THROUGHOUT THE HUDSON VALLEY, indeed throughout the country, there likely are few, if any, “farmers” who receive as much acclaim as do Robert Rosenthal and his wife Noelia, who run Stone Church Farm and The Duck Farm at Stone Church. Like many New Yorkers, they migrated to the valley decades ago with little inkling of what would develop, and, like their business, the conversion of their stone church dwelling (used as a chicken coop before they bought it) is an ongoing, evolving process. But the fame and success of the Stone Church ventures haven’t changed the Rosenthals much: Noelia keeps the books at the table in the bright, cheery kitchen, and Robert still talks enthusiastically about someday finishing the building’s restoration.
Robert Rosenthal: I wanted to live in a stone house so I did a little research and found that Pennsylvania and Ulster county, in the Hudson Valley, had a lot of stone houses.
There were four floors then, and 5,000 chickens in this building. We cleaned it out and we started to grow some chickens outside, along with some flowers and vegetables. We practiced organic farming, although we didn’t know much about farming at the time—we were just growing things the way people have always done prior to the introduction of chemicals, which is “organically.”
We sold flowers and vegetables. Noelia did that. I took care of the chickens. We loved it. We pulled an abandoned hay wagon from the field, painted the rusty wheels canary yellow and started selling to passers-by, right in front of the house, on the road. That’s how we got started. We didn’t set out with any big dreams. If we could pay the bills, that was wonderful.
People liked the chickens, so we focused on that. The hard part was going out to sell to businesses. This is back when local food and regional foods meant nothing—the chefs didn’t want to hear about it. That was 20 years ago.
In a textbook example of entrepreneurship, Rosenthal did his homework—market research—then simultaneously filled a niche and created a market. First there were chickens (not in the house, though), game birds, pork, and now a product that is universally recognized as being among the best in the world—Stone Church ducks.
RR: Over a period of two years I did research (from the Wheatley Inn, near Tanglewood, to Alain Ducasse) to find out what was lacking in poultry. What universally came up is that there are no choices in ducks. What I have done now no one in the U.S. has done. I have 20 ducks—20 different breeds—bought most in the U.S. from breeders in Washington and Oregon, except for two of them. They were grown by people who had selectively bred them to improve them for show purposes, like show dogs or show horses. These people brought the birds in from Europe, not for commercial purposes, but for their backyards. Across the country are “show duck” people—everybody from gentleman farmers to very humble people, 4-H clubs, all sorts of different people.
The demand for what we are doing with the ducks is so enormous that it will take us three to five years to reach production. Charlie Trotter, in Chicago, wants to take 160 ducks, of three varieties, a week. There aren’t too many people who do as much business as he does. I told him there’s no way I can do it now. We’re sitting with over 3,000 orders for duck per week, to start with—3,000 ducks to ship, every week. We don’t have that many yet because it takes time. The duck that grows in the shortest period of time takes 28 days to hatch after breeding. Some of them can take five months [to mature], plus one month in the egg—six months to get one duck. You can’t rush it.
I set up a whole separate business for the ducks, it’s called the Duck Farm at Stone Church. We’re growing seven ducks that are listed on the National Heirloom Conservancy list. Noelia and I are headed to Normandy and Brittany to stay at two duck farms to look at their techniques and to see the grass those ducks feed on.
We’ve concentrated on the ducks but it hasn’t taken away anything from the other poultry. We are doing some incredible roosters—heirloom roosters and some guinea fowl. We’re very pleased with that. I have someone now breeding partridges for us for a couple of customers for Christmas or New Years.
The chefs are partners in this. They have to be. If you do things on your own it’s not going to work out because, to be a success, you still have to give them what they want. It’s the same in poultry as it is in vegetables.
Rosenthal queried his primary customers—chefs—about what they wanted and how they wanted it. He credits the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park (one of his first, and biggest, accounts), with educating him about portion control, size and delivery—the kinds of details few home cooks worry about. But he also has a passion for food and never lost sight of the ultimate destination of his products: the table.
RR: The chefs are partners in this. They have to be. If you do things on your own it’s not going to work out because, to be a success, you still have to give them what they want. It’s the same in poultry as it is in vegetables. The chefs tell growers what they are looking for for next year—they’re possibly looking for heirloom, might be looking for Oriental or South American-type vegetables. Every year there are, of course, vegetables and certain things that are in fashion—small, baby, big—whatever. One must be always current. Chefs told us—there was a whole list, it was sort of a list that you would get at a cooking school. They broke it down to size, the way it cooked, the time it cooked, the flavor, the taste, the legs, the breast meat, the price. We were learning what they needed in the way of standardizing size, portion control. Price was always a very big question.
Now their first questions are: How are the birds raised? Where are they raised? What breed is it? (In chicken that’s not a question that is asked as much as it is in ducks.)
