Farm-Fresh Greenhouse Dinners

Chef and farmer Chris Fischer invites people closer to the source of their food – in the down-to-earth setting of his Chilmark farm.

greenhouse dinner

Following cooking stints in New York, London, and on the West Coast, Chris Fischer has come back home to cook. Literally. His open-air dinners, served in a greenhouse, are prepared outdoors at the Chilmark farm that has been in his family for decades.

The greenhouse dinners Chris arranges for private parties of ten to forty at Beetlebung Farm sparked immediate interest following their inception last summer. Who wouldn’t want to mingle with friends and ramble through the gardens on a warm Vineyard night, talk to the chef as he sears greens or grills fish from Vineyard waters, and eat communally at a long rustic plank table decorated with flowers from the yard?

“What we’re going to do – first and foremost – is [use] our food that we’re producing,” says the thirty-two-year-old farmer/chef.

As Chris preps for tonight’s dinner at a table just behind the self-serve farm stand, he looks up and waves to someone driving down Middle Road. Sundry people wander in and out of the farm throughout the day. His aunt stops by and asks what’s on the menu; his dad drops off one of the evening’s dinner guests with a bucket of littleneck clams they’ve just collected from Menemsha Pond.

It’s only April, but tonight’s menu draws on wild nettles growing in a corner of the five-acre farm, used like spinach in a homemade pasta called orecchiette, “little ear” in Italian. The newly harvested radishes and thinned fava bean greens will be paired in a light, beautiful salad of pink, white, and green. There’s also a first course of thinly cut grass-fed beef carpaccio, appealingly arranged with a garden herb sauce and early vegetables. The menu itself is written on a piece of cardboard held down by a wood-handled ax.

As guests arrive, appetizers – including grilled Allen Farm sausage wrapped in sautéed watercress – await them, along with glasses of chilled Prosecco.

One friend laughs and tells Chris: “We kept driving by today until you invited us in.”

At the edge of the herb garden is a wood-fire pit fitted with a grill that’s now crowded with oysters. Teddy Diggs, the chef at the nearby Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha, easily slips from the role of dinner guest to chef helper, turning oysters over as they cook. “It’s exciting. He’s doing what I’d ideally like to be doing,” he observes, a bit wistfully. “Raising your own vegetables and serving them to your friends in an intimate environment – it’s very personal. Because it’s on his land and it’s his ingredients, it’s a unique experience....It’s a connection as a diner you can’t experience anywhere else.”

The heat coaxes the oysters to open, and Chris slathers them with a chervil butter. As they come off the grill, they are handed out to guests. A warm slurp and the verdict from one taster: “This is the best oyster I’ve ever had.”

Chris Fischer food
Watching the food prep on simply constructed tables outside the greenhouse is part of the fun.

The greenhouse dinners are not a restaurant, nor are they open to the general public. That wouldn’t work for the Chilmark Health Department. Instead, they are private affairs, where people ask Chris to reserve a date for their anniversary party or family get-together.

He’s created an entire evening featuring oysters and another based on the colors of the vegetables coming out the garden. “Every one is different,” says Chris. “It depends on what we have and what the people want to do.” Whimsical menus – such as one written entirely in Italian – are the creations of Emma Young, who helps facilitate the dinners.

The first greenhouse dinner last summer, featuring roast goat as the main course, gathered family, friends, and the farm staff who had just finished constructing a second hoop greenhouse.

“The idea was to celebrate what we were doing,” says Chris. “My friends took pictures, shared them with people, who said, ‘Wow, I want to have a party like that.’”

Word spread quickly, leading to some fifteen dinners last summer alone, and mentions in Martha Stewart Living and Travel & Leisure magazines. Chris collaborates with several farms and fishermen now, and eventually would like to include winemakers and others artisanal food makers.

“I love learning exactly who has what in the moment,” he explains. “We’re focusing on what’s important: producing the best food we can.”

Along with planning and executing his farm dinner menus, he works in the field during the day (there’s one acre in production), along with farm manager Jason Nichols. Chris can be found fixing stone walls, mending gates and fences, tending compost, chasing the new baby rabbits that easily escape their pen, and any other needed farm duties.

“I’m so stimulated every day – you remove the stigma of work,” says Chris. “That’s what kept my grandfather going, just to do what has to be done.”

Food and farming have been central to Chris’s family on the Island for twelve generations. His great-grandfather co-owned the Fischer Brothers Codfish Company, catching and preserving salt cod between New Bedford and the island of Noman’s Land. His aunt, Marie Scott, farmed Beetlebung Farm organically for thirty-five summers until she retired in 2010. For years, Beetlebung Farm has been an up-Island stop for produce, flowers, and herbs – a destination convenient to the Chilmark Library and post office, both located across the street.

