Zak Pelaccio of the Hudson Valley's Fish & Game on the Joys of Playing with Fire
"Doesn’t everybody like to build a fire? It’s fucking cool, right?!"
If you’re not already familiar with the fugue of music, fires, and long-winded toasts to the gods that is Play With Fire, a few summers ago, Zak Pelaccio of Fish & Game, a small restaurant nestled in beautiful Hudson, NY, thought it might be a good idea to have a few friends over for a dinner party. Which isn’t that out of the ordinary—as long as your idea of a ‘dinner party’ includes a handful of top chefs from around the country cooking over open fires and shooting flaming arrows to light a giant bonfire. (Who uses matches anymore?)
Not-so-shockingly, the event was a huge success. Attendees left full, happy, and—for those not from the area—slightly jealous of life in the bucolic Hudson Valley. Unfortunately (well, not for them), the masterminds behind the event were too busy cooking incredible food and enjoying their idyllic valley to put on another Play With Fire. That is, until now.
I caught up with Zak to talk about the event, open fire cooking, and the depressing dearth of deliverable Chinese food in the Hudson Valley.
So you had an illustrious career in the city. What prompted the move upstate?
Lifestyle, more than anything, really. My wife and I were both burnt out on city life, and I think that I was also burnt on the business that I was in—the restaurant business that my wife had wisely moved on from. I found myself stuck in that hamster wheel of working, staying out late, having to get up early, working. We just sort of needed a change of pace to lower my blood pressure. I’ve always been an outdoors person. I grew up skiing and mountain biking in the country, and I’ve always had an affinity for the city, living there off and on since 1995, but the time had come to move on. I decided to come up here and do my own thing, continue to figure out what I wanted for my life—to edit my life. As I get older I find that that’s sort of the goal: To edit out the things you don’t want in life, and keep, tweak, and refine the things you do.
I started weekending in the Hudson Valley in the beginning of 2005, and [my wife] Jori and I would just look for ways to extend our weekend—we’d leave at four in the morning to make an early meeting in the city rather than leaving the night before, stuff like that. It’s just the magnetism of the place. The hooks were in us.
So what makes it so awesome? The community, the area, the culture?
The primary draw for me is the beauty of the area. The rolling hills, the greenery, the access to the outdoors. A piece of it that really influenced what we set out to do with Fish and Game is that while weekending, we started to meet these farmers and have a tradition of buying from different farms and then cook for ourselves all weekend long. We began to really recognize the rich agricultural community up here and were very turned on by that. But the place was really an escape, you know? From the city—like, ‘Let’s get the fuck outta here!’ Sometimes I just can’t stay in the city anymore. And then when we came up here, everything just clicked. And up here, it’s full of people who left the city for a more rural life; to take the pay cut and want to slow down. It’s not like I’m bouncing off the walls in my house going ‘Jesus Christ I wish I could go out,’ it’s more like ‘Jesus Christ I wish I could get fucking Chinese food delivered to my house!’
I feel you, man. Are there a lot of city-defecters out there?
Oh yeah. It’s filled with ex-pats. For sure. Most of the people who work for me have lived in the city at some point.
Nice. So did moving out there affect the way you run your business?
Yeah. I mean, the original idea [for Fish and Game] was like, ‘Let’s really try and just use everything within a season, we’ll preserve things for the winter, and we’re never gonna buy a single thing from outside the region—ever.’ Including not buying citrus. We still don’t use citrus in the kitchen. My wife makes all the vinegars, which is dope. And we knew that if we were gonna really do this, we’re gonna go nose to tail and root to leaf, so we have to run a set menu. It’s hard to write a menu sometimes, because some people coming into the restaurant will be getting lamb loin and some might be getting, like, lamb shoulder.
So it’s hard sometimes, running the restaurant in a very dogmatic way. But it was an awesome creative challenge for us. But I realized that people all don’t want to sit down for a seven course meal. Sometimes they just want to grab a bowl of pasta. So while still focusing very rigorously on those local products, Fish and Game continued to evolve and shift with the interests of our customers.
Wicked. Alright, I guess we should probably talk about Play With Fire a little bit. You excited?
I’m really excited—I’ve been pushing this! It’s my baby, you know? The first one was born from a couple of my friends who formed the Northern Chefs Alliance who said ‘Hey Zak, we want to do an event up in Hudson with you.’ And so we involved the locals and local charities, and it was a lot of fun. That was three summers ago. I loved it, and people who showed up just loved it. It became stuff of legend. Every year, people kept coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing that event again, right?’ So finally I talked to my partners, Kevin and Patrick, and they were like ‘Yeah man—we’re in.’ And now we have all these crazy, awesome cooking sculptures that our friend Kris Perry is doing that makes it even more ornate and interesting.
What’s your favorite thing about open fire cooking?
I like the relationship that the cook has to have with his fuel, as well as with the product. You’re managing your heat source as well as managing your product. The beautiful thing is—if managed correctly—you get the wonderful, smoky flavor in your food. But you can cook both aggressively and slowly. You can cover your vegetables in embers and cook them slowly—it offers a lot of versatility. There’s also this primitive relationship that we have with fire. Doesn’t everybody like to build a fire? It’s fucking cool, right?! And especially if you’re cooking in a city, it’s something that you don’t really get to do all the time. To me, I want to bring people up here and have them get into cooking over an open fire. So when you have these sculptures, you’ve got, say, a four-foot diameter circle with all of these chains hanging at different lengths and you’re going to hook joints of meat onto them to cook. The actual structures themselves are really cool.
Are there any key differences from the original event you’d like people to know about?
All these pieces that Kris is designing is gonna make it super cool. And there are different cooks, which to me is important. While I love everybody who came last time, it’s good to change things up. It keeps it interesting for us, and it exposes more of my friends, new and old, to life up here. I think that’s nice.
On Saturday August 11th, Play With Fire will make its much-requested return to Fish & Game Farm. Participating chefs: Ignacio Mattos (Estela, Cafe Altro Paradiso, Flora Bar), Evan Funke (Felix Trattoria), Seamus Mullen (Award winning chef, author and wellness authority), Claire de Boer and Jess Shadbolt (King Restaurant), Victoria Blamey (ex-Chumley’s), Negro Piattoni (Metta), Nick Curtola (Four Horsemen), and Zakary Pelaccio (Fish & Game and Backbar), and more. The bar program will be run by Elad Zvi and his crew from Broken Shaker as well as Yana Volfson of Enrique Olvera’s Cosme and Atla. Natural wines will be organized by Fish & Game and will be provided by Critical Mass Selections, Goatboy Selections, and Fifi Selections. Proceeds will be donated to Heirloom Foundation. Get tickets here.