Blenheim: The Kitchen Unbound

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As experts in Nordic cuisine Morten Sohlberg and Ryan Tate demonstrated how to separate milk into whey and fat using a hand crank at the International Culinary Center, the audience was distracted by the sound of chirping. Was it a phone? Had one of the chefs forgotten to turn off their phone? On the counter there were scattered bowls, seasonings, and the hand crank. In one corner there was a conspicuous jar covered in towels. Ryan waved off the audience’s confusion and continued cranking, telling the story of Blenheim, the West Village restaurant where he chefs that sources nearly all its ingredients from Blenheim Hill, a Catskill Mountains-based farm owned by Morten and his wife, Min Ye.

At Blenheim, the governing philosophy is fresh and local, with an added bent towards the spontaneous. “Most of the things we use are considered weeds,” Morten said of the many plants and wild grasses that make their way from the fields of the farm into the cuisine of the 45-seat restaurant. “You probably walk by dozens of them every day.”

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Ryan Tate, Blenheim’s executive chef and kitchen wunderkind, is tasked with bringing this delicate spontaneity to life. Tate’s plans for the kitchen are unbound by convention and represent the best of innovation. “Chefs are really bad at leaving well enough alone,” he said when Morten mentioned Tate’s previous restaurant, Le Restaurant, a critical darling that won stars from both Michelin and the New York Times. But he was being modest. Though many chefs feel a creative desire, artists like Ryan Tate are few and far between.

The Blenheim team’s commitment to their homegrown mission has paid off; the restaurant has been well-covered by the press and was recently named one of New York City’s 10 Sexiest Restaurants by Zagat for its constantly rotating menu and the sleek yet provincial feel of its interior. They’ve captured the personality of their 150-acre farm in the middle of the Big Apple. Not a small feat by any means.

You can see Morten’s touch in every piece of the restaurant. A modern Renaissance man, he’s taken the time to design everything from the chairs to the hanging lamps. Blenheim represents a yearning to escape the noise of the city, back to an age of rustic simplicity. Even if you’re not ready to sit down for a meal, stop in for an appetizer so you can appreciate the seamless way Blenheim combines philosophy and architecture.

By the time Chef Ryan was demonstrating how to infuse a farmer’s cheese with lemon juice, the chirping sound had become too loud to ignore. Morten reached into the cloth-covered jar and carefully lifted out a brown egg that wriggled in his hand. “Our guinea hens are hatching today,” Morten told us, much to our surprise. There were gasps of excitement as he quickly returned the egg to the incubation jar before it cooled.

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“From farm to table” barely begins to describe Blenheim. In fact, “From Chelsea apartment to table” would get a little closer to the truth, since Morten and Min Ye keep the delicate eggs in their home until the chicks are hearty enough to move to Blenheim Hill Farm. Without this careful care, most of the birds would be snatched by foxes. “Guinea Hens are terrible mothers,” Morten warned us. If he wants anything done on his farm, he can’t leave it entirely up to nature.

Everything about Blenheim, from the live chicks to the audience-made butter (they passed a jug around the room that we helped churn), is essentialized. The meatballs were 100% beef—not traditionally Swedish by definition, since those contain pork—and the yogurt was unsweetened, even though they did show us when in the process to add natural flavors.

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The only thing better than the demonstration was the food. Each of us got to enjoy two juicy meatballs garnished with fresh yogurt, lemon-infused farmer’s cheese, and acidic clumps of wheat berries while Morten uncovered the incubation jar to reveal a pair of newly hatched guinea hen chicks. Two birds wandered around the jar, unsure of the audience’s excitement, while the third continued peeling away the shell with its beak. “Happy animals taste better than unhappy animals,” he had said earlier, an obvious fact that is all too often ignored in the American food industry.

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Blenheim is a love letter to a less-developed land, something outside the city that harkens back to both Michigan and Norway, the homes of Ryan and Morten respectively. Blenheim brings the natural into a city that represents the opposite. And though it may be lonely, they represent a resistance to conventional thought in the kitchen. Blenheim doesn’t leave well enough alone, but once you’ve tasted their food you’ll understand why.

Post by Bailey James and Ian Sims