“He came over one morning and looked at that shovel leaning up against the house, and he didn’t say anything, but I just saw it in his eyes – he just couldn’t believe I’d left his shovel with dirt on it out all night! And right away I understood…”
For George Weld, opening Egg was a kind of serendipitous homecoming. The overwhelmingly popular Williamsburg eatery gave him the chance to tie together his passion for cooking, his Southern heritage, and his childhood dream of having his own farm.
During a detour into the world of academics and some time spent bobbing on the uncertain seas of the dot-com and magazine worlds, the desire to get back in the kitchen kept nagging at him. When friends unexpectedly offered him the opportunity to open a breakfast restaurant, he jumped. When Egg’s popularity took off, he bought a farm. When the farm’s bounty took off, he decided to expand, opening another location to provide an additional venue for the farm’s harvest (a project still underway).
We met up with George at Egg to learn more about his wild ride from the isolation of the library to the non-stop action of the kitchen and the fields.
So George, why don’t you start by telling us about where you’re from, and what got you interested in food in general and Southern food specifically.
Well I grew up moving around quite a bit, but mostly in pretty rural parts of Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
My family was sort of split. My father was a Yankee and my mother was from a good ol’ Southern family. We kept moving farther and farther south, against my father’s hopes for all of us. Because he was such a die-hard Yankee, he made us kind of hyper-aware of the South – of the customs and cuisine – because he’d complain about it all the time! His favorite thing to do was to complain about the food — which was a funny thing for someone who grew up in Boston, which isn’t exactly famous for its food.
But he sort of drew our attention to all this stuff – the whole category of food my mother would feed us developed this identity of being ‘Southern’ and something my father didn’t like at all. It made it all very distinct in my imagination as a result.
My mother wasn’t much of a cook anyway, and there was so much tension over it that we ended up mostly eating pizza and fish sticks.
When I was in high school outside of Charleston, South Carolina, I – in a weird bout of competitiveness with my girlfriend – became a vegetarian, and then a vegan. At that point, my mother told me that she wasn’t going to cook for me anymore. She said, “If you want to eat that way, that’s fine, but you’re going to need to cook for yourself. I know how to make chicken and steak, but that’s about it.”
So I started cooking for myself. I’d worked in a restaurant as a dishwasher but I’d never really cooked. I admired the guy who ran the place. Sort of similar to the way Egg started – one guy in the kitchen, cooking everything, ringing everyone up, really focused on breakfast and lunch. But I’d never cooked anything, and I really started getting interested in it when I had to start cooking for myself.
Soon enough, I realized that a lot of that Southern food I thought I didn’t like was actually pretty good! So cooking got really interesting to me, but I never thought about doing it for a living.
Were you exposed to farming and gardening growing up in the South, or was Goatfell Farm your first experience with it?
We always had gardens growing up. We lived in Virginia for six or seven years when I was in grammar school. My mother kept a pretty big garden at our house. And my family had a farm about an hour and a half away in a town called Louisa where my grandparents had always kept a big garden. By that time my grandfather had died and my grandmother had moved away. The garden was gone. But our neighbors kept cattle on the land and they still grew hay and corn there. So we used to spend every other weekend up there, running around in the cornfields and seeing all that happen. I was around it all the time.
So from a pretty young age, I had it in my head that I wanted to end up there. Back at that farm. Moving back into it and making it work again. Making it work for our family…
I ended up living there for two years when I was in grad school at the University of Virginia. I got to know some of the neighbors. One of the guys there was a really old school farmer who had just sort of ignored the entire industrial revolution in agriculture. He had been the county’s largest cattle farmer when he was younger, but when I knew him he was old and retired. He kept one milk cow in our barn and he came to milk her every morning and night.
He had a big garden in his backyard, and he borrowed the neighbor’s backyard too and just had this really big sprawling garden. We went over to his place for dinner one night and he and his wife had made everything we ate from scratch, from the cottage cheese to…everything. It wasn’t like he was a hippie. He couldn’t have been less of a hippie. He was a conservative old man. And he’d just say, “I don’t want to mess with that stuff…whatever they’re bringing in here. This works for me. I know that if I put castor beans next to my radishes the voles won’t get to ‘em.” He just knew ways of doing things that didn’t require the expensive stuff they were selling at the farm supply store.
