Chef Jason Weiner Wants to Work With Limitations
Meet the most veteran chef at Outstanding in the Field.
Written by: Ariel Knoebel
Jason Weiner of Almond restaurants has joined us in the field kitchen more than any other chef. He meets us in the Hamptons each summer and in Florida each winter to delight everyone at the table with his culinary creations.
This January, we’ll meet him again at Holman’s Harvest, just outside of Palm Beach, Florida. This will be our third visit to the family-owned farm run by Marty and Liza Holman. We initially met the Holman’s through Jason, who pointed us their way because we were looking for a farm near Almond, somewhere that we could build the kitchen for him once again.
Recently, we got the chance to speak to the field kitchen’s most veteran chef about what keeps him coming back to the field, the farming communities in both the Northeast and South Florida, his long standing tradition of the human pyramid, and how he builds his menus – gathering whatever is coming out of the ground, and then trying to stay out of its way.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What keeps you coming back to the field kitchen year after year?
Honestly, I look at it the other way around. I’m like, “wow! Every year, they still like me. They want me to come back.” I’m just always so psyched to be asked to do it. What makes Outstanding so unique is that it’s the venn diagram of cooks and farmers and civilians. They’re all just captured right there in the middle.
In a restaurant, there’s literally a wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Even if it’s an open kitchen, there’s still a division there that you can’t avoid. Sometimes, we obviously have farming friends who are in the restaurant eating, but to have it all there at the same time, and being able to tell a story and kind of stay out of the way, but still get involved in a little bit. It’s kind of perfect. Like I said, this is really the only time we get to do that.
How do you develop an Outstanding menu?
Yeah, it’s a good question. The refreshing thing about working with a farm is, in general, these are the 17 things you have to work with. Just work with these things. The parameter is not infinite, and that’s how I cook anyway. My cooking is sort of supply based not demand based. I don’t come up with the menu and then get the food, I get the food and then come up with the menu.
I consider my job to be a little bit of a storyteller, but I don’t want to be paid by the word. I want to keep things as simple as possible and just kind of try to tell a story. I just get the ingredients in front of me and just try to – I’m not into being maximalist at all. I just kind of give the things a little bit of a whimsical push here and there, but try to stay out of the way and not screw it up.
[Opening Almond in] Florida opened up a whole world of banana leaves and avocados and lemongrass and ginger and mangoes and papayas and star fruit. These fun things in Florida that up until the past couple years, I never really had an opportunity to work with.
What is your relationship to Holman’s Harvest?
Marty and Liza are just awesome – you hear people throw around the term ‘salt of the earth’ a lot, but man, it really applies to them. Their three kids are great. Liza makes the deliveries with the kids in tow. His parents are around as well. It’s really a family operation. His background, he was originally an engineer, and all farmers, they’re all problem solvers anyway. That’s their schtick, right? But, there’s so many funky ways he’s figured out to kind of build better mousetraps – and their food is great. That’s the other thing.
They’re half an hour due west from the restaurant. Just basically you make one turn and you get on the highway and you’re at the farm. You may as well be in another world in that half an hour drive. I mean, you go from being in Palm Beach, to West Palm, then things start – it’s a little strip mall-y, there’s less going on, and then by the time you get there, it’s rural. It’s really another world getting out to their farm. It’s great. There’s farm cats and farm dogs, and kids and grandparents and just – it’s a great vibe. And again, the food is great. What they grow is great and the stuff that’s growing wild there is awesome too.
When we did our first dinner there (which was, I guess, three years ago) I went to the farm and I was just kind of walking around with Marty – it was in December so I’m asking him, “what will you have in January?” He’s kind of giving me the list, which is usually how I start the process of coming up with the menu. What are the 17 things, right? I’m on the way out, and I look up and I ask Marty, “what’s that in that tree right there?” It was like, pink berries.
He says, “Yeah. I don’t really know – wait, I’m sorry. Yeah, those are pink peppercorns.”
Pink peppercorns! There are pink peppercorns right over there!
“I’ll take them, shake the tree, dude! I’ll take them all.”
They have a lot of trees of things, like mangoes and avocados and papayas and star fruit, but they also have squash and lettuces. They have a really nice array of things. It’s always delicious. And again, I can’t say enough how wonderful these people are. Liza and Marty, they’re just great people.
At every event where you’re the guest chef, you round up the crew (and sometimes a few guests) to make a human pyramid. Where did that tradition start?
I mean, I do it. I do it in my professional life, my personal life, it’s just a thing that we’ve always done, obviously we’ve done many versions at the restaurants. I have all kinds of human pyramid videos.
I think the first dinner we did at Marty and Liza’s, we thought it’d be fun to do it on a picnic table to get a little more lift. We thought it would be just photogenic, a little more dramatic, and we totally ended up breaking that poor picnic table. It was a mass of human bodies all over the place. But no one ever really legitimately gets hurt. I’m always shocked that sometimes people don’t really want to do a human pyramid. Why wouldn’t you want to do a human pyramid? I mean, it’s kind of like a big trust fall right?
Speaking of tradition, your daughter always comes to dinner, right?
My daughter was four months old at the first dinner we did. She was seven in this picture, and now always down to bang it out with us no matter how teenager-y and sassy she gets as the years roll on.