The winds of change are blowing at Wilde Beest in Kingston. The avant garde culinary destination is coming up on one year and rolling into spring with a renewed ambition and a refined concept.
On a drizzly Friday morning, chef/owner Chris Turgeon is behind the bar, fielding reservation calls and prepping for the night. On the phone, he has an affable and straight-talking manner—polite but not fake. He wears a backwards cap and a plaid button-down. His tatted hands fidget as he forces himself to slow down and sit for the interview. He’s been running at full tilt for 12 months, so the change of pace is challenging.
A few weeks ago, Turgeon and his team crossed a major conceptual threshold when they rolled out their early spring menu, the first of six seasonal menus planned for the year. While the fundamental layout is unchanged (six small plates, six large plates, 4 desserts), nearly everything else has evolved. “The big paradigm shifts are a much more significant focus on plating—a lot more shape and architecture, minimalizing garnishes, more chromatic—and reducing the number of ingredients, focusing more on purer expressions,” Turgeon says.
New options include appetizers like Hot Buttered Fruit, which comes with foie gras, pickled blueberry, sherry, brioche, black pepper marshmallow ($18); mains like Mountauk or Bust, a black bass dish served with cucumber-dill syrup, sour cream, lemon skordalia, trout roe, dill flower, olive oil ($28).
“This new approach is really about increasing our vocabulary, becoming more fluent,” Turgeon says. “When I bring in new technique and force myself to practice it every day for two months, now I’ve mastered a new language. It is set up to do that at a pace that is just at the limit of what is possible.”
After a dicey nine-day trial at the now-closed molecular gastronomy hotspot 42 Grams in Chicago, wunderkind chef Jake Bickelhaupt offered him a job. So, he flew back to Texas, packed up his life, drove 1,100 miles, and started full time the next day.
Despite this experience, Turgeon takes issue with the flashier side of food science. “So much of what I learned at 42 Grams went straight in the garbage. We’re not doing dinner and a show here. I’m not going to fill a jar with smoke and open it in your face,” he says. “What I did learn there is the narrative of transformation.”
He’s talking about the food, but the effect of this new approach will be breakneck transformation in himself and his staff as well. “As soon as we get our head around the menu, it’s changing. It’s designed to force us through a hard arc on growth,” he says.
Turgeon treats each dish like a piece of content, scrupulously considering every aspect from plating to flavor balance to culinary process. “The big difference is this new approach is allowing us to editorialize better,” he says. “It is set up to follow the farm, and capture the six expressions of the seasons.”
During the growing season, the lion’s share of Wilde Beest’s produce comes from the iconic, organic, family-owned Hepworth Farms. “At the end of the day, I’m a flavorist. My approach to the plate is pure hedonism,” Turgeon says. “The reason I work with Hepworth is because they give me access to the plant—from the root to the sprout to stalk to the leaf to the bud to flower to fruit. And that makes a difference. Everyone talks about fresh. Fuck fresh, it’s about ripe.”
After a moment’s consideration, he adds, “And not just within that spectrum—it’s taking a beautiful green strawberry with all its tartness, acidity, and texture and using it for the perfect thing when it’s perfect for that thing. Hepworth allows me to do that. Plus, there is a depth of flavor that is no comparison to commercially produced stuff—that is the unmistakable nuance in everything that we do.”
When asked if he has a preferred dish on the spring menu, Turgeon replies without pause, “I have no favorite children. Order the things that you’re excited about, from there it’s in the eye of beholder.” Alongside each of the six seasonal a la carte menus, Turgeon will also be offering an eight-course tasting menu that guests can order in advance. At $96 (or $12 a course), it’s an affordable way to get a tour of the seasons through Turgeon’s elevated culinary filter.
Despite working 80-hour weeks on his feet and taking a minimal paycheck, Turgeon is energized by Wilde Beest. “It is hard for me to quantify what we are doing here as work. I liken it to being in a rock band, especially if you dig what you do and who you’re doing it with, you get to just come in and work on your shit.”