So was that dinner a sort of moment for you in terms of how you thought about food and farming?
It’s wasn’t just that dinner. Another thing was that he gave me seeds and kind of watched me dig up this plot next to my house to start a garden. He let me borrow his tools. I grew up with a careless attitude towards tools. I’d use his shovel and lean it up against the house at the end of the day and go to sleep. He came over one morning and looked at that shovel leaning up against the house, and he didn’t say anything, but I just saw it in his eyes – he just couldn’t believe I’d left his shovel with dirt on it out all night! It hadn’t even occurred to me to do anything else with it.
And right away I understood – dirt holds moisture, moisture hits the blade, brings rust, dulls it…and I was just like, “Oh my god – he’s probably had this tool for thirty years because he took care of it!”
He’d also drop off bags of tomatoes at my door every night. He’d come over to milk the cow and would drop off a bag of tomatoes. And it was all I’d eat all summer long. Sliced tomatoes. They were the best tomatoes I’ve ever had in my life.
I grew my own tomatoes from the same seed, and they tasted totally differently. They tasted flat and one-dimensional. That made me realize how much of the work of farming is cultivating the ground. He’d been working that ground for years, enriching it with crop rotations and soil amendments. He’d shovel the manure from his cow out of the barn and pile it up by his field to use as fertilizer…all those really simple things he did made his tomatoes, which were genetically identical to mine, taste like a totally different food.
That blew my mind and I still can’t get over it.
It had a special resonance for me too because I’d had a really shitty job one summer in high school at a tomato packing plant near Charleston, where I lived then. I went into it with no clue.
The first day I spent watching a machine that dropped green tomatoes into a box. My job was to make sure the boxes didn’t get jammed. Every now and then it would get jammed, I’d stop the machine, clear it out and start it up again.
The next day I worked at the culling station. It was a room about this size with two conveyor belts and we were supposed to separate good tomatoes from the bad. They were all green and hard as rocks. The good tomatoes would go into a box and get stacked in a room where they’d be gassed over night and they’d be red the next morning! I had no idea that was how it worked. I was just like, “What!?” I couldn’t believe my eyes!
The gap between that and what I saw with my neighbor in Virginia – it kind of told the whole story.
How did you end up moving to New York and opening a restaurant?
When I was in college I decided I wanted to become an academic. I spent a few years in grad school – B.U. and the University of Virginia, and I got to the point where I needed to start my dissertation. My wife and I decided to move to from Virginia to New York. We thought she’d be able to find a more interesting job here, and I could work on my dissertation from here. We thought it would be fun.
The whole time I’d been in grad school I found myself cooking more and more passionately. I’d worked in restaurants throughout college – pretty shitty restaurants, but restaurants none the less. Once I got into grad school, I think cooking seriously started really appealing to me as a way to counteract the abstraction of academic work. I thought, “Here’s something I can do with my hands, something that provides immediate results, something people can enjoy.” With the work I was doing at school…no one cared about it. My professor had to read my work, but no one else would ever want to read it!
So the contrast between those two ways of interacting with people became really stark. And when we moved up here, I pretty quickly abandoned the idea of becoming an academic and drifted around for a while – did some work for some dot-coms, did some freelance work. But all along this idea that I’d be happiest back in the kitchen kept nagging at me.
Some friends of mine had opened a hot dog restaurant here in Williamsburg, and out of the blue one day they asked me if I’d be interested in renting out the space in the morning when they weren’t using it, and trying to start a restaurant here. A little bit to my surprise, and I think a little bit to their surprise, I just said, “Sure! That’d be great!”
My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. I was thinking that everything in our lives was going to change anyway – I might as well just go whole hog!
I did have one other interesting thing going on. When I moved to the city, my dream job was to work for a high-brow magazine. I’d been reading at The Paris Review for a year before I decided to start the restaurant. At the end of that year, the editor told me she was leaving to go start a new magazine. This was a week after I’d committed to open the restaurant. The editor told me she was leaving and said, “I’d love to have you come and work on it with me.”
I was like, “Wow! If you’d asked me ten days ago…” It was my dream job! But I’d just decided to do this restaurant and I didn’t see how I could turn back on it. So it was all-in from there.
