By Rochelle Bilow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
Though he has the credentials and skills to brag, Brud Holland is not an egotistical cook. The new executive chef at Red Newt Bistro in Hector, NY, tends to shy away from the limelight, preferring to give attention to the food itself and the kitchen staff who creates it. He’s adamant that he doesn’t yearn for big-city praise and exposure, and his face poorly hides a wry grin when the term “celebrity chef” is mentioned.
And then there’s his name. He often reminds people of its pronunciation by rhyming it to the word crud, not missing a beat when questioned further. “I never really dug the whole 'Brud-the-Stud' thing. That was more high school,” he said as we chatted last Saturday before the lunch rush at the Newt. The name is actually a nickname, but when his mother was pregnant, the family couldn’t resist the charm of his sister telling everyone she was excited to get a little “brudder.” They named him Donald but “Brud just stuck,” he said with a laugh. “I like it.”
Interviewing Holland is more like playing tag-along -- physically, as he moves from the oven to the proofing box full of bread dough and back again, and mentally, as conversation hops from favorite foods to childhood memories to what makes a truly great vegetarian meal. (For the record, he claims he’s still working on figuring that one out.) His glasses are slightly scuffed, his hair a bit unruly, and he has an endearing sort of manic energy that’s easy to latch onto.
When I arrived at Red Newt, we sat down at a table on the deck overlooking the surrounding fields. We weren’t sitting long. Almost immediately, Holland jumped up and motioned for me to follow. “I want to show you what we’re working on,” he said as he disappeared into the small kitchen. I followed him and was met with the heady scent of yeast and herbs. “I’m drawn to baking because it’s so scientific,” he explained, turning a sheet pan of focaccia around 180 degrees and closing the oven door. “And I think that carries over to the rest of my cooking.” He paused for a rare moment, choosing his words carefully. “I think there’s a right way to do things in the kitchen, on the hot line.”
I asked for an example. “Chicken,” he responded. “I know the proper way to sear chicken. You can’t use olive oil, for one thing. It’s cold-pressed and the smoke point isn’t high enough. I prefer grapeseed oil for that; its smoke point is 485 degrees. Plus, it has nutritional value,” he said before stopping himself. “Is this too technical?”
Holland’s cooking style may be heavily technical, but it doesn’t taste like it: molecular gastronomy this is not. Each dish feels familiar and accessible, like the comfort food you make at home -- only better. A Moroccan chicken sandwich tasted luxurious, the faint heat from the spice-crusted chicken tempered by a creamy black bean and yogurt spread. A cheddar cheese and apple dip, served with more of that housemade bread, was a responsibly seasonable nod: Holland isn’t pummeling us with pumpkin pie spices, but rather letting diners catch a glimpse of the flavors the region has to offer in the fall. The soup of the day was a velvety potato-leek, and a smoked salmon and potato tartlet arrived tasting -- and looking -- impeccable, despite his sheepish admission that a stuck timer on the oven had caused yesterday’s batch to become “salvageable, but not ideal.”
Holland prides himself on everything that comes out of his kitchen, but it’s the seemingly limitless variations of bread recipes in his cache he’s best known for. “A friend was eating here the other day,” he said, “And he told me that when he bit into the bread, he could just ‘tell I was there.’”
The bread is good. Light and full of air pockets, in the case of his focaccia, and nutty with a hint of beer, in the case of the honey-oat sourdough. I was also lucky enough to leave with a loaf of one of his experimental varieties: a hearty sourdough made with spent barley. I inhaled it.
And if Brud’s outlook on food -- his passion and patience, the feeling that you just know him after eating at the Red Newt -- sounds familiar, it’s because he is intent on carrying on the traditions of Debra Whiting, the bistro’s original owner and chef. The two were collaborators and friends, both having taught culinary classes at 171 Cedar Arts in Corning, NY and sharing meals together with their families. He plans to honor Deb’s memory by maintaining the calm, warm and educational feel of the Newt’s kitchen, and continuing to offer the dishes and plates she was best known for. “There are some things we’ll keep on the menu forever,” he said.
The transition from patron and friend to the Newt and Dave Whiting, the winemaker and owner -- and Deb’s husband -- to chef and business partner felt organic to Holland. “We all have nicknames for each other,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, though he claimed he couldn’t recall them all right then.
Brud’s infectious enthusiasm for cooking, eating well and pairing the whole experience with wine can assure Red Newt fans that the bistro will remain one of the most welcoming dining rooms in the Finger Lakes.