Butcher’s Got a Green Thumb

“It’s funny,” sous chef Eric Kaufer mused, “I used to make fun of my dad all the time for puttering around in the garden, and now, here I am checking in on these plants every day and weeding by hand … and it’s one of the best parts of my day.”

And that’s saying quite something. In Off the Block Kitchen & Meat’s infancy, Kaufer was a frequent flyer, dropping in and raving about the concept with wide-eyed, unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, he and executive chef/owner Stephen Rizzo joke, Kaufer did it so often that when a vacancy opened up, Rizzo had no choice but to hire him. “He stepped up big … and so the bromance began,” he deadpanned, a glint of a grin in his eye.

Not only do they complement one another like the apple-vanilla glaze on their signature Brussels sprouts with double-smoked bacon—Kaufer’s affable, open friendliness a perfect foil to Rizzo’s smoldering intensity—but they work together to provide the unexpected for outstanding results.

And from this dynamic, the Off the Block Farm was born, and the butcher chefs by night became growers by day in a satisfying circle of life.

Just down the road from the pristine restaurant and market now lies a secret organic garden, tenderly cultivated and nurtured by the both of them as they brainstorm new, inventive ways to create more perfect pairs.

Just down the road from the pristine restaurant and market now lies a secret organic garden, tenderly cultivated and nurtured by the both of them as they brainstorm new, inventive ways to create more perfect pairs.

“We started this for fun, and to learn,” Rizzo said as he walked among his sprouting plants. At Off the Block, so much emphasis is placed on conscientious, high-grade sourcing—organic chicken, Berkshire pork, 100 percent grass-fed beef, and USDA prime steaks, aged right in-house—that it was natural for him to think about how he could shift that level of thinking to his menu’s accompaniments and the small market’s offerings as well.

“All of our herbs and garnishes are already local and organic,” Rizzo said as he checked on the newly installed irrigation system, “but we wanted to take it to the next level, to grow our own vegetables and herbs to sell in the store and create new dishes for the restaurant.”

“The way the Off the Block Farm happened was totally spur of the moment, though,” Kaufer added.

Steve nodded. “Yeah, it happened really quickly. I met this amazing couple at the Union Square flower market, and we got to talking and became fast friends. Ends up, they’re from right around here and were willing to give us a little land to grow on and experiment in! They’ve been kind of mentoring us, teaching us how to grow best, set up the irrigation system …”

“It was only a short while ago we were walking down the rows with watering cans,” Kaufer laughs. “But we’re still here pulling up weeds ourselves and separating plants by hand.”

This TLC has already yielded great results; their first harvest has already been prepped, served, and sold out … and those were just radishes.

“The idea is do small plates and specials for dinner, and to start with the product,” Rizzo said. “We bounce ideas off each other, then test it to see what works.

“For our first Off the Block Farm small plate, we had perfect radishes, and then realized that nectarines were reaching their peak. We grilled those and wrapped them in prosciutto, and tied it together with frisee. Then we topped the salad with curry goat cheese and it was a hit.”

This summer into fall, diners can expect to be treated to seed-grown Kirby cucumbers as house-made pickles; shishito peppers, whose one-in-seven odds of heat add an adventurous edge to dinner; fresh habanero and bell peppers; tender lady finger eggplants; zucchini; and sweet watermelon and cantaloupe all hit the menu. Tomato-lovers like myself can get excited about heirloom cherry, beefsteak, and Cherokee purple tomatoes, all the more delicious garnished with the lemon basil that’s flourishing in the garden. And, of course, there will be more radishes.

Cover photo by Lindsay Morris

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