Chow Town

Newport Grill’s Martin Woods: A chef’s life in four courses

“To be able to serve food pulled right from the ground just beyond where the guests sit, to have it all within their view, it was exciting to me to be able to do that,” says chef Martin Woods of his barn dinner at Powell Gardens.
“To be able to serve food pulled right from the ground just beyond where the guests sit, to have it all within their view, it was exciting to me to be able to do that,” says chef Martin Woods of his barn dinner at Powell Gardens. Powell Gardens

For his barn dinner at Powell Gardens, chef Martin Woods from Newport Grill prepared four courses.

The produce — potatoes, onions, radishes, kohlrabi, chilies, herbs, fennel, beets and berries (including sea buckthorn berries) — was harvested just meters from the table. The fish? Not so much. Yet in so many ways this contrast of ingredients, this menu, defines Woods himself.

First course: Hamachi Crudo with curry vanilla vinaigrette, pickled kohlrabi, Fresno chili and nori.

“To be able to serve food pulled right from the ground just beyond where the guests sit, to have it all within their view, it was exciting to me to be able to do that,” says Woods of the Powell Gardens event.

Locally sourced ingredients are not new to Woods, who first embraced the practice more than a decade ago. However, his first foray into local sourcing was less farm-to-table than beach-to-table.

“When I was in Hawaii for three years, we tried to do a lot of stuff like that. I got a big passion for that during that time, because on the island all we were doing was shipping in items,” he continued.

Those items included importing Maine lobsters for the must-have protein for fine dining at the time. “It was crazy,” Woods says.

He began to focus on sourcing as many local ingredients as possible on an island where there were very few growers and a lot of constraints.

“Other than a few items that you need to make a dish work, we would basically have like four ingredients that we had to make three or four courses with. But the challenges made it really fun.”

The challenges also helped Woods understand how important local sourcing can be for a chef.

“The pineapple was like an experience because normally it isn’t even ripe when they pull it and ship it across the world. You don’t even think about what it really tastes like. And the mangoes and papayas would be growing on random trees, outside in your yard,” he said.

“Sometimes at the restaurant in Kapalua Bay, a pickup would pull up to the front and the guy’s got a 7-foot mahi on the back of it. I’d never seen a mahi that big. Or snappers that were just literally pulled out of the bay, and we’d put them on a scale right there.”

Woods moved away from familiar French ingredients like cream, butter and demi-glace and focused on ways to highlight the freshness of the product. He also picked up influences from Asia and the Pacific Rim. But local sourcing had the greatest impact on his menus.

“You get a deeper respect for the product and what you are doing with it when you are close to it. When there’s too many steps between, you lose the identify of it. It just becomes a process. It’s not a mechanical thing, but the thought process is different. I like cooking like that, it’s very easy and it feels good on a plate,” he says.

Second course: French Radish Salad with quinoa, shaved fennel, buttermilk dressing and pickled golden raisins

While Woods has shifted away from some of the heavier French ingredients in his dishes, his techniques are still very much rooted in French tradition. Chefs in the States often move to Europe to grow in their careers. For Woods, who grew up in Manchester, England, it was a move to New York, where he worked in a French restaurant, learning classic techniques hands-on.

He shares that approach with the cooks in his kitchen now, fostering a collaborative approach and cooking by intuition and ingredient. For the Powell Gardens event, the menu began with a simple list of what would be ready in the garden.

“I try to get the guys in the kitchen to think this way. For me, I wasn’t educated in culinary school for this; I was taught by one chef for about five years. The way of learning was different for me, which really suited me. It became more intuitive and more a feel for it, things that made sense and not only made sense through repetition to different dishes you see, but can evolve and experience in that way,” Woods explains.

“It’s the same with the guys. I’m not going to say, ‘I’ll teach you how to do this perfect dish from start to finish.’ Yes, we have recipes and yes, they are built out, but if you are creating something, I don’t want you to be like, ‘I’ll pull the starch from this dish and the sauce from that.’ It just doesn’t work. You need to be cognizant of what the vegetable is doing, how they’re being prepared, what texture that’s going to be, all those things that build up to make a dish.”

Plating is also an important part of the dish for Woods, who began his career as an artist. His spare time outside the kitchen in New York was spent going to the Met and MOMA. And meeting his wife.

The two left New York for Hawaii and eventually found themselves returning to his wife’s home state of Kansas to be near family. Woods finds Kansas’ wide open skies and our city’s top museums a perfect compromise between the open space of an island and the culture he loved in New York.

Third course: Copper River Sockeye Salmon with roasted beets and butter-braised fennel, smoked beet puree, and warm potato salad

What Kansas is less than perfect for, however, is sourcing seafood. Freshness is still the most critical aspect of choosing the fish for the menu at Newport Grill. Sustainability is also key. Woods evaluates every source and considers how the fish is caught and farming practices for the least impact possible.

“Which is hard, you know; everything you do has an impact on the environment,” he says.

The task may get a bit easier soon for Woods as he takes on an expanded role with the PB&J Group, which owns Newport Grill, to include a project in Seattle. Woods is planning the kitchen design and menus. Everything on the menu will be sustainable and locally sourced, from fish varieties like salmon to other ingredients — all from within 200 miles of the restaurant.

“That’s going to be a good challenge for me. I’m excited to go because everyone says it rains all the time, it should be perfect for you being from Manchester,” he says.

Woods sees the opportunity in Seattle as a way to find more sustainable seafood options for Newport Grill as well as a path to build on his goal of offering a more unique and composed approach to seafood compared to other restaurants in Kansas City.

“For me, if I go into a restaurant, I know people want to get what they want — and they should always get what they want — but for me, I want the chef to give me a dish that’s about the right flavors and contrasts, a dish that’s specifically suited for that fish or that meat. You need to give the guest an experience like that,” he explains.

Fourth course: Lemon Posset with seaberry and blueberry compote

As he was serving the dinner for Powell Gardens, Woods joked a bit about the Lemon Posset for dessert.

“My mother-in-law prepared this for me, she said, ‘You’ll love this, it will remind you of home.’ I’d never even heard of posset,” he says with a laugh.

Historically, posset was, indeed, a British recipe that required boiling milk, then adding ale or wine to curdle the mixture. The curds were then mixed with spices. The modern version of a posset, fortunately, is more similar to the lemon custard that Woods served in small Mason jars and topped with a compote of mixed berries, including the seaberries, an astringent and tangy berry from nearby sea buckthorn bushes.

Perhaps adding the classic British dessert to the menu was Woods’ way of celebrating an upcoming visit to his family in Manchester. His dark eyes lit up as he mentioned the trip.

For chefs and home cooks alike, food is often a way we express our emotions and the life experiences that make us who we are. But that kind of personal cooking is a challenge for any chef to balance against the demands of running a busy restaurant, having reliable suppliers or offering a large menu with only a handful of specials.

It’s in the small, unique venues like Powell Gardens’ barn dinner series with a single seating, one-of-a-kind, chef-created menu, and a small group of adventurous diners, where not only the source of the ingredients is evident in the meal, the source of the chef is as well.

Tickets and information about Powell Gardens’ Missouri Barn Dinner series and food events are available online at powellgardens.org/culinary.

Beth Bader is a co-author of the book “The Cleaner Plate Club” and is on the board of Powell Gardens.

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