Respect for Food is a Respect for Life

by Jordan Quidachay

Stonington, Maine, a small fishing town found in Hancock County located on the southern part of Deer Island. Home to roughly 2,500 individuals and 300 fishing boats, it is an incredibly tight-knit community, where the natives make a humble living through means of the ocean and all that it has to offer. These true craftsmen of fishery make way to the possibility of us being able to enjoy the fruits de mer, as they rhythmically dance with Mother Nature on their boats and skiffs to supply Ingrid Bengis-Palei with her seafood.  It is a place, as Ingrid put, “As far as you can go while still being in America.”

Who is Ingrid Bengis-Palei? Simply put, she’s quite possibly one of the most sincere, heart-warming individuals I’ve ever met. She founded Ingrid Bengis Seafood in 1985 in such a fashion that only fate could bring her and her ‘vocation’ together.

In the confines of the Kitchen Denver’s wine room, we, the staff of The Kitchen, sat silently and listened to Ingrid tell her story. It began with chanterelles. She offered to sell some to Balducci’s Market in New York City and she did just that, while emphasizing the importance of perfection of each mushroom to Balducci’s buyer. That insistent perfection was noted, along with the fact that she lived amongst the waters of Maine, and Balducci’s then asked Ingrid to supply lobsters and crabmeat. And from there, Ingrid never looked back. She’s now one of the most sought after purveyors in the industry and supplies the best seafood on the market for only 25 restaurants. To name a few: Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, NYC’s Le Bernardin, restaurants of Jean-George Vongerichten, Frasca of Boulder, CO, and The Kitchen restaurants. Even before these Chefs reached the pinnacle of their careers, they insistently sought Ingrid’s seafood.

Why Ingrid’s seafood? In a previous post of mine, I quoted Michel Bourdin, in saying that “Good cooking is the accumulation of small details done to perfection.” Good cooking doesn’t necessarily begin in the kitchen, good cooking stems from the very depths of nature and all its complexity. Because if it weren’t for the ingredients in which we acquire from nature and use to provide our sustenance, cooking would not exist. Small details include perfect ingredients. Ingrid believes this to her very core, going that extra mile to ensure that each ingredient she supplies is nothing short of perfect. Two weeks ago, there was an over-abundance of rain in Stonington affecting the oysters that The Kitchen receives for its raw-bar. Since Bagaduce oysters grow in brackish water, the influx of rainwater offset the salinity of each Bagaduce oyster and Ingrid won’t settle for sending her clients lackluster products. Ingrid cares about these very subtle details, which are often times overlooked or neglected.

But that’s not even the best part of what Ingrid Bengis Seafood does. Ingrid, her husband, and Susan Buxton are the three individuals who comprise Ingrid Bengis Seafood and they only work with people they know and trust. Ingrid and Susan know the fishermen and their families personally, all by name, whose kids are doing well in school and whose is not, who’s dating who, and so forth. In the restaurant industry, there is such a large void between consumer (dining patron) and source of food (fishermen of Deer Isle) and Ingrid Bengis Seafood makes that connection of paramount importance. All of Ingrid’s scallops are labeled with the diver who caught them and when lobsters, crabmeat, oysters and clams are delivered, a point is made to let you know who caught them as well. Too often we walk into a restaurant and ‘savor’ a great meal and thank the Chefs and the servers, but the craftsmen who live and risk their lives to provide the ingredients are almost always never thanked.

To truly submerse yourself in complete gratification and appreciation is to acknowledge every hand that gave way to the meal you enjoyed. Ingrid ended her day with us by mentioning something a server at The Kitchen Boulder said; it was along the lines of, “We are the last line between the guest and the meal, and we have the biggest influence on whether the meal is a great one or not.” Such privileged positions, we culinarians, play in the lives that revolve around food to be eaten. It is true. We are the last line, delicately and poetically imposing our culinary prose making nature’s ingredients dance harmoniously with every individual’s taste buds.

“Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do.” –Thomas Keller

In Veritate Et Caritate