Rachel Weston always knew she wanted to be a writer. And she knew she liked to cook. But it would take more than two decades — and many years toiling in an unrelated field — until those twin passions culminated, as they did this past May, with the publication of her first book, “New Jersey Fresh: Four Seasons from Farm to Table” (History Press).
For that book the 43-year-old, who these days is an accomplished food writer, chef, and culinary educator, drew upon every skill she had picked up along the way, from her early days as award-winning night photo editor at the Home News Tribune to award-winning student at Promise Culinary School in New Brunswick to winning over thousands of readers as the Gutsy Gourmet columnist in the Star-Ledger.
Though she drew upon about 50 of those “In Season” columns for the book, and though it includes recipes and tips based on our state’s fresh bounty from farmers markets and CSAs, Weston doesn’t think of “New Jersey Fresh” as a cookbook. Rather, she aims it to be a guide, and herself to be a kind of locavore provocateur. Since the book came out, she has been crisscrossing the state for book signings, demos, and classes.
In September she’ll be featured twice at Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick, once for a fundraising gala and another time conducting a tomato cooking class. Near the end of that month she’ll return to Cherry Grove Farm to mount a Moroccan dinner party. (Details and a full listing of upcoming events can be found at www.racheljweston.com.)
“I just want people to cook, first and foremost,” Weston says. “Too many people don’t know how great a plain roasted carrot is, or a roasted beet, or how to make a simple sauce for mashed potatoes. So many people think these are beyond their capabilities or too time-consuming, but that’s not really the case. They just need a little bit of encouragement and courage. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. And if you’re using in-season local produce, it’s going to be a lot tastier and probably more nutritious than if you went to the supermarket.”
In the book, which is organized by seasons, Weston turns the spotlight on our state’s farms, farmers markets, and food artisans dedicated to the locavore lifestyle, all the while sharing personal anecdotes, advice, and down-to-earth recipe ideas. From the U.S. 1 area, she profiles Steve Tomlinson of Great Road Farm in Skillman and Jess Niederer of Pennington’s Chickadee Farm. Among the area restaurants with recipes featured are Agricola, Tre Piani, and WildFlour Cafe.
Both in the book and at her public appearances Weston’s warm voice and inclusive manner come through in the service of an easygoing advocacy. Take Jersey’s famous summertime tomatoes. “Julia Child’s Tomatoes a la Provencale is a classic,” she begins. “It may sound fancy, but it’s essentially a baked tomato.” Typical of her approach in “New Jersey Fresh” are these simple instructions for the dish: “Core and halve a big juicy tomato and scoop out the seeds. Season them with salt and pepper, top with minced garlic and fresh breadcrumbs and bake for about 20 minutes. Sometimes I like to hide little surprises of cheese inside and to heat the garlic in oil first, and then use the infused oil to dampen the breadcrumbs.”
Weston is also a big believer in using whatever a cook has on hand and avoiding food waste. “I’m personally motivated not by what-do-I-want-to-eat or what-do-I-want-to-cook, but rather by what-do-I-have-to-work-with. That’s my core,” she explains. “Take radish greens, for example. Growing up, we were told to just throw them in the garbage!” These days she treats them like beet greens. Her hope for the book is, she says, “That people get that it’s not a cookbook. To me it’s a book about cooking. It’s not all about recipes.”
Weston says the most fun she had putting the book together was in visiting farmers markets around the state that she hadn’t been to before and, above all, interviewing farmers. “They’re all such amazing characters! They’re smart, they’re good business people, they’re generous, and they’re interesting,” she says. In fact, her book’s dedication reads, “For all the men and women who choose to turn their backs to the sun every day to tend to the earth so the rest of us may eat.”
On the other hand, putting together the book’s appendix, which lists particulars of the state’s nearly 150 farmers markets, was decidedly less fun. Even so, she was gratified that there are so many of them, especially when she learned from Bill Walker of the NJ Department of Agriculture that in the year 2000 there were only 15 of them, at most. She was also excited to discover that our farmers are growing things not usually associated with New Jersey, such as peanuts, turmeric, and artichokes.
Weston also enjoys connecting with the people who come to her public events. “One woman came up to me and uttered one word: Rhubarb! She wanted to know what to do with it. Another guy told me he couldn’t eat salad. Turns out that he and I both have a blood clotting disorder and that we have both had embolisms. We talked about which green things he could try to incorporate into his diet and how. It’s also a learning experience for me. At Cherry Grove I had a guy tell me how to make roux in the microwave, which he had learned from a chef in Louisiana.”
(It is, Weston says, easier than the traditional stove-top method. Her instructions: Mix together flour and oil — not butter — to the consistency of cake batter. Put it in a clear Pyrex bowl so you can see it change color as it cooks. Microwave for a few minutes, stir, and continue microwaving and stirring until it turns the color you want and starts to get “that roux smell.”) “So I’m teaching people some things, but they are definitely teaching me,” she says. In fact, one person even made her take stock of where she is in her life and career. “This gentleman asked me, ‘When did you realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur?’ I never thought of myself that way, but that’s what I am now.”
Weston grew up in Neptune, where she still lives — these days with her husband of eight years, Shawn, and their Bedlington terrier. Shawn is a designer for Advance Digital, part of Jersey City-based Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger. Weston recalls being told from a young age that she was smart and good at reading so she would go to college to study English, not cooking. Her mother was, Weston says, “a liberated woman” who eschewed cooking.
