A CUT ABOVE
Chef Harley Peet is making waves on the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s fair to say that prior to Harley Peet joining Bluepoint Hospitality in 2014, there were limited fine-dining options in the small town of Easton on the Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A few tenured restaurants speckled the tree-lined, red-brick sidewalks, and beloved, downhome seafood shacks were never more than a few miles away. But here, the rarity of high-quality cuisine had long felt like finding a pearl in an oyster shell.
But now, amidst the quiet downtown and its Colonial architecture in a region that has increasingly been hailed as the “new Hamptons,” the executive chef runs nine restaurants where no detail, or expense, is spared—from the hand-painted wallpaper of the Bonheur ice cream parlor, to the 24-bottle pour-your-own wine system at the bistro-like Wardroom, to the Austrian crystal and French china and antique chandelier in the white-table-clothed Bas Rouge—all hand-picked by Bluepoint’s owner, the Brooklyn-born energy mogul Paul Prager.
And inside the kitchen, Peet is making his own mark on the culinary caliber of this rural landscape. It’s no small feat bringing big change to a small town rooted in pastoral living, but leave it to a Midwestern son of a meatpacking dynasty to tow that fine line, using top-quality ingredients, perfectionist precision, and a bare-knuckled work ethic to do so. These days, both “from heres” and “come heres,” as the locals say, are flocking to Bluepoint Hospitality, with rave reviews rolling in from Washington, New York, and beyond.
We caught up with the Culinary Institute of America grad, who has been working in kitchens since he was a teenager, about what he learned on the slaughterhouse floor—and more.
You grew up on Lake Michigan. Where did your interest in food first begin?
That’s easy. My father’s side of the family owned and operated a 150-year-old meatpacking facility called Farmer Peet’s. It was a really big deal in Michigan. They had the second largest payroll in the state besides General Motors and the Ford Motor Company in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. It was, at one point, the largest independently owned slaughterhouse in the Midwest up until about the ’70s, before the Chicago stockyards really took over. So we grew up in a world full of the freshest meat and poultry. My father was an amazing home cook. And my mother was a phenomenal baker. She learned from her mother, and she used to sell her pies around the neighborhood, up to the day she passed away. I was just immersed in food. Everyone was out playing baseball and I was always in the kitchen with her. And I never watched cartoons; I loved cooking shows. I was about four or five years old watching Yan Can Cook and The Frugal Gourmet.
Growing up in Midwest, did you use much cast iron?
My grandfather was in World War II, and I’ve noticed that a lot of these vets lived the remainder of lives with a lot of small nuances that carried over from wartime. In how he ate, in never wasting anything, in utilizing everything. He always drank out of a tin cup. And he always had cast iron in the kitchen. In my household, my mother had very few pieces of Le Creuset. I just remember it being heavy when I was little. We weren't poor, but we worked really hard for what we had. If you wanted something, you had to earn it.
How did growing up around such high-quality meat inform your sourcing as a chef?
It definitely helped. I was on the slaughterhouse floor from as young as five years old, so I have a strong knowledge of what good product and good protein should be, what it should look like, how it should be treated. I know the anatomy of animals, so when I order a piece of meat, I know exactly what I want, and how to tell the meat cutter—like rib four through eight, center cut, take the chine bone off, leave the four-by-four cap on top. Funny story, my grandfather got out of the war and started Augustus Pantry in West Branch. That’s actually how my parents met. My father was delivering meat to my grandfather’s grocery store and met my mother when they were 15 or 16 years old.
What difference does the quality of ingredients make?
It’s all in the end product. We can take a less desirable ingredient and turn it into something magnificent. Barbecue is a prime example. At the end of the day, it still has to be good quality, it can’t be spoiled or mistreated. Whether it’s a beautiful beef tenderloin or the leanest, chewiest eye-round, we can do a lot with that — pounded out, cooked schnitzel-style in the cast iron, and smothered in some beautiful morel mushrooms and ramps and veal jus and put it in the oven for five minutes and served over some mashed potatoes. That’s looking pretty good.
Any pointers for how home cooks can gauge the quality of their ingredients?
Seasonality is huge, and if something is unavailable in the grocery store, maybe you don’t actually need it. If I could give anybody a tip, it would be less is more, use what’s fresh, use what’s available, and learn to swap things out for other things. I keep telling my CDCs : let’s back out. What are we dealing with? Beautiful halibut coming out of Maine right now and fresh asparagus picked yesterday from the farm 10 miles down the road. Let’s sear the fish. Maybe cure it with a little bit of lime and sugar for 10 minutes. Put a little salt and pepper on it. Throw it in a pan. Perfectly blanch those asparagus, whack them on the grill for two seconds, or toss them around in a cast iron with a pad of ramp butter. Put them on the plate, put the piece of fish over them, squeeze some lemon over it, and a drizzle of olive oil, and that ends up on the menu.
We’ve heard you say that local still needs to be good, too.
I am a massive believer in that. I am not scared to put a West Coast oyster on the menu in an East Coast oyster capital. There are beautiful ingredients that are grown around the world that are totally indigenous to other areas. We bring fish in from Japan, and it’s unbelievable. And I’m not going to lie—I prefer their uni to Maine’s. And we have the ability nowadays to get that stuff here in optimal condition, so there’s absolutely no reason not to take advantage of that, minus the exuberant cost. But just because it’s local, is it good? No.
You use cast iron in your restaurants, as well as Mauviel stainless steel and Du Buyer carbon steel. How do you use the medium at home?
I keep two on the stove at all times. Last night, we had too many beers, but I threw together a carbonara for my partner Spencer with some fresh bucatini from the freezer at the Wardroom, finished it with some Parmesan Reggiano, served right out of the Butter Pat. It was delicious. People think, ‘Oh, you're a chef, you must have be making all of this nice stuff that’s perfect and beautiful.’ No, we're having a glass of wine and making grilled cheeses and having dinner.
Read Peet’s recipe in Family Receipts.
Photographs courtesy of Nicole Franzen, Deb Lindsey and Bluepoint Hospitality.