When Chef Cortney Burns arrived in North Adams with the mission of creating a restaurant to accompany the new hotel Tourists, she looked to the land itself for guidance. Through foraging, Burns was able to put into physical form the spiritual journey that informs all her creations for the restaurant.
“These forests are abundant,” Burns says. “There are some things I know, some things I’m learning, some things I’ve never seen before. I started gathering pine cone and winterberry and different things, like birch, that you can infuse or make into syrups. Lilac. Rhubarb. Blueberries. Wild currants. Just trying to taste what’s here.”
Burns is a San Francisco–based chef whose curing and pickling work at Bar Tartine, the restaurant she developed with partner Nick Balla, won numerous accolades. Their Bar Tartine cookbook earned a James Beard Award. Balla now runs their Bay-area restaurant Duna, which looks to Eastern Europe for inspiration, while Burns shuttles between San Francisco and North Adams, where she is a partner in Tourists, the 48-room boutique hotel that opened this summer.
It was her cookbook that prompted one partner, Scott Stedman, to reach out to Burns, initially planning for her to develop a larder from local ingredients for the hotel’s food service. But the chemistry between her and the Tourists partners was so dynamic, she embraced a more permanent involvement, studying up on the history of the northern Berkshires and letting that take her down creative pathways.
“There’s been so much immigration here, in and out, just to look at the history of who came through here,” Burns says. “Most mill towns are on waterways, and I tried to imagine being here at that time and people entangling with each other and living next to each other. There’s no way that there can’t be some cross-cultural experience happening.”
Burns says that she was seeking out a muse on this journey, and it turned out to be her own imagination, directed towards the region’s past, crafting scenarios on a personal level by envisioning interactions between residents.
“What would it be like with this first-generation Italian family living next to a Lebanese family, and what if they needed to borrow a cup of sugar? What if they didn’t have sugar? What if they used something else? Or if they wanted peanut butter but had tahini? These are the things that would come into my mind. I wanted something that was nostalgic, like the food of an older culture than ours. And so, dishes started to come to the surface and in some ways, I was asking history for permission to use certain flavors.”
Burns is currently working in the kitchen in Houghton Mansion, which Tourists now owns, allowing her to create dishes that are served at Tourists. It’s also given her a bonus, a chance to commune with history every day as she works. The house’s past life as a haunted tourist spot is not lost on her.
“There are spirits everywhere. There’s definitely an energy here, but only if you want to tap into it,” she says. “All beautiful, lovely energy, it doesn’t feel like anything dark. As crazy as it sounds, I say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ every time I come and go because there is a history here. Whether it’s real or not, whether you believe it or not, I just choose to honor it, whatever it is, and hopefully work in synergy with it.”
Her culinary explorations will ultimately lead to the opening of the hotel’s restaurant Loom, planned for early 2019. In the meantime, Burns has been crafting a menu for more casual eating possibilities and currently offers an array of jar-based foods that suggest a tapas-style spread in a variety of situations.
The types of foods Burns puts inside jars is vast — including spelt-porridge bread, herbed seed crackers, cultured butter, jam, nut butters, a fermented squash and sesame dip, paprika-marinated mushrooms, squash salad with spicy creamed spinach, cauliflower salad with sprouted lentils, pork paté, and smoked trout and farmer’s cheese dip from locally caught fish.
“You can just put together a big spread on the table to share with the people you’re traveling with or come by yourself to the hotel lodge and have a glass of wine.”
Patio dining will begin at some point in August, and it will be open to the public as will lodge dining. The jar menu will remain available, along with poached local fish and vegetarian dishes built around what is available from local farmers. Burns plans braised chicken from Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough, as well as other delights like waffle grilled cheese on polenta sourdough bread, pork rinds, and griddled potatoes with chimichurri.
She also wants to bring a popular dish from Bar Tartine to the Berkshires — a chopped salad of salami, cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions, with a gazpacho flavor at the bottom.
Part of Burns’s process has been to work on a second cookbook that parallels her journey in the northern Berkshires. It’s been a way to examine her experience and also formalize some recipes as she creates the larder and then works her way through the “tried and true” and build on those in surprising ways.
“It’s been a jumping-off point to really exploring the flavors that are around here and in my head, and part of the community story and putting them on a plate,” she says. “The beauty of building a larder is you can cheat with it. If you don’t know what to do with something, you stand and stare at it and there it is. I really think of it that way. It’s just setting yourself up for layering flavors in a way that maybe we couldn’t otherwise because we didn’t have them at our fingertips.”
This article appears in the August 2018 issue of TownVibe Berkshire