A Day with Chef Andrew Little, Sheppard Mansion, Hanover, PA
I recently spent a day visiting farms and hanging out in the kitchen at Sheppard Mansion with Chef Andrew Little. He’s been after me for some time to come out and see what they do in the restaurant and how they work with local farms to supply foods. Andy is super-excited about what he’s doing and is eager to share it with others. I came along because I was curious, I enjoy visiting farms and I kept drooling over Andy’s photos, videos and status updates on Facebook and on his blog.
Andy suggested I show up at 11am, so I drove up past a bunch of small towns and over the Mason-Dixon line late in the morning. The mansion itself is not quite what I expected. Most of my knowledge about the place came from my knowledge of Andy. The food he’s producing is contemporary but familiar and would look at home in any number of sleek, urban environments. The mansion is definitely not sleek or urban, though (although it is situated at a busy intersection in an old small-town downtown area). It’s large, luxurious, Victorian, and packed with antiques. There are the sorts of crystal-spattered chandeliers and garland-draped mirrors that occupy my childhood fantasies of the rich life. The gardens are profuse with flowers, boxes of herbs and imposing architecture. The kitchen still has the original wooden china rail, on which a butter churn rests, along with old china cabinets, sideboards and a butler’s pantry that are very much in active use by the restaurant.
Andy ushered me into his truck, and we went off to the first visit he had planned: a tour of Kathy Glahn’s farm, Farm to Chef Gettysburg, where most of the produce for the restaurant is raised. When we arrived, Kathy dove right into taking me around and showing me her plants.
She didn’t really introduce herself, talk about her philosophy, or detail her relationship with Sheppard Mansion. That’s because she cares so much about these plants–she is so interested in what they produce and how they grow–that she doesn’t even think about telling media about those other things. She wanted to just get out there and walk around with me. And she couldn’t resist caressing the plants, moving the leaves aside to cradle the fruits and vegetables with her fingers.
Kathy raises an amazing variety of produce on her relatively small property, including a significant arbor dedicated to kiwi berries. There are picture-perfect heirloom tomatoes in vibrant colors. Kathy was particularly proud of some chocolate brown-green striped “chocolate cherry” tomatoes, which looked bizarre but delicious. She also showed me her tiny zephyr squash, the globelike lemon cucumbers and pumpkin eggplants.
Kathy wanted to show Andy some red celery she was growing, so she plucked a narrow rib off one of the small plants and offered it to him. Andy smelled it and passed it on to me. It had large, flat, dark green leaves that reminded me of Italian flat-leaf parsley; not the sort of fleshy green leaves and pale, thick stalks you see on supermarket celery. I tasted a leaf of Kathy’s celery and was overwhelmed with pepper and sharp anise flavors. These leaves would make a great herb salad next to a coarse pate.
As she walked around her farm, Kathy kept pointing out methods she uses to raise her crops. She does have a greenhouse, which was mostly occupied with a dizzying array of microgreens in shallow trays. She uses shade netting to shelter more delicate crops like lettuces, carrots and beets that otherwise would wither in the summer heat. She said she hasn’t been affected too badly by the current tomato blight, because she rotates her crops and doesn’t put in tomatoes where she recently grew other nightshades like eggplant and potato. A solar-powered electric fence kept away the deer who savaged the beets earlier in the summer.
Kathy sends Andy an email every week detailing what she has available. Andy tailors the menu to current availability and places an order. Kathy picks whatever was ordered early in the week. The produce is delivered to the back porch of Sheppard Mansion in time to prepare for the first dinners of the week. Kathy picks produce again later in the week for sale at the Friday morning Gettysburg farmer’s market–most of what she sells goes to either chefs or the farmer’s market. She also regularly donates produce to the needy.
After our trip to Kathy’s farm, Andy takes me to Rettland Farms, where Beau Ramsburg raises the pigs and chickens that are served in the restaurant. Beau is rightfully proud of the Berkshire and Tamworth pigs he’s raising. The animals were friendly and curious, running to the fence and poking their snouts out to investigate as we came to visit. Andy and Beau like the Berkshire breed because they are not bred to be as commercially uniform as more industrially-farmed breeds are. “They are not too lean, and they have more flavor from the intramuscular fat,” Beau explained.
Some of the Rettland pigs are raised in bedded pens, but Beau is also experimenting with pasture-raised pigs–an experiment that Andy was very excited to show me. Several pigs are currently living in a portable pen that is moved daily to give the animals fresh ground. I could see for myself how these pastured pigs are enriching the soil; their natural rooting behavior turns over the ground, and the turnip seeds Beau sows in their wake will probably result in some gorgeous root crop.
