables I think I'll want. Then, I'll start writing my menu," he adds. "And so long as they know we're definitely going to use this product or that product, maybe farmers will invest a little more into me this winter. Maybe they'll put up another greenhouse."

"We form this relationship where they take pride in selling to the restaurant, and I take pride in serving their products," he adds.

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