RR: Basic foods should be done locally and should be done with enormous amount of passion and done slowly, in the traditional way. We’ve proven in our own small way that this thing could work and it could work with inns and restaurants and markets.
One, there is more interest in natural, organic foods than ever before. That’s growing.
Whether the breeds of the animals are better is not the most important thing—it’s how they’re raised and that they’re fresher. That’s what you taste. Great food can only be produced in small batches, very carefully.
The other one is going back to traditional foods, very simply done. I think the ways the animals were always raised before is the way that they’re looking for it today. That was before the use of additives. The same with vegetables. Chickens should be raised with natural foods, without any growth hormones and certainly without antibiotics (which are probably the most dangerous because they’re keeping sick animals alive that should die naturally).
We do not feed organically; we feed all naturally. They’re grass-fed, with the addition of corn and wheat. We don’t have the market for the organic because the cost is prohibitive. We have 7,500 birds, minimum, at a time. About 1,500 of those are the Gascon rooster.
Whether the breeds of the animals are better is not the most important thing—it’s how they’re raised and that they’re fresher. That’s what you taste. Now it’s coming back to the way things were. France has gone to such extreme of emulating the U.S. that they’re losing small producers and the people are starting to forget about the taste. Italy has maintained this and so has Spain, as much as possible.
Great food can only be produced in small batches, very carefully. Cooking is the same. That’s the great skill of the northern Italians, the Tuscans. They primarily grill foods, but they cook foods with nothing on them: They use salt and pepper and an olive oil. And yet, people who eat these foods in the better places (not only the expensive, because there are some very simple Tuscan restaurants in Italy) say they’ve never tasted anything like it. What they’re tasting is the ingredients. It’s actually a contradiction—[some chefs believe] sophisticated sauces and creams are the part that’s most difficult. They might be the most difficult to learn, but the skill of cooking has to do with taking something that’s raw and with salt and pepper, putting it on the top of a stove or on the grill or inside an oven and taking it out—my gosh it’s amazing.
What is not amazing is that everywhere you go [to eat] they take the worst ingredients and disguise them and camouflage them. In the mid-range [restaurants] down to the lower ones, all the meats, all the vegetables—the flavor comes because of something that’s added. You’re tasting sauce or you’re tasting a vinaigrette—you’re tasting something else. With poor ingredients they cannot make great food.
Spend ten minutes with Robert Rosenthal and you realize there’s a lot more to raising birds than just throwing some crushed corn into a coop. If there’s anything he doesn’t know about his birds, it’s a safe bet he’s already researching the information—and not just in books. To learn about what French ducks eat, of course, you go to France.
RR: This is the quiet time for ducks. Their season begins in spring, summer and into fall. So a lot of the birds—we’ve already sold them all—they’re gone. You have to hold back the prime females and males so that you can breed. Our farm upstate in Greene County is approximately 12 acres and we have a fairly large barn where birds are put in for breeding. (You breed inside; once they get feathers they’re taken outside. They’re outside until winter, when they’re brought back inside because they can’t feed outside. They have ventilation and they’re away from the cold and extreme sun.)
When the light is at least half a day or more, all poultry begin the cycle to breed. Certain breeds of duck you can fake out, but there are ducks that, even if you put the light up, you’re not going to be successful. Those ducks become available only during their season. Peking ducks can be grown all year round; Muscovy ducks, moulard ducks are grown all year round. Some will be a little smaller, we’ve learned. Chickens you can put inside—they’ll breed all the time, though if it’s too cold or too hot the size is affected until they adapt.
Ducks do not come from one race. What has happened is migratory wild ducks go from area to area throughout the world. We have mallards here—mallards are found all over the [Western] world. Those mallards will come down to farms when they see other ducks, hear them, smell them, or there’s water or food. They will come down, mate with the ducks on the farm. What makes ducks so much more interesting than chickens (and better) is you have these little wild ducks that mate with these big, big farm ducks (it happens, though it’s not the first choice of either one of them—they would usually go with their own). The gaminess marries with the domestic farm duck, which has more of a gentle flavor, more fatty.
The first Chinese ducks that came to America had gone into California. The Chinese Peking ducks that arrived in New York [were favored by] a group of immigrant farmers, primarily Polish, and they settled in the Moriches, out toward the Hamptons, on Long Island. That’s why it’s called the Long Island duck. The Long Island duck is a Peking duck.
When you buy a Long Island duck or Peking duck—even if you get it from the best sources—you have to buy a larger bird because of shrinkage and also [becuse of] the anatomy. It’s sort of a football player compared to an Olympic runner: The Olympic runner would usually be tall and slender; the football player would be more compact and dense. Our duck is a football player. If you must buy a six- or seven-pound Peking duck to get the portion that you want for your customer, you pay for that amount. With the five or five-and-a-half pounds of our duck, you get the same result.
