Jeri Woodhouse of A Taste The North Fork. Q: Have you always been on the North Fork?
I’ve been on the North Fork almost 30 years; I’ve always been on long island, not just always on the East End. We’ve got family out here and we moved out here when my husband retired.
Q: Why do you stay?
I love living out here; it’s the combination of the land, the farmland, the water, and the people. It’s physically beautiful, and there’s a strong sense of community in all the hamlets. I love the history and the historic buildings, and that deep knit sense of community.
Q: Where have you lived on the Fork?
For the all years I’ve been here I’ve lived in Orient. My husband and I got married on Shelter Island and when it came time for my husband to retire, we made a list of everything we wanted in a place and Orient was it. It still is. Whenever I come across that causeway I’m so glad to come home. There’s no place else I’d rather be.
Q: How did you start A Taste of the North Fork?
I didn’t really “start” my business—it just sort of happened gradually. I’ve always had a garden. I’ve always grown things organically. For my own interest—for a hobby, really—I grew edible flowers and herbs.
Though my husband was retired, I had a full time job. I was a social worker. I worked for the Manhattan Borough President, and for the first couple years I commuted to the city. Then I was hired by The Retreat to be their executive director. When I stopped working for The Retreat—I was there six or seven years—I took some time off to think about what I wanted to do next.
It just happened that one of my neighbors was a farmer and was looking for some help planting. I volunteered. After awhile I went with him to the farmers’ markets too, and I really liked them. At his suggestion I brought my flowers and herbs and chefs really liked them. Then I started making products with them as well, and these were sold at the markets.
Q: Very improvisational beginnings; I see what you mean about not really “starting” in the business plan sort of way. How did it develop?
Well, I had enough business that I turned a former darkroom in my house into a licensed commercial kitchen, made products for wineries and farmstands. One thing led to another—there was an interest and demand for what I was doing—and I outgrew my kitchen and rented a warehouse in Cutchogue. It just grew.
Q: Has food always been a passion?
Yes, but I’m not a trained chef. I worked on world hunger and national hunger issues, and I came to it from a kind of intellectual philosophical place. Everyone needs to eat, so there’s nothing more basic than to produce food.
I strongly believe people need access to good food, locally and sustainably grown, and that we need to protect and encourage farming.
Farmland preservation is important to me. Supporting new farmers is important to me. And being able to take advantage of all the natural riches that surround us is important to me. The people here are so great. We have the best vegetables, fish, wine—everything.
It’s satisfying to see you don’t need chemicals and preservatives, just really fresh food. The same day it’s picked it comes into my kitchen and gets pickled or made into a pesto and frozen—but it’s so fresh it’s as close to picking and eating on the spot as you can get.
Q: Sounds like you’ve found your calling.
I found I didn’t need to go anywhere to do another job. I found it in my own backyard. I named the business A Taste of North Fork because as much as possible I wanted to showcase this amazing area and use local ingredients to produce specialty food items -- all natural, locally grown, no preservatives or chemical fertilizers.
Ten or 12 years ago nobody was doing this. I’ve been able to work with wonderful farmers and growers, and collaborate with the finest chefs and wine makers. I’ve seen this area really grow into a first class, recognized region. It’s a destination now, to come to the North Fork, and to eat and taste the best of what we have to offer.
Q: Your business has gone full scale retail now.
A: Yes, we have a storefront, a retail line under our own brand and a production kitchen where we make food for our clients—farmers, restaurants, wineries, individuals. I describe it as custom food production, because we use what our clients grow to make products for them - their corn, for example, for the corn relish they sell on their stand.
My niche is being a startup for foodies; when I started out there was no one around doing what I do to help me get started. I like to share when I learned and help people get started. In some ways I am still using my social work background only now in a kitchen setting.
Working with food is never boring - I never know what’s going to come through the door—what’s in season this week, what we want to make with it. There’s not enough hours in the day anymore to do what I like to do. It’s a nice problem to have.
Jeri's pickled beets and scenes from A Taste The North Fork