Chef Jose Alvarado of Jose O’Connor’s in Carthage, NY, gathers his community to harvest 3,000 pounds of cabbage every year for a fermenting festival — complete with beer, camaraderie and plenty of stories. Read on to learn why he loves sauerkraut, the challenges of growing his own food and his go-to dishes, and try out his recipes here.
How did you get started cooking? What memories do you have of growing up with a family restaurant?
I pretty much just took to it from watching my mom cook all these authentic Mexican dishes for the familia. I have always had this dream of opening a small Mexican restaurant where we have tortillas instead of cutlery.
What is the most used ingredient in your kitchen?
I would say peppers. They may not officially be the most used, but they are the ingredients I like to use the most. We grow jalapeños, hot cherry peppers, dragon tongue, and habanero which we use in several different ways: fresh, pickled and roasted.
What is your cooking style, or how would you describe it?
Guinness with a tequila back.
Why did you start making sauerkraut?
It has been a tradition in my girlfriend’s family for several years, so I kind of moved into it.
What do you enjoy most about the process of making it?
The beer, the fish stories, the camaraderie. Too make good kraut, it’s best to already be half pickled yourself.
What are your favorite ways to use sauerkraut?
I like to braise ham hocks in kraut with beer and potatoes. It makes a great side for pretty much any winter or early spring game dish.
Besides cabbage, what else do you grow and why?
Corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, peas, sugar snap peas, a few kinds of lettuces, beets, carrots, parsnips, blue Hubbard squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, collard greens, Swiss chard, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, onions, leeks, hot peppers, herbs a plenty, blueberries, blackberries, rhubarb…
Where we live and work, it is difficult to get really great fresh produce from commercial purveyors, so growing it on our own is the best and most economical way to provide the kind of food we want to serve.
What have you learned from growing your own food?
It’s rewarding as hell but it’s more work than the kitchen! The whole process of cultivation is very new to me. In a restaurant the day starts with deliveries and ends with dessert, but the garden doesn’t clock in or clock out, it just grows on and on. It can take months of labor (weeding, fertilizing, watering, protecting) to get the cauliflower from the seed packet to pickled in the jar on a shelf.
How do you get a whole community involved in harvest and gardening?
Bribe them with beer and reward them with product.
What is the best kitchen advice you have ever received?
Don’t make food more fun to cook than it is to eat.
Do you cook at home? What do you cook to relax?
My restaurant is only two blocks from my house, so I can’t say I do too much cooking at the homestead on a regular basis. But some venison steaks over a small campfire after fishing in the summer is about as relaxing as it gets. We have a permanent riverside campsite we call “going to the Camp-tons.” There is a lot less traffic than getting out to Montuak!
What’s one dish you could eat over and over again?
I wish I wanted to eat this a lot less, but we make this “redneck” poutine: French fries with buffalo wing sauce, blue cheese dressing and grated cheddar.