We don’t believe we’re going to get every customer—some say duck’s duck, chicken’s chicken and that kind of thing. But from the middle group upwards, we could capture a very large market because for the same money (even for less), we could give them something fabulous. That’s what our work was based on. We’ve grown upwards of 30 of the greatest ducks, including 14 or 15 wild ducks that had never been in restaurants.
Then there’s the Duclair. It’s now extinct in France (though five farmers in Duclair, Normandy, are putting out a Duclair, but it is not the original). We have it from the former Duclair duck association president, a grower—he says we are the only ones now that he knows of. We sent 125 photographs of the bird—upside down, wings spread out, every way—to him, and he says, yes, it looks like a Duclair. He asked us what it tastes like and we said it doesn’t taste like poultry, it doesn’t taste like duck—it tastes like the finest piece of silken meat. He says yes, it’s a Duclair.
(One of my customers, a French fellow who helped with translations, had Daniel Boulud at his restaurant for a tasting of this duck. When Daniel ate it he said it wasn’t duck. The first time Noelia and I had an opportunity to eat this duck, it was like eating silk, like taking a bite out of a cloud. I can’t describe it but it did not taste like any poultry at all. Absolutely amazing—not greasy, just delicious.)
We are beginning this spring to grow one other duck that we have done homework on. That duck will be the Bresse chicken of the duck world. This is the Shallon duck (named for the area it comes from—the Loire Atlantique, outside of Brittany). They were brought from Spain into France. The Shallon duck will be a pleasure because it will be grown like the poulet de Bresse. It’s a lot more work, but the result—it would be hard to imagine what it will be.
Ducks love to eat off the grass—a good part of their diet is grass. Where they’re growing the Shallon, it’s buckwheat. Brittany is famous for crepes: The same farmer [who is raising Shallon ducks] is selling the leftover buckwheat to the mill, who then sells it to the restaurants to make buckwheat crepes.
I found this little blurb that the last stage of this particular duck makes it even better. The idea was the birds were always kept running around—the farmer left the food in a corner where the birds would find worms and snails, whatever, but they had to travel to get the food that the farmer left them. So the animals were getting muscle that added to the texture and the taste. But then they brought the animal in when it was just near maturity. I’m not certain if they put them in cages or if they put them in a barn, but they were cramped together for one reason: to add a layer of fat. They already had all the muscle—now they needed that little bit of fat like you have with the best meat. That last stage is a fattening stage—let the animal be on the grass but, at the end, the best thing to do is don’t let the animal get any more muscle. That’s what they do with the Shallon duck.
Likable and modest are terms that come quickly to mind when talking with Rosenthal. But he is, in the end, a tough, pragmatic businessman. Noelia knows him best:
Noelia Rosenthal: You have to make the chefs happy. They tell Robert that when they open up a box from Stone Church Farm it’s like opening up a box of Godiva chocolate—everything is the same size. If a customer orders a three-pound duck or a four-pound chicken they know that when that box is opened there is not a two-and-a-half-pound chicken there. The big companies, you ask for 25 quail and they’ll give you a quail that’s six ounces and a quail that’s eight ounces. We don’t do that. Robert is a perfectionist. Every chicken, every duck has got to be gorgeous. Most people can’t be bothered and they don’t care.
RR: It’s my signature. It’s my work. It’s my standard. I’m the one that’s really demanding. The only controlling factor with the people that I work with is that I’m the one giving them the money. I’m an SOB—with me, the money stops when they don’t give me what I’m supposed to have.
We’ve missed occasionally; we miss when we’re really pressured for time. But we’re still doing things by hand. We have a list of every customer that wants a particular bird a different way. We’re at the low end of the industry and yet we’re not just throwing the stuff in the box and putting our name on it.
The Culinary [Institute of America] taught me about size. They brought me to main purchasing many, many times—it was embarrassing. I felt like a little child coming to school. Now, if a customer orders a guinea hen or pheasant and we don’t have that four-pound bird on Wednesday, we call them up and tell them we don’t have the size, so we can’t give it to them. We won’t compromise. And they know why—because it’s not the right thing. You have to concern yourself because at table four they’ll be eating something that might be a little too thin. So I can’t—I say just put down “not available.”
I know that we can do it better and I want to do it better until it can’t be done any better. This is not about ducks or chickens; it’s about the journey of life and the need to express yourself in one form. You choose to take the risk—or sometimes you’re forced into it, and that’s not necessarily bad. Risk takers are like people who need to walk out without any clothes on. They’re the ones you hear about. Either you see them and buy their products, or they disappear. But you have to act on your ideas, not just think about them.
We see a lot of younger people today that are extremely well educated and don’t have direct links with farming and yet are interested. But there’s a romanticism about it—they want to do it and then they get a little taste of it and it’s not so romantic. But it’s something very, very worthwhile.