By Rochelle Bilow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
“Come here, you,” Debbie Meritsky cooed, coaxing a brown cow closer to her. It batted its eyes and licked her hand. “Oh!” she said, and added with a sweet-as-pie grin, I’ll take that tongue and eat it!”
The cow might have thought she was kidding.
Debbie and I had paid a visit to Ever Green Farm in Rock Stream, NY, as part of the day of cooking I’d scheduled with her. I’d asked her the week prior if she was game for an interview and she agreed -- under the condition that I also meet Joe and Joely Zerbey, the farmers in charge of her CSA. The Zerbeys were giving us a tour of their land, and between the bright rainbow chard and spaghetti squash, white turkeys and those big-eyed cows, I was beginning to understand why she wanted me to see this.
We packed her share of the week’s produce in reusable grocery bags, but not before getting a lesson in melon astronomy. A deep blue-green one with perfect tiny yellow circles looked just like the night sky. “A moon and stars melon. It’s an heirloom,” Debbie explained to me, and the Zerbeys added that the flesh was just as sweet, if a bit lighter in color, than other varieties.
On the drive back to the Black Sheep Inn (pictured above right, photo by Stu Gallagher) in Hammondsport, NY, where Debbie is the chef and she and her husband, Marc Rotman, share duties as co-owners, we let conversation wander. I had come armed with a list of questions about her background, culinary outlook, favorite ingredients, but we found ourselves chatting like old friends about everything from raising children to holistic medicine. That’s a huge part of her appeal. She’s so honest, unguarded, so at ease with who she is and what she stands for, that it’s near-impossible not to get excited about her interpretation of food when she’s cooking.
Arrive a skeptic and you will very likely leave a convert.
Meritsky and Rotman are already an integral part of Hammondsport’s fabric even though they’re recent transplants. They made the move from Cleveland, where she worked as a chef and caterer. “I always kind of knew that I wouldn’t stay there forever,” she said. “I wanted to see new places, do different things.” It was the house at 8329 Pleasant Valley Road that they fell in love with first. The Black Sheep Inn is an octagonal structure -– a style of architecture increasingly difficult to find -– and Meritsky and Rotman found themselves not just repairing the house, but creating a business model based on organic, local, responsible and sustainable living.
They pride themselves on having a good discourse with their clients: those who stay at the Black Sheep aren’t just looking for a place to crash after a whirlwind wine tour. They’re people who care about supporting small farmers, get excited about the fact that Meritsky and Rotman make all of their own cleaning supplies, and of course, understand the merits of a hearty, locally-sourced meal to start the day.
Debbie cooks breakfast every morning for her guests, along with snacks, picnics and other treats, in the kitchen she and Rotman designed and built. It’s a beautiful space. The room is anchored by a thick wooden butcher’s block and flanked by a wall of spices, herbs and oils and two large ovens. A striking hood looms from the ceiling. The efficiency of the room gives the feel of a professional kitchen but it’s warmed by homey touches, like well-seasoned cast-iron pans and a wooden stirring spoon with a big hole in the middle that she just can’t bring herself to throw out. “Well, it still works,” she said unapologetically.
We had planned to prepare three of her most popular breakfasts: a vegetable and cheddar sandwich soaked in egg and cream and baked in the oven; a hollowed and stuffed zucchini; and a hold-all crock that comes out of the oven bubbling and hot, layered with potatoes, goat Brie-style cheese and Portobello mushrooms. As Debbie sliced golden squash and mustard greens for the sandwich, she handed me a bowl with the egg and thick cream. “Here, you can stir this.”
“With this?” The bowl had a patterned chopstick in it.
She shrugged and laughed. “I call myself the lazy cook. I use whatever’s closest.”
It’s a peculiar assertion for someone who takes no shortcuts and wastes nothing. Every vegetable scrap, from garlic paper to carrot tops, goes into the stockpot consistently simmering away on the stovetop. She later strains it through a fine mesh sieve in traditional French style, removing any impurities and leaving intensely flavored broth to be used later for cooking.
Like many great restaurant chefs, she pays close attention to the flavors inherent in the food she cooks and tries to enhance, not manipulate them. But there’s one big difference between her and the current trend in restaurants: “I hate, hate, hate stacked food,” she said. “What do you do with it? How do you eat it?”
I asked what she considered to be the most important element in presenting her meals to her guests. She didn’t skip a beat. “Does it taste good? Do [the flavors] work together? Does it flow?"
At Black Sheep, from the fascinating architecture to the food to the philosophy underpinning it all, it flows. Nodding to the food, Debbie added, "When you see it, you should be able to tell exactly what it is.”