The chickens are commercial white broilers raised in pens similar to the ones the pigs were enjoying. There are also some laying hens that are free to wander about during the day (several of them scattered when Andy and I pulled up in his truck). Each laying hen provides about 240 eggs per year, which Andy turns into delicious ice creams, custards and other dishes in the Sheppard Mansion kitchen.
We left Beau and went to Sheppard Mansion Farms, the farm owned by the owners of Sheppard Mansion, to check out the Scottish Highlands cattle who produce the beef served at the restaurant. This farm was gorgeous–the buildings were very old, well-loved and well-cared-for, and I loved the historic working nature of the property. The cows are also striking; they have long bangs and gentle eyes. They were curious and soft-natured animals, clearly happy with their pastoral lives.
“I think it makes a difference to have these sorts of happy cows,” explained Andy. “People come to the restaurant all the time having driven by these cows, and they are excited to know that these cows produce the beef on our menu. Also, I think it affects the guys in the kitchen knowing that these animals had a respectable life. I think that knowledge affects the way they handle the meat.” Andy is fortunate to get all the parts of the cow after the animals are butchered; he enriches his stocks with the feet, he enjoys access to rarer cuts like the hanging tender, and he gets to introduce the fine-dining public to more flavorful and interesting parts than the standard tenderloin and strip steaks served in white-tablecloth restaurants.
By this time, it was midafternoon, and I knew Chef Andy had a busy Saturday night service ahead of him. He drove us back to Sheppard Mansion, situated me in the breakfast room and told me to stop in the kitchen any time, and then he got to work. It didn’t take him long before he started showing me all the cool things they had at the mansion to support the restaurant. We went outside to see what they raise right on the property: lush boxes packed with a gorgeous array of edible flowers and herbs. Andy built these boxes himself. There are also some historic flowering plants; Andy explained that he produces a popular rose sorbet with the roses grown on the property.
There is also a carriage house behind the main property, where the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator and some cooking equipment are stowed.
Andy enjoys preserving some of the great products he gets at the Mansion for future use. He makes pickles and preserves, and he cures his own pork products such as ham and bacon.
Andy introduced me around his kitchen, where his staff was busy prepping. And then he introduced me to Karen Van Guilder, the restaurant’s general manager. Karen took me around the property and explained some of its history. The Sheppard family has served as wealthy stewards of the Hanover area for generations; the property is still owned by Kathryn Sheppard Hoar. I love that the inn is still filled with original antiques and art.
I stood in the kitchen during the first part of dinner service, taking photos of some of the food as it went by and trying to be inobtrusive. I was interested to see that servers hand-wrote their tickets and carried them back to Andy, as I have only worked in restaurants that used a POS system with tickets. I was excited to watch these beautiful plates go by, especially since I’d seen for myself all the plants, animals, and procedures that went into getting them together.
After all the time I’d spent seeing how the food at Sheppard Mansion arrives on the plate, I was eager to sample some of the delicacies myself. Karen showed me to a table in the ladies parlor, where I was snowed with course after course of handcrafted food. I didn’t take photos in the dining room because I didn’t want to distract other diners, and after a few wine pairings my notes trailed off as well. I sat back and enjoyed the pleasures of flavorful, expertly prepared food in an opulent setting.
One of my favorite dishes was the “green bean casserole,” a dish that for me exemplifies what Andy is doing in the kitchen. First, there were green beans: Roma and yellow wax beans, perfectly cooked and molded into a cylinder. The beans were studded with tart pickled mushrooms. A few wispy rounds of fried shallot perched atop the cylinder. Then there were small home-cured, home-smoked lardons of bacon. The casserole didn’t involve any actual casserole dishes, but it was clever yet familiar, creative yet comforting in its flavor, texture and appearance.
I also loved the beef strip loin with pierogi and raita. The beef was one of the most flavorful cuts I’ve had the honor to enjoy, and I loved the herby-tart yogurt sauce alongside. The pierogies were fun as well as delicious, with a crisp outer crust and a shrimpy interior.
The biggest crowd-pleaser, however, was the dessert: funnel cake with sweet corn ice cream and blueberries. The quenelle of ice cream was gently corn-flavored, sweet and ultrarich. It melted into the hot funnel cake. The cake made me smile–who doesn’t love funnel cakes? Some lightly cooked blueberries provided much-needed tartness and a cloak of dark color to the dessert. I loved how this dessert showed excellent technique, whimsy, reflection of local traditions, summery flavor, and respect to the season all at once.