FROM THE BRONX TO THE BERKSHIRES, restaurants are promoting an increasingly popular trend: an awareness—even a preference—by consumers for things that are grown, produced or manufactured nearby. Micro-batch bourbons line bar shelves, local meats and cheeses enhance menus, and daily specials feature fresh, hand-picked produce from farms literally right around the corner. Yet, even as farm-to-table practices become more commonplace, some chefs and restaurateurs distinguish themselves with an exceptionally deep-rooted dedication to the local community.
For locavore-restaurateur John Lekic of Le Express Bistro in Poughkeepsie, farm-to-table means more than just including the names of a few local farms on the menu—it involves a commitment to the long-term health and betterment of the Hudson Valley community at large. Ask him about his relationships with local farmers and the floodgates open. From his excitement about the season’s first ramps to conducting side-by-side heritage chicken tastings with his staff, his energy is infectious and his spirit is focused on making the Hudson Valley synonymous with farmer-chef collaboration and local stewardship.
Born in Montenegro, a small country along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Lekic came to New York City as a 14-year-old and worked his way through the hot kitchens of Manhattan, Las Vegas and the Napa Valley. Ten years ago, family connections brought him to the Hudson Valley, the place he now calls home. He felt that a French-style bistro serving European-inspired, New American cuisine was the right concept for the area.
For Lekic, opening a restaurant was about more than finding a location and creating a menu; he recognizes that the life of a restaurant is in its people. “The restaurant is a family,” he says. “It’s a gathering place that’s very much alive.” His wife, Sara, works with him in the front of the house and together they greet guests, pour drinks and share stories. “I’ve learned a lot about the local products,” she smiles. “Before the restaurant, I never knew about hen-of-the-woods mushrooms—now I love them!”
There are plenty of traditional items on the menu at Le Express—like steak au poivre and croque-monsieur—but alongside them are Brussels sprout salad with Granny Smith apples, blue cheese and pancetta; or a crispy seared Portuguese octopus with local vegetables, lemon crème fraiche and togarashi pepper flakes. Lekic admits, “Some of the things are not so traditional because I want to serve the food that I like to eat.” For Lekic, ingredients drive the menu and create the restaurant’s core. “You should build the restaurant on the ingredients that the region produces best,” he says.
Look around—there is so much beauty, so much history. We just have to embrace it.
Sprout Creek Farm (Poughkeepsie), Obercreek Farm (Wappingers Falls), Madura Farms (Pine Island), Olde Forge Farms (Wassaic), Common Ground Farm (Wappingers Falls) and Fishkill Farms (Hopewell Junction) are a few of the major purveyors providing produce to Le Express. Being intimately connected to local farmers differentiates Lekic’s Hudson Valley culinary experience from other places that he’s worked. “In the city, there are so many people and so many restaurants—huge companies— and usually you’re dealing with a middle man. You don’t get to actually meet the farmer or see the fields, at least not very often. You just don’t have the same sense of place.”
Lekic has been in the Hudson Valley long enough to remember when the economy of the region was fueled by the presence of companies like IBM. Now, he says, the economic climate has changed and refocused. “Now, we need agritourism,” he says. “Look around—there is so much beauty, so much history. All of the ingredients are here. We just have to embrace it.”
It’s no surprise these days when restaurants list local farms on their menus, or to publicize their use of organic, local, free-range foods, but for Lekic, naming a farm or local producer on the menu board is just the first step toward educating his customers. “Listing the farms on the menu is good, but sometimes there are more things that need to be said about the story of the food,” he explains, adding that he prefers face-to-face conversations with his customers so he can personally tell them the story behind a dish or ingredient.
Fueled by the philosophies of food pioneers like Alice Waters and Wendell Berry, he describes local food and ingredients as “real,” as opposed to the mass-produced, anonymous ingredients from factory farms or fast-food joints. Lekic worries about the disconnect between what people eat and where their food comes from, a concern spawned by his involvement with the region’s farming community. “When you’re mass-producing beef or eggs or lamb—or anything—it’s different [from] the food coming from a garden or small farm,” he says. “It’s a difficult concept to grasp when you haven’t experienced the difference. Seeing the farms awakens a passion in the food you bring to the table.”
When you speak to individuals rather than to multi-million dollar companies, you learn something.”
Lekic fuels his passion by working directly with farmers when ordering ingredients. He visits his source farms multiple times per year, and he brings his restaurant staff to the farms, as well, so they too can learn more about the food they work with on a daily basis. “The relationship of the restaurateurs, chefs, farmers and producers is living because we influence each other,” Lekic says. “When [farmers] take me on the farm they ask me, ‘John, do you know about that?’ and I must admit that I don’t, but I’m always happy to learn. When you speak to individuals rather than to multi-million dollar companies, you learn something.”
Several years ago, Lekic and farmers Dan and Vivian Madura, of Madura Farms in Pine Island, connected during a Hudson Valley Restaurant Week kick-off event and they’ve been friends ever since. “Professionals in the industry can use Restaurant Week to find new sources and make meaningful connections,” Lekic notes. “It’s about focusing on what we have in the Hudson Valley and making sure we tell the story of the region. But we can’t do it alone—we can only do it together. The chefs, restaurateurs and farmers really need each other and we need to strengthen that relationship.”
Located in Orange County’s Black Dirt region, famous for its fertile, bistre-brown soil, Madura Farms is known for its many varieties of mushrooms, along with flavorful chicken eggs. Lekic admires Vivian’s treatment of the birds as pets, rather than chattel. He points to them as the perfect example of Hudson Valley terroir. “I guess [the chickens] eat onions, mushrooms and whatever is found at the farm,” he smiles in outward admiration for Vivian’s practices. “When you break the eggs, the deep orange color of the yolk and intensity of the flavors are just incredible.” Lekic doesn’t hesitate to share his sources with customers at the restaurant, and several of his guests have visited Boscobel Farmers’ Market to buy Madura eggs on his recommendation.
For Lekic, exposing costumers to new flavors is part of the fun of being a restaurateur. He’s quick to share a picture of the Pomeranian of chickens—silkies—Asian birds with dark, gamey meat and a texture akin to pheasant that he gets from Olde Forge Farms in Amenia. Lekic slow cooked the last batch he received with red wine, carrots and cipollini onions and served them with garlic mash. Most people “have never had a real chicken,” he says. “People think, ‘Chicken—what’s the big deal?’ But it is a big deal.”
Educating consumers about the benefits of buying local has led Lekic to participate in many farm dinners, and he’s opened a food truck that will allow him to bring his kitchen right into the fields where the food is grown. The truck, simply called Farmers & Chefs, is still being completed, but when it is, Lekic hopes to create a casual dining experience accessible to everyone. His guiding principle? “We shouldn’t have to spend a fortune to experience real food.”
The truck’s kitchen is “small but mighty,” and it will give Lekic the capability to serve more than 200 people. The truck’s home base will be at the Poughkeepsie Children’s Museum, which does not have a full kitchen. “My intention is to do tasting dinners at the farms and at the waterfront with the Children’s Museum,” he says, adding that he plans to share the truck with other chefs and restaurateurs so they can share their own unique interpretations of local ingredients.
“It’s in all our benefit to become a community,” Lekic says. “I’d rather have more restaurants around me than be the only one—it’s better for everybody. We have to be stronger as a community. Be proud of who and what’s next to you—that’s a successful strategy. The more the merrier.”