Full-service hotels, especially those in small markets, don’t normally get adventurous with their restaurants.
But the Ramada Plaza in Geneva, which changed hands in October 2017, has set out to do just that with the hiring of Finger Lakes culinary star chef Samantha Buyskes, who has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement for more than a decade.
Buyskes’ talents were on full display this week when about 60 people convened for a conference, alfresco FLX, on the local farm-to-table movement and agritourism organized by the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce. The conference took place at the 20-year-old Ramada, which sits at the northern end of Seneca Lake.
Buyskes started working at the hotel restaurant in December and has brought her culinary expertise and her deep connections to local food producers with her. She rolled out the new concept for the restaurant, now called F2T, in January.
“I’m hoping half the people who had lunch today will think differently about their restaurant,” said Chamber president Ethan Fogg. The Chamber pulled together the conference so people could connect with others in hospitality, farm and tourism industries. And making them all familiar with F2T was also part of the agenda for what Fogg hopes will be an annual conference.
At a family-style lunch, conference attendees were treated to asparagus grown in Seneca Castle resting on a pool of green cream made with cashew cream cheese and locally grown ramps (a type of wild onion or garlic) along with a navy bean salad made from beans grown locally. An apple and beet salad was sprinkled with goat cheese from one of the oldest craft cheese producers in the region, Interlaken’s Lively Run Farm. Sliced roast beef came from Rosenkrans Farms in Seneca Falls, a farm that Buyskes has been doing business with since it was run by the current operator’s father.
Ramada Geneva manager Terry Sindt said the hotel’s new owners – KPG Management of Philadelphia – wanted to try some new concepts with the destination hotel. They repainted the outside, refurbished about half the rooms so far and wanted to update the restaurant, too.
Looking around at the community’s most popular restaurants, it became clear that if the Ramada wanted to compete, it needed to join the locavore movement that is heavily represented in Geneva, Sindt said.
“We definitely want to be in that top five,” he said.
One of the owners then noticed that Buyskes’ latest restaurant, HJ Stead, was closing in October 2018 so the owners could focus on their wine and beer businesses. So Sindt approached Buyskes about coming to the Ramada. Buyskes owned and operated Simply Red Bistro in Ithaca and Ovid for 10 years and started Kindred Fare in Geneva in 2015. She also was a contestant on the television game show, “Chopped.”
During the conference lunch, Buyskes said the farm-to-table movement has evolved so much that she can now serve 99 percent of the menu from locally or regionally sourced producers, right down to the flour in the pastries she served at dinner time and the cream-top milk that goes into the food. Restaurants like Kindred Fare with substantial buying power can have a life-changing impact on farms and other producers, Buyskes said.
It’s been an adventure of sorts with the staff, though, experienced in working in a commercial kitchen that relied on frozen items. Buyskes said, for instance, lunchtime patrons are used to asking for applesauce as a side, and the staff would still like to accommodate that request by digging into the hotel banquet business’s supplies instead of sticking with the local-only philosophy of the restaurant.
She later added that she might start making her own applesauce but it hasn’t been a priority so far. The menu still includes soups and sandwiches with deli meats, but they come from an artisanal charcuterie maker in Penn Yan, not the local restaurant supplier. Buyskes changes the menu every couple of weeks, but continues to have standards regular customers are used to, while adding items like grain bowls, curry and others.
Sindt said the banquet business at the hotel is still traditional but patrons booking events have the option of a having a farm-to-table menu instead.
Two panel discussions in the morning of the alfresco FLX event considered other subjects such as growing supply and demand and creating a sustainable experience for visitors.
Deb Carbin Fox, publisher of Vermont by Rail magazine and promoter of rail events in New England and the Finger Lakes, said visitor experiences should appeal to all the senses: “They have to see it, smell it, taste it, feel it.” And when wine is the experience, the clinking of glasses in a toast adds the “hear it,” she noted.
Answering a question from Paul Brock, a winery owner and Finger Lakes Community College professor, about how to diversify agritourism beyond the wine industry, Fox said culinary tours might be a next step. “It’s important to keep up with who your audience is,” she said.
Vincent Feucht, an educator at Cumming Nature Center in Naples and co-owner of Scrumble Wood Farm in Rushville, said cheese is a natural pairing with wine and there should be more promotion of it, along with more visitor accommodations.
Diversity is the hallmark of Lincoln Hill Farm, said owner Brian Mastrosimone. He started out as a viticulture student under Brock but later decided he didn’t want to create only a winery. Instead he diversified the crops grown on his 85 acres near FLCC, and has created a music venue and event space at the farm. While he grows hops, he also hopes to grow musicians who can at least open shows at the Constellation Brands Performing Arts Center, known as CMAC.
“We’re the farm team for CMAC,” he joked.
In the supply-and-demand discussion, panelists said selling and identifying local foods strengthens a growing industry. Silas Conroy, creator of local food processor Crooked Carrot, an Ithaca company that has been acquired by town of Ontario’s Headwater Food Hub, said the local food system is extremely complex and sometimes fragile.
“If you work with a local farmer, the supply can be endangered by a single weather event,” Conroy said. That doesn’t always sit well with consumers who have grown used to having whatever food ingredients they want, year-round. But he noted that value-added local food products (examples would be jams or pickles made from locally grown produce) are now as big as wheat, a major commodity, in the United States Department of Agriculture farm census.
While the panelists agreed that there isn’t a signature cuisine of the Finger Lakes, Simply Crepes’ Pierre Heroux said there are signature ingredients, such as maple syrup and butternut squash that the restaurant incorporates in its menu.
Choosing local wines, Heroux said, makes it possible to interact with the producers and bring them to the restaurant so customers can meet and appreciate them, too. That wouldn’t happen with national brands of wine out of California, he said.
“It’s a no-brainer to support your local farms,” he said. “I’d be an idiot if I didn’t have local products on my menu.”
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