What an NYC Chef Learns from Riding His Motorcycle Thousands of Miles in the Badlands

The annual get-together of road-tested veterans and weekend warriors has become the core of Jason Pfeifer’s psyche and culinary sensibility.

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Oct 11 2018, 9:38pm

There’s a presupposition that tattoos are requisite for bikers and chefs. Chef Jason Pfeifer’s first ink was an ode to John Coltrane’s best-selling jazz album “Love Supreme,” a modern masterpiece. Many of the rest are, naturally, food: a beet/heart amalgam, an acorn, a dashed line diagram of a butcher’s cut of meat, and a mushroom on his leg. The most manifest may be a graphic ode to Harley-Davidson’s logo, the century old American motorcycle manufacturer, which Pfeifer had done in a Harley shop during the 75th anniversary of Sturgis three years ago.

Pfeifer’s first pilgrimage to Sturgis, South Dakota, a city known for the largest motorcycle rally in the country, was in 2013. Every summer, over 500,000 bikers make their way through the Black Hills’ rugged trails and past Custer State Park alongside the buffalo, to find a prodigious pro tem city of motorcycle enthusiasts. The annual get-together of road-tested veterans and weekend warriors has become the core of Pfeifer’s psyche and culinary sensibility.

Now the chef at Manhatta, located on the 60th floor of a Lower Manhattan skyscraper, Pfeifer’s a kitchen vet of white-tablecloth establishments such as Per Se, Gramercy Tavern, and Maialino, all of which have made farmer’s market produce their primary focus. This is a long-held philosophy; he took to the Appalachian Trail when he was 17 for a five-month trek from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Soon thereafter he began foraging for local flora and wild mushrooms throughout the country; ramps, morels, the beauties of an ephemeral edible landscape. But it wasn’t until he took a stage at Copenhagen’s famed Noma that Pfeifer saw the same adventurous connection to nature he grew up with, reflected in a restaurant’s creed: be inspired by your surroundings, but go beyond the borders of what’s been done before. This, of all things, not only firmly established his life as a chef, but also convinced him to buy a bike upon his return to the States, despite not having a license or even a learner permit.

Pfeifer believes, “biking is like hiking; you see more in the same timeframe” and now heads to Sturgis every year with his girlfriend. Over the span of two weeks, the couple ride upwards of 6,000–8,000 miles, seeing friends and family along the way, including his mom and siblings who live in Minnesota. “We plan our way out, but not our way back in,” says Pfeifer. It’s not until the outskirts of Rapid City when you can really feel the hum of engines assembling, Pfeifer says. Many bikers start pitching tents on lawns anywhere near Sturgis when it’s too busy to make it into the city proper, and on the 75th anniversary, over a million riders went through the two-week rally. He considers this family. “It feels communal, caring, like everyone’s watching out for each other”. On his first year out, Pfeifer had to trade his in his Wide Glide when it broke down, and ended up with a Street Glide Special, which was a fortuitous upgrade for him and his girl to ride longer distances together.

There are couple other big stops en route, but none satisfy more than Wall Drug Store, about an hour southeast of Sturgis. Opened since 1931, signs litter the highway for hundreds of miles before with promises of 5-cent coffee and a hot meal. A town famous for being a postal stop in the days of the Wild West, now sells “western gear” and Native American art, but for Pfeifer it’s a bastion of stick-to-your-ribs roast beef on white bread, with a side of gravied mashed potatoes.

While no one goes to Sturgis for the food, there are a caravan of food trucks that find their way to the grounds. Pfeifer says that last year there was even a great Filipino place that popped-up. But the majority of what’s there tends toward homemade sausages stands, bison jerky and burgers, smokers and barbecue pits—not to mention omnipresent things on sticks, like at state fairs.

Even though this expedition is freedom to the demands of New York City’s daily grind, food is always on Pfeifer’s mind. He dreams of cooking for all the bikers, a mashup of the comforts of Americana diners with the resourcefulness he’s gained by hitting high-end restaurants’ bottom lines. Everything grows really well near the Badlands: baby pines, mustard garlic, nettles and hedgehog mushrooms, even chanterelles, while wild game thrives. He hopes to grow a culture, and appreciation for these overlooked ingredients, and wonders how far off these salt-of-the-earth bikers are from a formal sit-down about foraging.

For now, though, Pfeifer is relegated to his perch on the 60 th floor, with hopes of one day using bison in the same way he does beef—from steaks to Bolognese. Maybe he’ll even swap it for the Miyaki wagyu he serves on the tasting menu. This sentiment echoes through his menu at Manhatta, in dishes like the frankness of his French Onion Burger; two familiar concepts combine to make an elevated, yet accessible dish. The same semblance is seen amongst Cavatelli and Clams, or Veal “Blanquette” with Mushrooms & Sweetbreads. They’re elemental, yet bonded, bringing together an ever-changing cuisine, by way of a collective soul. As for Sturgis, he sees himself retiring near there someday, maybe opening a restaurant, but in the meantime, he’ll just keep riding.