I kind of figured I would do the restaurant for a year or two to build up some experience in the kitchen. I thought of it as an alternative to going to cooking school. I’d just force myself to learn everything I’d learn in cooking school and I’d get experience with the business side of it, and then maybe I’d go work for someone like Thomas Keller or Eric Ripert. That became my new dream job – to go work with someone else in a really great kitchen.
But the restaurant kind of took off. And I found the whole process of it really fulfilling. Grueling, but kind of exciting at the same time. I found that no matter how tired I was when I woke up in the morning, by the time the line started picking up and orders started coming in, I always found energy. It was a really stimulating kind of work.
You have no alternative, right? You gotta get the food out!
You have no alternative, but it’s also this sort of exciting level of stress. It’s a like never-ending game of Tetris! The tickets keep coming in and you’ve got to figure out how to make it work and get the food out and do it right before those tickets get backed up. No matter how repetitive or tedious that game is, you can play it all day long. And it kind of felt that way working on the line. It just keeps coming and coming and you’re always energized by it.
So after we’d been doing that for about two years, the people who had the hot dog restaurant decided they wanted to focus on some other restaurants they had opened and asked me if I wanted to take over this space. I said, “Yeah. I’d love to.” So I took over the lease.
When did Goatfell Farm come into the picture?
Right about that time, I started looking with my wife for a place outside the city – somewhere to allow us to get out of town on weekends. We’d been negotiating for years about whether we wanted to move back to the South or stay in the city or move someplace else.
We made a series of adjustments while we were living here to kind of take the urban pressure off. We lived on the Lower East Side for a few years and we loved it, but eventually we wanted to move to a place with a lawn. Williamsburg at the time felt like a step in that direction — no tall buildings (then anyway), lots of sunlight, trees, you could see the sky – it was amazing! And it was quiet and dark. We lived on the end of North 6th at Kent, and at night it was dark and dead quiet. It’s not that way anymore, at all.
So we started thinking about a place upstate. She wasn’t sure it made sense. She thought, “If we’re gonna buy a place, why wouldn’t we buy in the city…we need to make a decision…”
I was talking to Maggie, one of our servers here, about other stuff we’d like to do at the restaurant and she said, “We should really start a farm. We should have our own farm. That’d be great!”
I was like, “Yeah. That would be great. That’s what I really wanted to do in the first place. I didn’t want to have a restaurant, I wanted to have a farm! It’d be wonderful to do that…”
And then it just clicked. “Wait a minute. If we had a farm and it could supply the restaurant and it could also serve as our getaway spot, it would be justified on so many fronts…it just made perfect sense.”
Was your wife as excited about it as you were?
She was. She works a pretty grueling job. She really was looking for an escape. But she’s also really committed to the work we do here. She wants to see the food system change as much as anybody, so she was excited about that aspect of it.
So how did you find Goatfell farm? Did you start looking online for properties?
I did a fair amount of research into what made small farms — five acres and under – work. We couldn’t afford a big place and we didn’t want to deal with a big place. We couldn’t. We read Elliot Coleman, who’s sort of the guru of small farming. He’s very clear about how a farm that size can work and what it needs.
So I had an idea in my mind of what would make sense — what kind of land we would need, what amenities we’d need to have. We looked around online and my wife would take trips up with our daughter to look around. We finally went up together one weekend when I was able to get off work to visit this place we’d found online.
It was just under six acres, on an east and southeast-facing slope on a hill. It was in a town where we already knew some farmers. It had a smokehouse, a barn, a wood shop – all these things that were really useful. It was really pretty. The house was just crazy looking at the time – an old farmhouse that had been turned into sort of a weird, lurid cat den. Every room was thickly carpeted with some incredible color and each room had a gigantic open litter box the size of this table in the middle of the room.
They’d had a hard time selling the house. When we saw it we were like, “No wonder.” In a way, that almost reassured us. The price at the time seemed like kind of a deal. When we saw it we understood why! But it’s worked out well. It’s been great.
So we bought that place in December of 2007. The following spring we got a small garden going, and started working on getting the house fixed up, getting a sense of the town. We met a lot of great people. That summer I was able to start bringing some vegetables down to the restaurant for specials for dinner.