But it is Chilmark farmer Albert “Ozzie” Fischer Jr., Chris’s grandfather who died last year at the age of ninety-six, who might have had the biggest impact. Ozzie lived close to the land for more than nine decades, and was helping Chris in the fields just weeks before his death. A number of the plants Chris now tends – the asparagus, blackberries, and others – were his grandfather’s, and he plans to maintain his grandfather’s special garden just outside the house where his grandmother and aunt still live.

“My grandfather grew up during the Depression and refused any assistance,” explains Chris. They had chickens and cows, and they grew their own food. “My grandfather described the Depression as no different than how it normally was for them.” They saved and reused everything, a tenet Chris now follows as well, using recycled materials to build the first hoop greenhouse, as well as an enclosed farm stand to house a freezer for meat and to protect goods for sale. He lives his grand-father’s credo: “If you want to do something, you can figure out how to do it,” Chris says. “Farms have gotten away from that.”

Chris’s own parents divorced when he was five, though both stayed on the Island. His mom, Jeannie, taught at the West Tisbury School. Chris’s father, Albert Fischer III, is a well-known community member and longtime caretaker for the Kennedy compound in Aquinnah, where he lives. “My dad is a really amazing fisherman and lobsterman and a big hunter. He always had a big garden. He wasn’t the greatest cook, but he always had the best of lobsters, fish, tomatoes – just simple, whole food.”

toasted bread crumbled cheese
Toasted bits of bread topped with crumbled cheese and fresh herbs are simple and tasty.

His father stressed the importance of sharing a meal with your family. Chris was home at 6:30 each night for dinner, “no matter what,” he recalls. “It was a running joke with my friends.” But now he sees that childhood ritual as a lesson – and part of what led him to these dinners.

“When I reached adulthood, I remember learning about the dinner party. You have a really good meal – simple food – everyone drinks a lot of wine, and people just sit around and talk. I loved that concept. You could have the same food we were eating at home, but there was a celebration of it. Something clicked for me.”

After high school here, Chris attended the University of Vermont, studying nutritional science for two and a half years, and later went to California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He kept returning to the Island, mostly to help his mother, who passed away from cancer.

He found his niche cooking in New York City. In 2004, a friend brought him to Mario Batali’s critically acclaimed restaurant Babbo.

“That was a real inspired restaurant when it opened,” Chris says, citing its expensive Italian wines and beautiful formal space. “I had never been exposed to fine dining like that.”

His friend urged Chris to apply, and he did. He went back the next day, and after a two-day tryout, ended up cooking at Babbo for nearly three years. He worked many ninety-hour weeks, relying on a work ethic learned as a child. Outside of work, he roamed the farmer’s markets and experienced the food of up-and-coming chefs. “I completely immersed myself.”

Following this, Chris did private chef work in Los Angeles, as well as on a farm outside San Francisco. While he was working on a California vineyard “building vegetable gardens, raising animals, and throwing parties,” he realized he wanted something of his own and could do it in one place: Martha’s Vineyard.

“The pantry of what we have to cook with here was the best. I wanted to be closer to that,” he says, adding, “If I wanted to continue in my grandfather’s tradition, I’d have to spend time with him and learn from him.”

The community Chris gathers at the farm, and the larger Vineyard community, couldn’t be more thrilled. “You talk about fresh food – you can’t get any more fresh,” says Vineyard artist Kara Taylor, who says she loves the fluke ceviche, prepared with salt, olive oil, and lemon juice, that Chris served one evening, as well as sharing a grilled whole black sea bass with her neighbor at the table.

“Everyone loved it – Chris had to kick us out. We were sitting around the table until eleven o’clock,” she says. “I hope it can remain a respected venue – if not a total secret.”

“Picture a simply constructed greenhouse alit with a string of lights enshrouded with misty fog and situated near dark loamy soil of neatly laid out beds of spring pea shoots, fava beans, and bright red and white D’Avignon radishes,” says Clara Coleman, a farmer herself and the daughter of the noted Maine farmer and author Eliot Coleman. “I have attended a number of farm dinners over the years, including the famed Outstanding in the Field [a national nonprofit organization that sponsors dinners at farms around the country], but my recent experience at Beetlebung Farm with Chris is one I will never forget,” she explains. “His passion for growing, harvesting, and foraging fresh food, his connection to the land and the people of MV, the wonderful earthy flavors he imbues in his cuisine, and his attention to detail and presentation are unsurpassed.”