But young Rachel was drawn to it. For a long while, she lived with her grandparents. “My grandfather was a chef who was trained by the Coast Guard to do large-quantity cooking. When I was a kid he worked in country clubs and yacht clubs, and on his days off would occasionally cook. We’d have filet mignon and lobster Newburg or even frog legs. He had been raised on a farm in Saddle River, so he was a farm boy at heart and would make apple pies and strawberry short cakes and grow some things in the backyard.” As a latchkey kid in the 1970s and 1980s, Weston learned to cook for herself and her younger sister.
Weston’s first job was at Freedman’s Bakery, an icon in Belmar from 1950 until it closed in 2014. At 17, she started as a clerk at the Asbury Park Press. She earned an associate degree — in English — from Brookdale College in 1992, but decided not to pursue her education further because she had already snagged a full-time job at the Home News Tribune. “Because I knew how to print photographs, I wound up as a photo editor,” she explains. She spent 15 years as night photo editor, eventually for the Star-Ledger. “It was a hard job,” she acknowledges. “I was looking at the photos that came in overnight from all over the world on the Associated Press wires, seeing all the horrible things that were happening in the world. There are certain things that you can’t un-see and it takes a toll on you.” Plus she became burned out from years of working nights, weekends, and holidays.
During the economic crisis of 2008 the Star-Ledger needed to downsize, and Weston decided to take a buyout. She was ready to pursue her culinary dreams but knew that financial restraints mandated that she had exactly one year, and one year only, to make that happen. “The culinary school at Brookdale is close to my house, and I would have loved to go there, but it offers only a two-year program,” she explains. “I was also weighing the higher costs of tuition and commuting that a program in the city would entail.”
Ending up at the cooking school of Elijah’s Promise, the New Brunswick-based nonprofit, was, she says, “a happy accident. I saw a small listing for an open house in the Star-Ledger. It turned out to be an event geared toward Spanish-speaking prospective students. More cautiously intrigued than deterred, I then asked to come in and do a video story for the paper. I got to spend a whole day observing a class. Then I attended one of the Elijah’s Promise farm-to-table events, where I met executive director Lisanne Finston and small food vendors, including Patrick Leger and Theresa Viggiano from First Field [Jersey Ketchup], who were incubating their business there at the time.
“I was already very interested in seasonality and supporting the local food community, so when I met with the school’s director, Pearl Thompson, she won me over with what she had to say about food justice. That was something I really had not considered with any depth but it resonated with me.”
Plus, Promise Culinary School’s tuition was a fraction of those in NYC, and its six-month, full-time program meshed with Weston’s timeline. “And,” she adds, “the potential of local job connections after graduation and the enthusiasm the school has for farm-to-table and community hooked me.”
Weston completed her externship under Chris Brandl at his eponymous modern American restaurant in Belmar. During that time she was a recipient of a prestigious scholarship from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, through which she got to spend 10 days interning (and living) with Nora Pouillon, whose acclaimed Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., was the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S.
After graduation Weston became a member of Promise Culinary School’s advisory board, which was in the process of planning a not-for-profit cafe that would charge whatever customers felt they could afford. In August, 2009, Weston was hired to manage the Better World Cafe, which opened in Highland Park that October and is still going strong. “The cafe gobbled up two years of my life, but it was fun. It was really an experimental art piece. That first year we had to prep offsite, in New Brunswick, and then bring 60 pounds of ice with us to Highland Park, where we couldn’t use the stove!
“The menu changed every day, and I had to use whatever products were coming in to me. I had just a couple criteria: organic milk and organic tofu. The staff was either volunteers or other culinary graduates from Elijah’s Promise, and they were constantly changing. Most graduates had some past issues, or had never held down a job before, so lot of social work came with the job. I was always interacting with the customers as well, and that prepared me to be in the public eye, as I am now.”
A few years after leaving the Star-Ledger, Weston was contacted by an editor there about contributing a monthly freelance column on home cooking under the moniker “Gutsy Gourmet.” She did that for nearly three years, while still working on projects for Elijah’s Promise, including Better World Cafe. In spring of 2014, she was contacted by American Palate, a division of The History Press in Charleston, South Carolina, about writing a book on some facet of New Jersey food or cooking. She took up the offer and left Elijah’s Promise to become a freelance culinary instructor as well as food writer. A year later, “New Jersey Fresh” debuted.
Even before being contacted by History Press, Rachel Weston had another, different cookbook in mind — one she is currently writing a proposal for. That book, she says, will reflect her penchant for using whatever’s closest at hand, a personal cooking style she refers to as “scraptacular.” As a child, she enjoyed watching cooking shows on PBS, with special regard for “The Frugal Gourmet.” “Between that show and being raised by a grandmother who lived through the Depression, thriftiness somehow seeped into me,” she says. “At Elijah’s Promise I always used to say, ‘give me anything and I can make something out of it.’ When I started talking about this a year ago, the concept of stemming food waste wasn’t on anybody’s radar, but now it’s blown up!”
Garden Party at Rutgers Garden, Log Cabin and Alumni Pavilion, 140 Log Cabin Road, New Brunswick. Thursday, September 10, 5 to 9 p.m. $100 to $125, rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu/Gardensparty.html.
Class: The Tomato Festival, Rutgers Gardens, 130 Log Cabin Road, New Brunswick. Saturday, September 19, 1 to 3 p.m. $55. www.racheljweston.com/events.
Moroccan Dinner Party, Cherry Grove Farm, 3200 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Saturday, September 26, 5 to 7:30 p.m. $60. www.shopcherrygrovefarm.com.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.