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Chris Kuhns is one of Central New York’s most experienced chefs. He’s the head chef for Hospitality Concepts Group where he oversees the kitchens of several restaurants and recently he made his way to the Ithaca area teaching at Coltivare where we met up to chat about local food, fridge contents, and more. Meeting Chris at Coltivare was a treat! I got an extensive tour of the impressive kitchens and teaching areas, as well as a thorough explanation of their composting system! The commitment to local sustainable products in Colitvare’s kitchen and TC3’s new program are impressive! Chatting with Chris about his background in cooking and philosophy around food make it seem like the perfect fit for him.

Chris is from New Jersey and spent summers in the Skaneateles area as a child. He went to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute and worked in the New York City restaurant scene for a number of years before moving to Skaneateles. (His wife fell in love with the area during a “nice season”). Together they lived in Italy for 3 years where Chris worked for the renowned Slow Food Restaurant Il Cibreo. The Italian “peasant style” of cooking has a big influence on Chris in the kitchen and when he plans menus for restaurants. When he thinks about cooking and menu-planning, he’s looking at what different cuts of meat and pieces can provide the same experience and taste as something that might seem like more of a luxury. His long-term goals as a chef are too continue to work with biodiversity as a priority. It’s at the forefront of his decisions around purchasing, planning, and now education with his role at TC3. Chris’s passion for local and sustainable food and commitment to strengthening the local food system really come through in conversation. He is a wealth of knowledge and cooking tips, and gave us some excellent tips.

What’s your favorite local vegetable & why?

Local to my area, is where I’m from, my town, right in my neighborhood. Swiss chard, hands down. Without a doubt my favorite for a number of reasons. It’s so versatile. Braise it with a little pork or smoked bacon, a little bit of tomato product, salt, fresh pepper, and olive oil – put it on a piece of toast. Try puréeing it and adding it to soup, I like making tartlets with it. Cooking it, drying it, and adding it to eggs in a tartlet shell and baking it. Chard is a great sautéing green (I don’t like to use the word wilted because that kind of connotates that it’s dead). A nice big mound of sautéed swiss chard under a piece of fish, seasoned with salt and pepper, and little bit of acid say red wine vinegar just brightens the flavor. The green holds up, it’s full of tons of iron, the stalks are bright and colorful they pickle well. You can treat the stalk like celery and add it to all your soups. I’m sad to see people throw the stalks away because they’re full of flavor.

What 3 ingredients do you always have in your home kitchen?

Salt, oil – for sure extra virgin olive oil. You would always find, butter.

You’re probably never home, but when you are, what’s your go-to quick dinner?

I’ll take 2 slices of bread out of a bag, I would smear peanut butter on one, Nutella on one, and fluff in the middle, close it up and have a glass of milk. I think chefs in general, have had their palettes overrun and are just looking for simplicity at home. Or a big double-size bowl of frosted flakes, with whole milk.

What would people be surprised to find in your refrigerator?

I don’t think most people have the assortment of spices that I carry. I have a lot of exotic spices that I love to cook with when I cook for people at home, friends and family. I’m very spice oriented – curries, blends, strong layerings of spices, long cooked stews. I have a lot of pickled things, that people would be like what are you doing with all of these pickled products?? This is part of what I believe in, preserving fresh food for another season. My curried green tomato relish from the fall, I still have 30 jars, it’s my condiment of choice. I’m trying to make it everybody’s have to have condiment in their fridge. It’s great on salmon, sausage, a dog, cheese, I have a running list. Every year I add a new ingredient – this year was golden raisins. I do a lot of pickling, so I have all sorts of pickling stuff all over the place.

What’s your best tip for home cooks?

Learn to make a French rolled omelet. It’s the fastest thing you can cook when you’re starving. If you have farm fresh eggs, all you need is 2 eggs, a splash of water, a pinch of salt, and technique.

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