Neither Slaughterhouse Nor Blight Can Get Will Gilson Down

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Gilson contemplates the pigs. Photo: Will Gilson

After months of preparation, Will Gilson's dinner at the James Beard House in New York is tonight. We caught up with the Garden at The Cellar chef last night for all the details on Porcini and Truffle's last day, his favorite dish of the night, and the local chefs who helped him out.

At this point, are you excited or nervous for tomorrow night's dinner?
Both. I'm less nervous now that I'm here. Three months of planning, trying to coordinate slaughterhouse dates, fishing trips, everything.

Speaking of the slaughterhouse, how did the killing of the pigs go? Did you wind up feeling attached?
My attachment to them was more toward the cause than the actual animal itself. They had the best life. These animals were fed the best dinners, they were raised really well, and they were cared for really well. For me to go to the slaughterhouse facility, see how they do it humanely. I know I gave them a good life and how they were dealt with after their life was going to be professional and appropriate. The stage on which their life was going to be the centerpiece made it seem as though there was no real attachment.

So you didn't have a Charlotte's Web moment?
No no no, that wasn't the case. My dad, who helped take care of them, didn't really have the same feelings I did, but I think that when he sits down to dinner tomorrow and he sees myself and the two friends that are going to be helping me, he'll see that we honored the life of those pigs.

What has been the most challenging part of the preparation process for the dinner?
Getting months of planning ready to all happen in a few short days. That's been the toughest part. We really struggled to make sure that the animals were raised, that they were becoming the right size, that we have enough to feed as many people as we're going to be having, which is way more than I thought we would, catching the fish, with the understanding that we also have to break them down and prepare them the way that we want to and get them here. And then the fact that all the vegetables that we planned to grow on our own farm to be ready were pushed back by about three weeks [because of the blight] so we had to source them from a lot of different farms. It's just trying to get everything that people take for granted, how many hands go into a product that you could very easily just order off a list. To get all those products and say "I'm going to get it myself, I'm going to know exactly who grew it, whose hands touched it, how it was raised", and get it all in one place, that's a lot of organizing. And then there's balancing all that with regular service at your restaurant. We've been spending the past two weeks trying to deal with the preparation process and yesterday we ended up calling in five friends just to help prep it and make sure we had enough of everything.

Given the blight, were you able to stay true to your vision of a wholly Massachusetts meal?
Yeah! The only thing that came from outside our perimeter we wanted to stick with, which was basically Massachusetts, was our lobsters, which we're flying in from Maine. Everything else was very close. Frank McClelland from L'Espalier donated mustard greens and turnips. Lourdes from Fiore Di Nonno, which makes the burrata, showed up this morning with the burrata. Cape Ann Fresh Catch, the fishing company, helped us go out so we could do this. We waited until the last minute on Friday, because fishermen don't fish on the weekends, unless it's for themselves. You know, if the lobster's from 100 miles north in Maine, and that's where the best lobsters in the world come from, that's fine. It's less about locality, because what's locality in this situation? We're in New York and nothing's local to New York. Our mentality is more about where are we getting our products from? How well do we know them? How good are our products?

What dish are you most excited about?
The pig dish and the bass dish. The pig dish obviously because these animals were the basis of the whole thing. I said "I'm going to raise these animals, I'm going to find the best farmers and the best piglets and I'm going to control their diet and they're going to have a great life. We're going to take incredible consideration with every cut of the knife and really respect them." Two of my best friends are here with me: Jamie [Bissonnette] from Toro and Louis [DiBiccari] from Sel De La Terre and each of them made a component of that dish. Louis made the sausage and Jamie's making pork belly croutons. All of the parts of that dish are going to be because friends helped us. That means more to me than any other part of it. The fish is just great because we were a mess between 48 hours awake to go catch the fish and we finally got enough, and we broke it down. So just to know that that much persistence and energy and care went into it is going to make the two centerpieces of the meal mean the most to me. I wish more people would take a look at where their food comes from. For me, all food has a story and it's great to really get a chance to be part of that.

Do you think this process has changed the way you're cooking at Garden at the Cellar?
I hope to raise pigs yearly. I want to raise them all year long and sell them to a bunch of my friends. I wish I could fish every fish I served in the restaurant, I wish I could raise every animal I served there, but I wouldn't ever be able to cook if that were the case.

New England Garden Dinner [James Beard Foundation]

Earlier: Garden at the Cellar Pigs Out
Garden at the Cellar's Pigs Prepare for Beard House Dinner