Mushroom Hunting With Zak Pelaccio, Hudson’s Newest Restaurateur

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Photo: Boru O’Brien O’Connell

“You know what I also have that is gonna be delicious?” chef Zakary Pelaccio asks his wife and co-chef, Jori Jayne Emde, leaning over the kitchen island in their Old Chatham farmhouse. “We have the phytoplankton here, which I love.” It’s two days before their new restaurant, Fish & Game, opens in Hudson, and the couple is finalizing details of two prix fixe menus (one vegetarian, one carnivore) for the seasonal, local-farm-driven eatery. The restaurant will be a two-hour drive up the Taconic Parkway from Manhattan, but Pelaccio is banking on his city reputation as both the genius co-founder of the Fatty Crab and ’Cue restaurants and the spirited chef who once listed an eight ball and joints as merry-making “necessities” in a roast-pig recipe to convince the food-obsessed to make the pilgrimage.

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Photo: Boru O’Brien O’Connell

It’s hard to tell the couple are 48 hours from a restaurant launch; a half-hour morning menu discussion, occasionally accompanied by Pelaccio whistling along to Quincy Jones’s “Killer Joe,” is relaxed (but productive). He puts in a quick fish order, then we hit the woods to hunt for dinner: greens and mushrooms to use at the restaurant. After traipsing by creeks, under thorny branches, through pine-tree-bordered clearings, we drop to our hands and knees to comb the forest floor for morels.

“I’ve never had much success, and I definitely want to,” says Pelaccio.

“Well, who doesn’t?” Emde goads him. “I don’t know anybody who likes food and is like, ‘I don’t really have any desiiiire to find morels.’ 

Foraging for ingredients turns out to have its limitations. Before long, Pelaccio suggests we give up the mushroom hunt. Emde reluctantly agrees. “I mean, I can smell mushrooms though,” she says, then tells me about recently sniffing her way to ramps. “Zak calls me a hound dog.” She gives an animalistic howl. “It’s weird, that’s the sound I make when we’re having sex.”

“It boosts my self-esteem,” says Pelaccio.

“Like you need it,” she returns.

“We always need it,” Pelaccio says.

Next, a search for salad greens. Pelaccio hands me a freshly picked garlic-mustard leaf to try (Pelaccio deems its aftertaste salami-esque). We move on to clip pepperwort (sharp and horseradishy) before heading back to the house, stopping by a barn that holds a pro-kitchen-size walk-in where prosciutto hangs drying next to jars of kimchee and Vermont butter aged for nine months. On one side of the room are barrels of homemade fish sauces, a healthy layer of funky mold growing atop them.

The house begs you to be outside—sunlight irradiates the spacious kitchen; back doors open to reveal an outdoor fire pit. A large bookshelf of almost exclusively cookbooks—from The Way to a Man’s Heart to Modernist Cuisine—bisects the living room and dining area, and upstairs are two bedrooms, one soon to be decorated with Elvis prints for Hudson, Pelaccio’s 9-year-old son, whose drawings hang by a shelf stacked high with Emde’s homemade vinegars.

After a thorough tick check, Pelaccio sets to work making a lunch of pasta, cutting the aged butter into rough blocks and coarsely chopping the garlic mustard. He runs to the barn to grab some cider a friend in Vermont made them while Emde tends to the boiling pot. Ten minutes later he stomps back in the house, mock-crying: “We drank all our cider! Oh, no!”

Emde: “Get out of here! It’s all gone?”

“It’s all gone,” Pelaccio confirms with a tragic laugh. “I’m so sad. That’s fucked up, right?” After a brief period of mourning, we instead drink a bottle of juicy Slovenian wine; Pelaccio swirls a Long Island white.

“What vision did you have, Zak?” Emde asks about the pasta, and he tells her to add clam broth, some mussels (from Maine, leftover from a dish Emde had cooked earlier), and the butter. She portions out the noodles (a ridged varietal by Martelli, a favorite brand) in bowls that’ve been warmed in the oven, and he sprinkles a handful of garlic mustard over each. Both chefs eat quickly. “It’s definitely much better to eat slowly, but it’s never been one of my strong suits,” Pelaccio says. “But I can drink a lot of wine.”

After lunch we make the 30-minute drive to the restaurant. In the kitchen of their blacksmith shop turned homey, two-story restaurant, the atmosphere is low-key. “Not a lot of us scream ‘fuck’ all the time. We don’t have a big screaming kitchen,” says Pelaccio. “Jori yells through her silence; I just laugh it off.” And their co-chef Kevin, Pelaccio jokes: “He just shoots heroin all day long, so it’s easy for him.”

Pelaccio and Emde sing made-up tunes while they wash the day’s bounty. There is the lovage song, and the garlic-mustard ditty: “Garlic mustard. Picking garlic mustard, now we’ve got so much!” Pelaccio crows, then adding a flourish: “Gar-lique my balls.” Emde replies, “That’s what I was gonna say!”

*This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.