CORTNEY BURNS

is the executive chef and a partner in Loom, a restaurant opening in 2018 as part of Tourists, a new hotel and culinary destination in North Adams, Mass.

In 2011, Burns joined her partner and co-chef Nick Balla at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, where the duo cooked bold and innovative dishes that earned national acclaim. The pair wrote their first cookbook together in November 2014, Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes (Chronicle Books), which won a James Beard Foundation Award in the “Cooking from a Professional Point of View” category.

 

Instagram: @balla_and_burns

@eatduna


We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling & dancing in the eddies & whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.

Paulo Coelho-  The Alchemist


This is the beginning of a story about coming home by leaving home, a tale of reverse migration. In April I left San Francisco, where I have been cooking for the better part of seventeen years, for the Northern Berkshires, where I know only a few souls, in order to build a new restaurant. But if I look deeper, I understand that I uprooted in order to re-root myself. There are personal and collective histories in these ever-stretching hills.  I hope by unearthing the foods and stories of these lands, I’ll also come to understand my own journey a bit better.  

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It was autumn 2016 when my partner Nick Balla and I decided not to purchase Bar Tartine and instead open our much smaller fast casual eatery Motze/Duna just a few blocks away. I kept looking around, wondering what would become of our lives with this big change? And what would become of our expansive larder, the hallmark of the restaurant? It was at this time that Nick and I started discussing the idea of me going east to open a restaurant on the Hoosic River. This new venture was affiliated with an unfinished 48-room hotel project called Tourists, slated to open in 2018, situated on 55 acres in North Adams, Massachusetts. Everything seemed ideal: an inspiring team, a pure mission, and a new landscape just waiting to be explored.

Fast forward five months: winter had come and gone, and spring was now upon us, and Bar Tartine had served its last plate of food on the last day of 2016. As I sat in the moving truck, legs dangling over the sides, head lamp illuminating the curb as sirens echoed through Glen Park Canyon, I realized I was in this liminal space of not quite belonging in either city. I had split up my possessions—what clothes to stay in San Francisco, what plates to come to Massachusetts—but I wasn’t really in either place. I was headed to a land I didn't know worked by farmers I hadn't met and with a rich history full of stories and folklore I had only heard whispers of. We’re a young country, but here, nestled between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic, is where our collective story begins. I was headed on a trip back in time.

I spent the first two months in North Adams tripping over my own feet. I didn't have a restaurant kitchen or even a home kitchen yet, or a culinary team; it was as if both my paintbrush and my canvas were missing. There was nowhere to create and make sense of my surroundings. I cook to understand the world and my own feelings, to nourish myself and others, to grow, change, explore fears, and celebrate the brief moments of true inspiration. I make things, that’s what I do. I build a larder and allow it to be my muse.

But all of a sudden, I didn’t have any of those things. What I did have was an arsenal of techniques, a deep love for the nutritive aspects of food, and the possibility to create something truly of the moment: a restaurant that would reflect the heritage of this place by getting back to the land to create healthful, beautiful, craveable food. And it was and is within this story that I bring into focus the main reason I love to cook, and that is to nourish people. Food is the best medicine when we know how to work with it.

New England’s heritage is multilayered. From the Native Americans who originally walked these lands to the Italian, Welsh, Dutch, Irish, and Chinese immigrants who called it home in the nineteenth century, to the Lebanese communities who created a restaurant on Route 2—one of the first scenic byways—to the Polish, Eastern European Jews, and Scots who moved here in the first half of the 20th century, the foodways of Western Massachusetts chronicle a unique type of diaspora. Food is my lens to understanding this place and its people.   

The Western Berkshires are rich with stories of immigration, warfare, land disputes, deforestation, and reforestation. I see the cross-pollination of diverse culinary histories that dot the landscape and inform flavors; Italian immigrants to Massachusetts in the early 1800s brought seeds from an old Gravenstein apple variety that still grows here. With that apple I want to honor the Italian honey-apple cake (torta di mele) updating it to a pressed, layered apple cake soaked with apple blossom honey and rose—a little nod to the Lebanese in the area—and serving it with whipped cultured cream and sumac.

