The late Chef Deb Whiting
On Tuesday night, my husband and I made our way up to Elmira to Bistro223, a new-to-us restaurant on Water Street touting “world flavors,” the area’s largest selection of Finger Lakes wine and lots of local beer . The purpose of our trip: to watch the FoodNetwork’s episode of “Chopped” featuring Deb Whiting, the visionary chef and co-owner of Red Newt Cellars who was killed in a June 30 car accident. The episode had been filmed last November, and was just now airing for the first time.
We arrived at Bistro223 about an hour and half before the show and were greeted by fellow viewers already gathered including Brandon Seager, assistant winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. We settled in to our seats around the bar, placed our order for Black Bean Hummus and Traditional Hummus, and delved in to conversations with the others….mostly about Deb, her husband Dave and their Red Newt…as we sipped Red Newt wines.
“She loved being in the kitchen,” said Seager of Deb. “She would gladly come out and meet the patrons in the Bistro, but she loved being in the kitchen.”
Seager has worked at Red Newt alongside the Whitings since 2007. After earning his degrees in viticulture and enology from nearby Cornell University, he met Dave Whiting and was soon making wines alongside the winery co-owner.
“Its really a perfect fit,” says Seager of his job at Red Newt. “It’s a collaborative effort – we work together and we taste together.”
Red Newt Verjooz
About that time, Bistro223’s staffer Liz Treffeisen, delivered our hummus. In addition to the two that we had ordered, she presented us with a third hummus dish prepared specially for the evening with Red Newt’s Verjooz, a verjuice made from green Vinifera grapes harvested at veraison or “onset of ripening.” According to the Red Newt web site, verjuice has been “around since the middle ages” and is often used in sauces and dressings to “add a zippy yet complex element that complements wine, instead of detracting from it like a too acidic vinegar.” In the case of our hummus, the Verjooz was used in place of lemon juice and it paired nicely with the Red Newt Circle Riesling that I was drinking.
Also at Bistro223 was Shane Searfoss, former Red Newt Bistro Manager who had also owned Charlie’s Café in Elmira for a time.
“Dave & Deb had their anniversary dinner at Charlie’s,” said Searfoss when asked how he had met the Whitings. “And they asked if I would be interested in working with them at the Bistro.”
“Deb met some great people at the Bistro,” reminisced Searfoss. “She cooked for some very important people, too. She cooked for Senate Farm Days.” (New York Farm Day is an annual event hosted in Washington, D.C., highlighting the producers of New York’s award-winning wines, farm-fresh products and seafood, as well as leading restaurateurs)
Liz Treffeisen, Brandon Seager & Shane Searfoss watch "Chopped" featuring the late Chef Deb Whiting
Then as the Chopped episode began, Treffeisen turned up the television volume and those gathered focused their attention on the screen. Deb’s love of food, especially Finger Lakes food, was evident with every dish she prepared. As the contestants cooked and competed on the television, in Bistro223 there were cheers for Deb, good-natured scoffs at the other contestants and applause for Deb as she said her farewell after being eliminated in the second round. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Deb Whiting, it was hard to believe that this vibrant, beautiful woman with an infectious smile was no longer with us.
“I thought I would be crying my eyes out,” said Seager. “But I’m so proud. I’ve never been so proud of Debra. She was very confident and she put food on the plate that she knew was good. Every time she talked, she mentioned the Finger Lakes. Did you notice how many times she mentioned the Finger Lakes?”
Searfoss agreed, “She was fantastic! She did a hell of a job. The Finger Lakes should be proud!”
And proud the Finger Lakes are to have had, for even a short time, a woman whose passion and commitment helped build a movement that will continue on long into the future.
The Deb Whiting Foundation has been created to “carry on Debra’s vision and commitment to wine, food, farms, families and community.” Those interested in Deb’s work and that of the Foundation, can sign up for the Foundation’s mailing list at www.debwhiting.org.