Not-So Saint George
IN A POST-FOOD NETWORK WORLD, it’s hard to dodge stereotypes when discussing the lives of chefs. There are elder statesmen and bad boys, media superstars and locavorian prophets. Then one comes along, like Chef Chris Vergara, who won’t fit neatly into a box.
Sure, there are rumors of Vergara’s hard partying, fights, and scrapes with the law. There is the fact that, in his twenties, Vergara earned his living playing in illegal poker games. There are other facts, like the time Vergara was in a car accident in which he sustained a brain injury that blunted his palate and left him without the sense of smell. (He healed, and both senses returned.) Or try this one: For his transgressions, Vergara is banned from entering the nation of Canada. (Canada—a country whose citizens, as Michael Moore proved in Bowling for Columbine, don’t even bother to lock their doors.)
But there are counter rumors from, for example, Polpettina’s owner and co-chef, Kyle Inserra, who marvels that Vergara has “read everything.” And it is true that Vergara is conversant in the lesser works of David Foster Wallace. He’s been alternately described by fellow restaurateurs as a “mad scientist” and “soooo smart—like some kind of genius.” Vergara is an avid fly-fisherman and drives a Prius; he doesn’t hew to type.
What’s true? All the above.
Yet, despite his colorful history, Vergara’s three Westchester restaurants—Meritage (in Scarsdale), Harper’s (in Dobbs Ferry) and Saint George (in Hastings-on-Hudson)—are remarkably low key. Each is successful, well reviewed, beloved by diners. “My aesthetic is that I’d sooner eat food that’s well prepared and homey than something that’s self indulgent,” he says. “So many chefs are trying so hard to show you how clever they are. I mean, I read menus now that sound like Top Chef challenges. This all started when Thomas Keller began putting dishes in quotes. Suddenly, everything became about a chef’s witty riff on a classic. I’m thinking, ‘Look, you’re a 27-year-old chef—I don’t want to see your witty interpretation of boeuf bourguignon, I want to see boeuf bourguignon.”
Restaurants are the fringe element; they’re like a warm blanket for people like me.
The role of restaurant lifer is strangely apt for Vergara. He’s been working in restaurants—sometimes off, but mostly on—for 22 years. He repeatedly refers to himself as one of “the old guys” (he’s 36), and he takes a long view of the industry. When the unpleasant subject of Yelp and pay-for-play bloggers is broached, he moans, “It wasn’t like this when I started!”
Like many, Vergara’s start in the industry was as a busboy at age 14. The seduction was easy: restaurant hours appealed, and late shifts (and unpredictable closing times) helped him elude parental eyes. “I was always a stayout and a misfit, even when I was younger. And restaurants are the fringe element; they’re like a warm blanket for people like me.”
The kitchen held special allure. “I’d watch service all night and there were all these amazing smells and sounds. The idea that there were all these tickets on the board and that they’re somehow coordinated felt like a big mystery. I’d watch the cooks and I’d wonder, how the hell are they doing this? And at the end of all the commotion, they’d be making this beautiful food. With the juxtaposition of all these elements, it was like, ‘C’mon, get me back there!’”
“I finally got into the kitchen at the Rye Town Hilton. And this is something that you’ll hear from a lot of chefs: their work is the last thing they think about before they close their eyes, and it’s the first thing when they wake up. It was like that for me, even when I was doing banquets in high school.” By the time Vergara hit his late teens, the hook was set. “I knew that there was something about this world that totally engaged me.” He adds, “Pressure has a lot to do with it. I mean, there is always pressure from the customers—but the real pressure comes from the people that you work with. They’re counting on you. You can’t call in sick and you can’t mess up; you owe it to those people to be just awesome every day.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been deviations. After high school, Vergara followed his love of fly fishing to pursue an Ecology and Environmental Technology degree at Paul Smith’s College (College of the Adirondacks). He was thrown out. Later, while working at Rye’s La Panetière restaurant, he attended courses at the Culinary Institute of America whenever he could collect enough funds to enroll. Among other, sources of income, poker was a reliable earner—if less-than-legitimate and dangerous. Characteristically, Vergara waves away any bad boy glamor that might cling to his Wilderness Years: “It ends up being boring. You’d be playing cards for five or six hours just waiting for someone to make a mistake.”
When he was 25, Vergara and his partner, Jamie Steinthal, opened the restaurant that would become Meritage in Scarsdale. That’s young to start any business, but it’s nearly suicidal to open a restaurant at that age. “We were too young,” he acknowledges. “We had just been in Montana working on a restaurant deal—it was a music venue, a restaurant, and a casino. In Missoula, all the liquor licenses also come with gaming licenses. That fell through, but we had just gone through the process. We’d written menus. We already had that muscle at work.”
Back in Scarsdale, “One of the first things we did was alienate all the previous owner’s customers. I had all these highfalutin’ ideas about authenticity and real Italian food because I’d just come back from Italy. That’s when I changed our name from Il Cigno to Meritage.” Meritage, which rhymes with “heritage,” is an American word. It refers to a licensed collection of California wineries that make Bordeaux-style wines, but are located outside of France’s protected DOC. Vergara’s choice of name communicates the idea of taking Old-World stock and giving it a new life in new terrior. “I’d just come back and I thought, none of what Americans think of Italian food is actually Italian.” At Meritage, he designed a menu whose flavors hearkened to Italy, but with variations that were distinctly American. “It just seemed to have more integrity. If you ask any great chef, the most important thing to great food is using great ingredients. It would follow, then, that where you source your ingredients would dictate your type of cuisine.”
Vergara is frank about mistakes. He quickly learned, for example, that it wasn’t feasible to offer strictly local and organic food. “At that point, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t cook that well—or that I was still looking up recipes for chicken stock—because we didn’t have any competition. We were getting local and organic ingredients whenever we could and we were really trying to do something creative. We were making our own pasta and doing stuff that, almost 11 years ago, no one else was doing.” Meritage would earn a loyal following and a “very good” in The New York Times.
In 2010, inspired in part by David DiBari’s The Cookery and a growing bohemian scene in Westchester’s river towns, Vergara debuted his nose-to-tail American tavern, Harper’s, in downtown Dobbs Ferry. He was buying whole animals and celebrating the off-cuts. On any given night, you’d find charcuterie, lamb belly and a burger ground from shoulder rolls of beef. Location was the key to Vergara’s success at Harper’s. “When you buy whole animals, there are always cuts that are difficult to sell. But, here, in the river towns, it seems like it’s more difficult to sell the loin than it is to sell the neck.”
Last year, Vergara and Jason Steinberg took on the glittering Hastings-on-Hudson space that since 1980 had been Buffet de la Gare. They ditched the beloved restaurant’s tablecloths and jackets-only dress code, and re-launched the re-invigorated effort as Saint George. It serves bistro classics in the flicker of candlelight off century-old pressed tin. At Saint George, Vergara would earn an “excellent” rating in The New York Times review in which critic Alice Gabriel advised, “I’d order the chicken fricassee—when is the last time you saw fricassee on a menu?—cut into delectable nuggets, mingled with cèpes and house-cured bacon, lolling in a rich gravy of the sort of dish that gets French people going about their grand-mères.”Oh, Canada? Because of one youthful indiscretion or another, Vergara is still banned from entering the placid nation of moose—which is a pity, since he had once enjoyed visits to Quebec for combination fishing/eating binges. Still, Vergara is hopeful that Canada might someday forgive him. “I should just go and show them all my restaurant receipts,” he says. “They’ll probably name a street after me.”