Widgets Magazine

Nothing but Local - Chef Taylor Knapp Discusses the Paw Paw Pop-up Experience

Back in June we met up with Taylor Knapp of Peconic Escargot to talk about his one-of-a-kind snail farm in Cutchogue, but that’s just half of the story. Taylor is also the Executive Chef and brain child behind Paw Paw Pop-up Restaurant – which opens Saturdays at Bruce & Sons in Greenport with seatings at 6:30 and 8:30. The nine course menu at Paw Paw is essentially a seasonal cross section of nearly everything grown, farmed and fished on the North Fork, with a few surprises for even the most seasoned of foodies. We caught up with Taylor on a rare moment of downtime to talk shop about local ingredients, foraging, and the incredible protein content of insects.GNF: You opened Paw Paw a few years ago correct? Was that envisioned as a way to sustain your upstart snail business and still cook?

TK: It was actually the spring of 2014 - this is our third season. Honestly when the pop-up came out it was meant to be a one-off kind of thing, we were just going to do a couple of these, maybe like 5. I had left First & South in January of 2014, and I knew that there would still be a couple of months until I got the snail farm up and running. Well, little did I know that it would actually be another two and half years before I got the snail farm up and running! At the time I thought it was just going to be a couple of months so I figured we’d do a couple of pop-ups, it will be fun, we’ll make some money, just until the snail farm gets going.

I guess it kind of exceeded our expectations – we didn’t really realize people to be so into it, and as happy with it as they are, so we were able to keep it going all this time. I ended up getting another job as Corporate Chef at Koppert Crest Farm – which I loved, and I still do a little bit part time – but yeah it kind of evolved into something that we thought it would never be – it was never supposed to be a three year long running pop-up.

GNF: You’re sort of pushing the definition of pop-up but I think its ok.

TK: Yeah, it really isn’t a pop-up anymore, I don’t know what else you would call it.

GNF: So does it run all year? Or just Spring, Summer, Autumn.

TK: No it’s really pretty much all year. I mean over the three years we may have taken a month off here or there, but we plan on going right into the winter with it. It’s still kind of evolving – we’ve made little tweaks to the seating times and how many courses we do, and the price and the type of food.

At first we were doing like 15 courses at one time and it was all communal seating – we’d only do one seating with 15 courses and like 16 guests – and it was a little too intense, for the average consumer, it was like a three or three and a half hour meal. So I was like let’s pull it back a little bit, make it two or two and a half hours at the most. We do nine courses, and some of them are very small, and we have doubled the amount of people we bring in by doing two seatings.  It’s still continuing to change and we are thinking about doing some more casual stuff this winter, maybe a duck roast – everyone does pig roasts and BBQ and stuff like that, but the duck out here is probably one of the most abundant protein sources on the North Fork.

GNF: It’s definitely a Long Island staple.

TK: Certainly yeah, ducks, Long Island. There’s a couple farms out here that do pork and beef and stuff like that, but no-one is raising as much protein as Crescent Duck Farm and its fantastic stuff so we thought maybe we’ll do kind of a fun casual walk-in-only duck roast this winter.  So that’s kind of in the works too.

GNF: I Know a bit about your background at Noma and they sort of have this minimalist Nordic foraged thing going on – has that worked its way into your cooking style? What is the style of PAW PAW?

TK: Noma was certainly inspirational, I took a lot of that mindset of searching for ingredients – the way they do it at Noma, and brought it over to the North Fork. So instead of ordering things in from halfway across the country, we are looking for them here. We’re asking ourselves, can I make something tasty out of this berry or this sumac or this sassafras root? Instead of ordering vanilla beans from Asia – So I think that mentality has served us well because we’ve discovered some fun interesting flavor combinations that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

GNF: Your cooking universe is very local-centric, is that something you brought here, or that you developed living on the North Fork, or both?

Well it’s all kind of a culmination of where you’ve been I suppose- my first real job in the kitchen was at Gracie’s in Providence – and they’re just also super seasonal, super local. They did a lot of farm visits, they have a beautiful rooftop garden where they grow a lot of their ingredients - so that kind of jumpstarted it. Then getting to travel around and work at Places like Noma, and Azurmendi in Spain, and even a bit of Alinea in Chicago and stuff like that. Whatever a Michelin star rated restaurant environment can bring to a farm to table movement.

TK: Then the first place that I was at here was Luce & Hawkins in Jamesport, and that was where I was really kind of immersed in the North Fork culture, and having all of these things so close to your fingertips. There are very few places in the country where you can drive to literally like 50 different farms and fishermen all within a half hours reach. It’s just so close. It’s incredible. You can drive to a chicken farm and then you can drive two minutes down the road and pick fresh figs, and drive two more minutes and all of the sudden you are in the woods picking sassafras up out of the ground and its crazy. I started building relationships with the farmers and the fishermen and all the people out here that did all those things. Most of them are still around, and of course there are many new places that have popped up since then.

GNF: I’ve seen you had black silkies on the menu, and I was just at the farm with Abra talking about you, also you work out of Bruce & Sons, Chris Fanjul hand-makes your dishes and tableware – what other local businesses kind of come to mind that are working with you specifically to put together these pop-ups?

TK: Well we are really excited that we are Probably one of the only spots out here that has entirely North Fork raised meat. We’re kind of a luxury because we’re a pop-up and were only doing two seatings a week at 32 guests so we can do that – but that’s kind of the point. I don’t know if I’d feel as comfortable opening a restaurant doing 100 covers a night and then we have to kind of like, source everything from elsewhere because we can’t do it locally. Why not just do it right and do it with less people. So anyway – to get back to your question, yeah we work with Crescent Farms, Abra at Fesity Acres, we work with Browder’s Birds, we get a lot of our meat from 8 Hands Farm and Deep Roots Farm.