People use food for many things: to create culture, to nourish their loved ones, to mend a broken heart, or cure the common cold, to heal the sick, and strengthen the brave. Centuries of people coming to this land brought survival skills, including tonics and herbs. The English were said to be the first immigrants to plant extensive herb gardens and make poultices and tisanes to cure ailments. There is a deep history here of combining foods for wellness and longevity, and this is where cooking as a mode of alchemy really shines, since combining foods can be synergistic in a way that boosts nutrition. For example, if you steep equal parts cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds in hot water for fifteen minutes, they aid digestion and reduce inflammation much more effectively than they do separately. Mixing vitamin D-rich sardines with calcium-rich full fat yogurt increases the amount of calcium that’s bioavailable to the body. Mixing pomegranates with walnuts and onion or apples creates an antioxidant powerhouse.

Dark leafy greens contain two major antioxidants that assist in keeping your eyes healthy, but these compounds are fat soluble so eat your greens mixed with tahini or good olive oil to ensure you're getting maximum nutritional benefits. Also beta carotene, found in many vegetables such as orange sweet potatoes, carrots, and winter squash, becomes easier to assimilate when combined with the capsaicin found in black pepper, ginger, or cayenne. And the vitamin A in carrots is best absorbed when bound to a protein source, so I plan on making a carrot, farmer’s cheese, and wild mushroom baked custard with a bit of fortified broth to sip on the side.

The way to understand this land is through the foods of the people who settled here, and the way for me to connect with this place is through its palimpsest of stories and ingredients, which in their own tangled way, lead back to me, here, now. All of this can be done with a lens that connects us to the land by looking at ingredients as curatives, tonics, restoratives, and ultimately a way to heal from the inside out.

The soul of a dish is about the story it tells. I find the most successful dishes evoke both nostalgia and surprise. In my restaurants I always ask the cooks, servers, dishwashers, and farmers what their grandmothers used to cook, what flavors they craved? These conversations become the framework for new flavor combinations and new dishes. I have no desire to create something wholly new in the culinary world. I only hope that my food tells stories of people and places in a way that is honest, understandable, and satisfying.  

Now, 3,000 miles away from San Francisco, I find not much has changed while everything has changed. I am still guided by a seasonless larder—by preserving seasonal bounty we’re able to enjoy those flavors throughout the year—and by the idea that my immediate surroundings should be my culinary compass. But I’m now challenged to examine these ideals even further. In California, the markets were always brimming with fresh, juicy ingredients no matter the season. In North Adams, we are bound by a short growing season. Preservation takes on new meaning. At Bar Tartine we found ways of weaving together Northern California’s terroir with our own intercontinental curiosities. In North Adams, I need to look in instead of out.

I currently am working out of a ‘kitchen’ I’ve built in a garage, making boozy infusions and tinctures for the apothecary-style bar I plan to create. I collect some ingredients from the forests, grow some in my garden, and get many others from the amazing network of growers in the regions. Some of my current favorites include bronze fennel, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, coriander root, smoked crab apple, houndstooth, damson plum, rue, marigold greens, and young pine cones. Some will be for spirit based cocktails, and some for bitters, while most have destinations unknown. I’m trying to preserve the seasons as the swirl around me in space and time. Nick and I salted all the chrysanthemum greens, and I’m drying the flowers for tea.

When I first arrived, I discovered that the basement of the old farmhouse (behind which we’re building the restaurant) had a cellar full of jarred preserved items, some dating back to the 1950s and 60s. My grandparents would have remarked, in Yiddish, that it was b’shert, which means “meant to be”, and that’s how I feel about that basement space and the way I use the larder as the jumping off point for creativity. It’s a time capsule of sorts, a kaleidoscope back into the future to inform the present. It’s the truest essence of this project. For my larder I’m making chili pastes, testing out old world apple varieties for vinegars, and working on misos with local soybeans and roasted kabocha squash. Last spring’s fermenting ramps will swim in their brine till next spring. I’ve made jams and confitures from the lilacs and rhubarb that dot my yard.

I have always been a traveler, armchair and otherwise. Traveling helps me deconstruct the world so I can put it back together again, an act which in turn helps me to understand myself. Ask me about a place and I will recount the smells emanating from a home kitchen and the ingredients piled in the markets. Ask to see pictures and I will cook. Through cooking, I am able to weave moments together, relive them, outlive them, and embody them to carry me to the next moment. Everywhere I go, I collect flavors and experiences, and this marks the beginning of one such adventure.