Chef Peter Turso of Ursino
Less than 30 minutes outside of Manhattan on the campus of New Jersey's Kean University, resides Ursino, a farm-to-table restaurant. With Chef Peter Turso at the helm of this surprisingly modern, eco-efficient structure, Ursino supplies half of its produce from its own nearby four-acre farm, while locally sourcing most all of its proteins, produce and beverages. "A lot of people rely on going out to eat for inspiration," said Peter, "but I want my ideas to be original...I want the ingredients to speak more than trying to mimic something I had at Eleven Madison Park."
After the closing of Restaurant David Drake, where Turso had been the Chef de Cuisine, Peter was looking to join the likes of Per Se and Café Boulud, until he received a lengthy email requesting his expertise as a consultant in the development of a modern farm-to-table restaurant. Needless to say, his interest was piqued. "I had a lot of experience with growing things," he said, "stuff straight from the garden has a short shelf life. You have to time the picking and the dishes to coincide with it."
Seared Barnegat Scallops
One year after opening, Ursino offers a lunch menu that highlights a host of local ingredients. With dishes such as Sweet Onion-Apple Soup, with Gruyere "Croque Monsieur", Apple Foam, Walnut Oil; and Seared Barnegat Scallops with Sunchokes, Red Lentil Cream and Apple Gastrique (pictured above) Peter is very hands-on, working the land's seasonal rotation. With the farm just a few steps away, he can access the versatility of its ingredients, employing each stage of life, from seed to flower to the vegetable itself. And Peter adds, "it speaks to the cooks, [that] this took 90 days to grow. It gives them a feeling of respect when harvesting."
Sprouts from the garden
Located on the grounds of the Liberty Hall Museum, the farm was resurrected by Henry Dryer of Dryer Farms, who lives a "20-minute tractor ride away". A third generation farmer who's the only produce farmer left in Union County, Henry, says Peter, "is a living legacy".
Two years ago, explained Peter, "Henry sent soil samples to Rutgers to look for NPK's, trace minerals, salt and any toxic bits in the soil," which had been dormant for a long while. Before harvesting for the restaurant itself, Henry planted two bumper crops to determine which plantings would work best in the different plots of soil. Now, he and Peter work together to determine the crops' rotation.
"I knew I wanted this to be an experience of what came from the farm," said Peter, but it so happens that his experience over the past two years has run parallel with nature in that he had to balance internal and external factors, such as that of the food and farm, with the modern style of the restaurant's physical space and the University's expectations. Working with items from the farm that include carrots, kale, wax beans, haricort vert, and five different kinds of apples and lettuce, Peter has three different approaches to creating the plates at Ursino.
At times, his creations are the result of a methodical approach, which is inspired by nature itself. Other times he considers a flavor profile that he wishes to execute, or he seeks to resolve an issue of bounty, such as a large crop of eggplant.
Developed at the hands of Richard Spaulding, the list of wine and drinks follows a similar philosophy to that of the restaurant. With a focus on domestic wines, and local beers and ingredients, Ursino features a multitude of organic and biodynamic producers, such as Robert Sinskey and Sybille Kuntz, because as Peter said, Richard "sometimes colors outside the lines with some international wines" to ensure he satisfies and enriches the palate of each and every dining client.
Working together at Ursino, like the best of food and wine pairings, Turso and Spaulding compliment one another as they bring to Union, New Jersey, a bright light shining on the locavore movement.