And then vegetables, we kind of go all over – depending on who has got the best. You come to learn over the years (and it sounds ridiculous) but you like learn who has the best green beans, and who grows the best peppers, and the best – whatever. We get a lot of our fun stuff from The Farm Beyond in Southold. Melissa from there has just done an incredible job of growing, and they also forage. They do kind of a farm-forage type thing where they actually planted ramps and fiddleheads, stinging nettles and stuff like that. So they are farming in a responsible way things that before were only able to be foraged.

TK: We get a lot of our veg from them – and there’s obviously a big foraging aspect that comes into play. Whether it’s me personally going out or getting something that Mellissa and Ed foraged. Or sometimes I’ll just get random phone calls and text saying - Hey I got a bunch of beach rose or I’ve got a bunch of sea beans do you want sea beans? – And we’re like sure I’ll take them – I think that adds kind of a wild crazy component. Any time someone encounters an ingredient they’ve never seen or tasted before it puts them in kind of a different mindset.

GNF: It’s a mystique.

TK: Yeah for sure, exactly. If we can pull them out of their typical dining experience for a while and they’re seeing ingredients that they’ve never seen before or in new combinations - even the music – I’m really particular about the music – I want it to almost be something they’ve never heard before.

GNF: Seriously?

TK: Seriously if you’re eating a meal and you’re eating foraged sea beans and beach rose on a hand-made plate from Mattituck and then Billy Joel comes on? It kind of like takes you out of the whole experience. So were really careful about what’s playing. Once you’re in there you should be present there.

GNF: Are you self-taught at foraging, do you research local plants? How exactly does one learn how to forage?

TK: Yeah you have to be familiar with what grows out here, as well as what you  can eat and what you can’t eat because it’s just as important to identify the poisonous plants and the non-edible plants that live here as the edible ones. Just becoming familiar with all of those things is part of it. It took some time to learn going out with someone more experienced than me, looking at these things and pointing them out and showing me.  I had a couple of people help me that are even better at foraging than I am to do that. And then I did a lot of research. You walk in the woods and you see a plant you’ve never seen before, and you pick it and research it in a bunch of different books, and once you identify it and see whether or not you can eat it that plant – it becomes another ingredient that you look for. If you can eat it and you figure out its edible, than you have the task of figuring out what to do with it – what’s the best way to make it, make it palatable, and make it tasty. Sometimes you do a reverse and you see something that you know should be growing out here, and you look for it and you look for it and when you find it, it’s amazing. Sometimes you never find them. There have been some things I’ve never been able to find but I know they grow out here and when I finally stumble upon one it will be pretty cool.

GNF: That is cool. So you change the menu every week, do you have any favorites that make a come back?

TK: There are a couple of that have kind of stuck around over the years. The duck tongues have somehow latched on – with like a strange cult following. Sometimes I well pair them with a new sauce or a different presentation but they keep coming back. We do doughnuts at the end of the night a lot of different forms. Also the hush puppies in some form or another – kind of depending on what’s going in them. That was a technique that I learned at Noma, and one of the few things that I replicate almost exactly from the way that we did it there.

GNF: That was definitely one of my favorites. Do you always serve a tea course? I saw that on your website menu and we had it at the dinner I went to.

TK: Yea the tea is always around in some form or another and that is really an opportunity to highlight what’s happening at the time. Sometimes there’s an ingredient that I can’t necessarily incorporate into a dish, but it can be presented into a tea. Sometimes it’s a leaf or a root or a flower that you can’t really get the essence and the experience of unless it was in a tea form. So in the summer we do chill teas and in the winter we do something warm, and it’s just kind of exactly what you said - just a palate cleanser, kind of a taste of what’s happening on the North Fork, usually with foraged ingredients.

GNF: I also read that you put crickets on the menu, how did that go over?

TK: They went over better than I thought they would! I was really scared the first time I put them out. I actually had a backup appetizer ready to go because I was just so afraid that the people were just not going to do it, but lo and behold people loved them. I like them but I know I have a bit more adventurous of a palate. But for some reason they just clicked with people. They’re dry roasted - the ones that we use - they taste like sunflower seeds so they are nutty. You pop them in your mouth and they crunch. There’s no like, wet gooey gut stuff going on. But yes I was shocked to see how well they were received. We bring them out every now and then, but not all the time because they are kind of a scary ingredient. We were considering doing a full 5 course bug dinner, but I don’t know how it would go.

GNF: Now that sounds adventurous.

TK: Yeah you could do like a course of crickets, a course of mealworms, a course of grasshoppers, we could do the snails – they’re not really a bug but kind of in the ball park. That kind of goes along with one of the reasons we did the snail farm, is that its sustainable protein. We’re not expecting people to switch chicken and beef with snail and crickets, but if we all ate a little bit more of that stuff and a little less chicken and beef, I don’t know,  it could be like a butterfly effect kind of thing.

GNF: I was going to ask if you plan to open a restaurant but I guess probably not based on what we’ve already discussed.

TK: I think not right now, it’s going to be a while, because a restaurant will be all consuming. We have to get the snail farm to a place where it pretty much runs by itself. And while people have been hearing about it for years, it’s really only been up and running for about four months. It’s just a baby. So it’s going to be a while to get it into a place where I can kind of take a step back and do something else. For now were just having fun with the pop ups and we hope people continue to enjoy it in that sort of a format.