Austin Holey fire
The farm dinners offer ample proof that fabulous food doesn’t require fancy equipment: Note the cinder block cooking fire tended by Austin Holey.

In the spirit of his grandfather, who served as a Chilmark selectman and held nearly every public post in town from assessor to fire chief to dog officer, Chris spent his winter collaborating with a number of nonprofits and farms to serve low-cost dinners. He made soup for school kids involved in the garden program at the West Tisbury school; cooked dinner with high school students in culinary arts to benefit Island Grown Schools, collaborated with the Farm Institute and Morning Glory for a dinner-and-movie night; and served dinners at the Chilmark Community Center for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s winter series.

“It’s sharing that excitement, sharing the idea, the conviviality – and trying to make it affordable,” Chris notes. “A lot of people can’t go out to eat all the time.”

And now, back at the farm, he hopes that passion and excitement is appreciated by diners. “We are exactly what we are – this is how we’re going to do it and we’re not going to compromise.”

A few simple recipes from Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm

Grilled oysters with chervil butter

With the abundance of Vineyard oysters to sample, it’s nice to have Chris Fischer’s alternative to raw oysters on the half shell. A quick turn on the grill, basted with an herb-flavored butter, and your guests will salute you.

Serves 4 to 6

• Oysters, unopened in their shells (enough to serve 3 per person)

• 1/2 stick unsalted butter

• One bunch of chervil, minced

• 2 lemons

1. Get a grill very hot and place the oysters cupped side down on the grill. Grill for about 2 or 3 minutes or until they have popped open and begun to poach in their own liquor. Using tongs, remove them from the grill so they’re cool enough to handle.

2. In a small saucepan, heat butter, then add chervil and the juice of one lemon. Once melted, set aside.

3. With a sharp paring knife, open the oysters, cutting the meat free from their shells, then discard the top shells and place the cooked oysters back in the bottom shells. Once all are opened, place them back onto grill.

4. Carefully spoon butter mixture onto each oyster and heat enough for the butter to begin to bubble. Remove from the grill, allow to cool for two minutes (if you serve them right away, you will have some burned lips), and serve in the shells alongside wedges of lemon.

Island fish crudo

This simple Italian method works with nearly any freshly caught Island fish as an appetizer or first course. Try the farmer’s market to hunt down garlic scapes – curly green garlic stalks – or substitute chives or scallions.

Serves 4

• 1 filet bluefish, bass, fluke, or any other freshly caught fish

• 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greens

• 4 garlic scapes, finely minced

• 1 tablespoon fresh mint

• 1 lemon

• Salt and pepper, to taste

• Micro greens or baby arugula to garnish

1. Skin and clean fish, and refrigerate.

2. In a sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons oil and gently sauté green garlic until fragrant and soft. Remove from heat, stir in mint and the juice of half the lemon, and season lightly with salt. Transfer to a small heat-proof container and place in the fridge to cool.

3. Thinly slice fish into strips about 1/4-inch thick. When the oil is cooled, marinate the fish in the oil dressing for at least an hour, with plastic wrap tightly covering the container.

4. To serve, arrange a few greens, dressed lightly with oil, salt, and pepper. Portion fish onto each plate and squeeze lemon over each plate generously and season fish with a little rock salt. Serve as soon as possible.

Frozen yogurt with honey, cilantro, and toasted pumpkin seeds

Blending cilantro with honey to make a dessert sauce sounds a bit strange, but Chris’s combination is wonderfully refreshing served over chilled yogurt from Mermaid Farm, located on Middle Road in Chilmark.

Serves 10

• 1 32-ounce container Mermaid Farm yogurt (or other thick whole-milk yogurt)

• 3 tablespoons Island honey

• 1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped

• 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds*

1. Spoon yogurt into a shallow baking dish so it is about an inch deep in the pan and place in a freezer two to three hours before serving. Every twenty minutes, whip the yogurt with a spoon to break up frozen bits.

2. Heat the honey in a double boiler to loosen it up and add half the cilantro. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

3. Once the yogurt has been whipped multiple times until it’s the desired frozen texture, prepare serving bowls by placing them in the freezer for ten minutes. To serve, remove bowls from freezer, place a scoop of yogurt in each bowl, and drizzle cilantro honey on top. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and finish with pumpkin seeds. Serve immediately.

*To toast pumpkin seeds, sauté them in a medium-hot pan with a little oil and salt.