Mushroom Hunting With Zak Pelaccio, Hudson’s Newest Restaurateur

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. Its 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.

Its 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 Joness 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.

Ive never had much success, and I definitely want to, says Pelaccio.

Well, who doesnt? Emde goads him. I dont know anybody who likes food and is like, I dont 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. Its weird, thats the sound I make when were 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 outsidesunlight irradiates the spacious kitchen; back doors open to reveal an outdoor fire pit. A large bookshelf of almost exclusively cookbooksfrom The Way to a Mans Heart to Modernist Cuisinebisects the living room and dining area, and upstairs are two bedrooms, one soon to be decorated with Elvis prints for Hudson, Pelaccios 9-year-old son, whose drawings hang by a shelf stacked high with Emdes 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! Its all gone?

Its all gone, Pelaccio confirms with a tragic laugh. Im so sad. Thats 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 thatve been warmed in the oven, and he sprinkles a handful of garlic mustard over each. Both chefs eat quickly. Its definitely much better to eat slowly, but its 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 dont 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 its easy for him.

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

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