Perhaps the Sawmill River calms the owner/chef, Max Brody, and his colleagues. The restaurant is perched above the water in an old gristmill in Montague, Massachusetts.
Perhaps Max is just a peaceful sort of person. The colors he has chosen for the restaurant—soft browns, natural wood tones, and shades of rose—gently gladden the heart. His food does as well.
Max grew up loving and preparing food. “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 10 years old,” he told me recently while sitting at a riverside table in his dining room. “Friends of my parents owned a little bistro. I did my duty as a dishwasher for many years.”
He worked his way up through the ranks in American restaurants and continued his culinary and life education with three years cooking and traveling overseas. One of his favorite gigs during this period of his life found him in a restaurant in a former monastery in Tuscany owned by a guy named Lorenzo de’ Medici.
I told him I thought Lorenzo the Magnificent lived in the 15th century, and he informed me that there is now ANOTHER Lorenzo who frequents culinary rather than political circles.
Max learned from chefs in India and Nepal as well as those in Europe and the U.S.
He returned to the United States to cement his cooking expertise with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. He and his wife, an elementary school teacher, settled here in the Pioneer Valley when she pursued graduate work at Smith College. Max ended up running the executive dining room at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company in Springfield.
The pair lived in Montague. When the space in which the Night Kitchen now resides became available five and a half years ago Max saw a new future opening up almost literally in front of him.
“I think I just kind of got tired of working for other people,” he told me. “While there’s much more responsibility [owning a restaurant] it’s also more fulfilling and gratifying. I find it more worthwhile.”
I asked Max how he would characterize his cuisine. He didn’t actually definite it, describing it as eclectic.
“I didn’t want to limit what we could cook to a certain cuisine,” he explained. “I try to take different things from different areas, to use different flavor combinations while keeping everything simple.” He noted that he also likes to make his dishes appropriate to the season.
The Night Kitchen is open only four evenings a week (Thursday through Sunday). Max noted that he has a one-year-old child at home whom he wants to see. “It’s a matter of trying to keep [the business] sustainable,” he said. “The restaurant industry is known for burning people out.”
He noted that his business has remained steady despite the economy. “We haven’t raised our prices in two years, and I think people appreciate that. Nobody leaves hungry, and people appreciate the value.”
Max speculated that something about the restaurant, perhaps the river flowing beside it, is conducive to romance. The Night Kitchen has had seven weddings scheduled in October and has seen its fair share of proposals as well. “We have people coming back time after time. It’s memorable,” he said.
The pudding Max Brody made for me at the Night Kitchen was certainly memorable—an Italian panna cotta (cream custard) that combined local sweet potatoes and fruit with South Asian spices. The recipe, which involves tea bags, sounds odd, but the final product comes together beautifully. It’s creamy, aromatic, and easy to cook and eat.
I’ll be back soon with another recipe, and I promise it won’t be for pudding! Meanwhile, here is Max’s delectable dessert.
The Old Mill
The Panna Cotta
Max Brody uses sheet gelatin for this recipe. He knew that most home cooks wouldn’t have it in the house so we substituted packaged gelatin in this recipe. If you happen to have access to sheets, you don’t need to worry about blooming them; just add two sheets to the custard when asked to add the gelatin and water in the recipe.
1/2 package gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
2-1/2 cups heavy cream (Max uses Mapleline)
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup mashed, pureed sweet potatoes
2 chai-flavored tea bags (such as Celestial Seasonings)
3/4 cup crème fraîche
Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and set it aside to “bloom” (dissolve) for 5 to 10 minutes.
In a saucepan combine the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Add the sweet potatoes and then the tea bags.
Bring the liquid just to the boil (watch it, or it will boil over!). Remove the pan from the heat. Take out the tea bags, and whisk in the crème fraîche.
Stir the gelatin into the water so that it dissolves completely. Slowly whisk the gelatin water into the panna cotta until it is completely incorporated.
Grease 6 6-ounce silicone molds with nonstick spray. Divide the gelatin mixture among them.
Chill for at least two hours, or until set; then unmold and serve. Max likes to garnish these little custards with fruits, nuts—whatever takes his fancy. The day I visited he pressed peach slices in sugar and browned them in butter in a grill pan for extra flavor and texture. Now that peaches are out of season, I think I’d use apples.
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