That fall my mother came up for a week and we hand-dug a much bigger plot for the following year. We covered it with the old carpet that we’d pulled out of the house and let it overwinter and it did great. It did wonders for the soil.
The next season we planted about 6,000 square feet. That provided us with plenty of vegetables for specials for dinner and provided most of our lettuce. We learned a lot that season. It gave us a sense of how much we should grow or could grow. We were figuring it out as we went. At times we were drowning in beets, drowning in radishes. We just started to get a sense of how the whole process was going to work – Understanding how the succession plans should work so you’ve got the right variety and amount of crop available throughout the season.
The next summer – that was 2009 — was really really wet. All the tomatoes got blighted. We could barely walk in the garden for the entire month of July – you’d just sink up to your knees. When it started to dry out in August, another server from the restaurant, Krissy, came up and started helping me weed. She kept coming up more and more frequently, and kind of staying for three or four days at a stretch.
I said, “You know, next summer we’re going to need somebody to do this job full time. Would you be interested?”
She was like, “Oh yeah. I would love to!”
She moved up the following February or March during a huge snowstorm, and loaded all of her stuff into the barn. She’d been living in Greenpoint for like ten years and had amassed all this city stuff. And she just started working – seeding things in the kitchen and the mud room…she didn’t have much background in farming, so she did a lot of research and reading too.
We planted about three quarters of an acre last year, which was a huge increase over the previous year. When you see an acre plowed up, it doesn’t look very big, but when you get in it, it’s actually really big. 30,000 square feet is 60 times larger than this restaurant! It’s pretty intense.
And one person can manage all that all season long?
For the most part. Krissy doesn’t feel like she can. She’s a perfectionist and she’s hard on herself. But honestly, it’s the best-looking, best-tended garden of that size that I’ve ever seen.
Last year we had kind of an overabundance of almost everything. The weather was really good and we planted a lot. This past winter Krissy attended a farm business school in Hawthorne Valley where she learned a little bit more about how to plan. So this year we scaled back our planting some, and learned a lot more about succession.
It’s worked out really well. The farm now supplies most of the vegetables we need every day.
How do you manage it all? Keeping track of when you plant what, when you harvest what?
We have a really huge spreadsheet that we use to keep track of every seed we buy, how it likes to be germinated, how long it takes to get to maturity…all the facts about a seed. And we track when we actually do everything — We planted this seed on this date in this plot…This is when it came up, this is when we think it’ll be harvested, this is when it actually was harvested.
So Krissy can basically look at it every day and see what needs to be done that day?
In theory. In fact what ends up happening is that you get the whole summer planned by March, and then in April when you’re ready to plant there’s snow or standing water on the field and you can’t plant. That kind of thing goes on and on. That’s just the nature of it. There are a lot of moving parts.
Sounds like a lot more logistics go into running a farm than one might realize…
The logistics are complex, although I have to say there’s still a lot of wonder to it. I’m still amazed when we seed something. I just think, “I can’t believe this is going to turn into food!”
So tell me about the farm dinner program.
We started doing those last summer here at the restaurant. We do them once a month to shine a light on the food we’re growing on the farm, but also to give us the chance to be more creative. We just take whatever’s at its very best on that day at the farm and we build a menu around it.
The one thing we do in advance is pick a meat that will be the secondary theme to the dinner.
Who do you go to for meat?
We get it from a few different places. Fleischers, Vermont Quality Meats…we work with Westport Aquaculture for shellfish.
They’re all great small-scale local producers. We do all of our sourcing for everything. They’re all the people we get stuff from on a regular basis – not just for those monthly dinners.
Tell us about the new space? You’re expanding?
We’re building out the space now. It’s on North 3rd St. We’re just trying to raise the money to finish it.
It’ll allow us to do a lot more farm-focused work. The kitchen will be bigger. And that’s exciting because it means we’ll just have more room to work.
Will it replace this space?
No no. This place will stay open. The idea of the new place is to be a little more adventurous with the menu, be a little more focused on the menu, on the vegetables from the farm. In my mind it all creates kind of a continuum – from scrambled eggs and bacon here at egg to more elaborately composed dishes over there.
Sounds like fun!
It will be really fun. When it happens!