Sunday, April 26, 2009

Interview with Executive Chef James Johns of Isabella's

I was walking by Isabella's Tavernas and Tapas Bar a couple weeks ago, and read on the door that they now serve weekday breakfasts from 6 to 10AM. More than that, they advertised that they used Dorsey's meat products and farm-fresh eggs. Well I knew that despite my inability to cope with mornings I would have to find a way to try it out and get an interview with the chef.

I organized a breakfast for the other Project Managers at my work (unrelated to this blog) on April 21, and talked to Executive Chef James Johns afterward. First I should say that the breakfast was delicious. I had the French toast with eggs, bacon and sausage. The french toast was fluffy, the eggs cooked exactly as I ordered them, and the bacon and sausage divine. The sausage in particular had a fresh taste, it was juicy and meaty, and had wonderful seasoning.

I couldn't get my tape recorder to work during the interview, so I took notes. James was kind enough to talk to me on his day off. What impressed me about him was his dedication to supporting the local economy. As he said, he was "born and raised in Frederick, and have lived here all my life."

About Isabella's: it is owned by Fountainrock Management Group, which also owns Brewer's Alley and Acacia. According to James, all three restaurants make an effort to support local and organic agriculture. He said his Operations Manager goes out and meets with the farmers, and checks the farms out. [This is important to make sure that a farm has practices that you would want to support with your buying dollar].

It's interesting to me after talking to a few local chefs just how dedicated they and the restaurateurs are to supporting local agriculture. James said that flavorwise, local is much better. He also said it was better for the environment, citing the greenhouse gases produced by the trucking of products from the west cost as an example.

Isabella's started doing the breakfasts about three months ago. James says that people are beginning to realize that this is being offered, and that the crowds are increasing. He already has regulars, people who come in every week or several times a week. All of the pork products used for the breakfast are from Dorsey's:
  • Sausage patties [you must try these if you eat sausage]
  • Scrapple
  • Pudding
  • Ham steaks
  • Smoked bacon
Dorsey's has also prepared the meats to Isabella's specifications, which struck me as a great example of the added benefits of building relationships with local producers. James said that growing up in Frederick, he would eat Dorsey's pudding every week or every couple of weeks, and that he loves it. He likes scrapple too, but scrapple has more fillers, and with pudding, you can get a gluten-free food. [As a kid, I used to love scrapple thinly sliced and fried like bacon. It was a delicacy that came when my parents would buy half of a slaughtered hog.] The eggs for the breakfast are organic and come from Tuscarora Farms in Pennsylvania. According to James, "we're using these for all of our eggs, not just the ones we serve for breakfast." He would like to find an even more local supplier for eggs; he was interested in an egg farm in Middletown and said, "I call and call, nobody answers the phone." If you're a local, organic egg producer, there's an opportunity.

The local foods used at Isabella's extend beyond breakfast. They are "starting to do some duck eggs for the tapas at night." James and I also talked about using local dairies and he said he is working on that. Isabella's gets beef from organic grower, Hedgeapple Farms, in Buckeystown. James said the beef is "grass-fed angus, no hormones, and you can taste the difference." [I agree- Hedgeapple Farms has delicious beef, and grass feeding keeps the cattle healthier and makes the meat more delicious]. James said that Dorsey's also does beef, and that their meat is very nice, with a clean flavor. He also said that "we use Cherry Glen Farms for all of our goat cheese, and what's even better, they just got voted third best goat cheese in the United States. We use about twenty pounds a week from them, give or take." [I have had the goat cheese fritters at Isabella's and they are amazing]. The seafood comes in fresh from Delaware or DC.

James says that in spring, summer, and fall, they do a lot more business with local farmers. "We'll start buying local berries, local corn as much as possible." He has tried to use local asparagus, but "we use so much asparagus here, nobody can keep up with us." I complimented him on the asparagus fries, and he said, "all fresh." They also use James Avery Clark, a local produce company, and get products from FoodPro. According to James, during spring to fall, FoodPro will get supplies from the local farmers. And farmers will show up at the back door with produce. He said, "they've always done that."

I asked about peaches. The baker at Brewer's Alley uses peaches from the local orchards. James goes to Pryor's to buy peaches for his own personal use. He started doing that as a kid, coming back from the falls.

It was wonderful to talk to this homegrown, self-taught, talented chef about local food. I hope you enjoyed reading about our interview.

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