Farm to 49th Street
Local tomatoes make their debut at the Four Seasons
Julian Niccolini handpicks heirloom tomatoes at Rochambeau Farm hours before he carves them tableside at his Four Seasons in NYC.
Photos by Rana faure
On a hot Sunday morning in September, Julian Niccolini is in his element. He is not presiding at the fabled Four Seasons restaurant, in Midtown Manhattan, in one of his tailored Thom Browne suits. He is instead skipping among rows of cucumbers and radishes at Rochambeau Farm, in Mt. Kisco, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and cowboy boots. Disappearing into a jungle of eight-foot-high tomato vines, he pops out again, cradling two giant Black Beauties. “Look! Look! Look at this!,” he shouts. “How beautiful they are!”
In a local twist on farm-to-table, Rochambeau Farm is supplying bespoke produce to the estimable Four Seasons, which reopened in late August, after a two-year hiatus, in a new location, at 42 East 49th Street (Niccolini is a managing partner). Last March, the restaurant’s executive chef, Diego Garcia, thumbed through the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog and chose a virtual cornucopia of jewel-toned tomatoes, outlier vegetables, and leafy greens. Amador Cardona, the farmer at Rochambeau, nurtured the selections from seed, and the results, as Niccolini is pronouncing loud and clear, are beautiful.
Having moved beyond the tomatoes, Niccolini is brandishing two heads of romaine, calling out to anyone who will listen: “Look! Lunch!” The lettuces are perfect—swirling skirts of tender, unblemished leaves.
Three mornings a week, Niccolini — who was raised in the countryside north of Lucca and lives in Bedford with his wife, Lisa — swings by the farm on his way to work, rolls up his French cuffs, and picks produce with Cardona. On one occasion, he showed up in a chauffeured town car, harvested zucchini blossoms and tomatoes, piled the boxes into the trunk, and headed for the city.
The Four Seasons’ new home—sumptuous, labyrinthine, with a straight shot of razzle-dazzle—makes sly references to the landmarked space that the restaurant called home for more than five decades before losing its lease. The handsome sunken bar shares the same square dimensions as the aqua-blue pool in the former Pool Room but without the chlorine. Glittering hand-blown Venetian glass baubles strung in the windows facing 49th Street are reminiscent of the chain swags in the old place, but they’re fun and flirtatious.
On a recent late-summer night, the serene dining room, with its plush upholstery, mirrored columns, and fabulous stick lighting, made an unlikely backdrop for a display of colossal tomatoes imported from the northern suburbs. Petite red and gold cherry tomatoes adorned each table, presented like party favors in stylish footed baskets designed for the original restaurant by modernists Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable.
It was tomato time! Cut into geode-like slices and dressed at table-side in a ritual performed by Niccolini, now wearing a trim navy blazer; puréed in a silky gazpacho; quartered and crowded around a creamy blossom of burrata, with lemon-verbena-and-thyme-scented jelly and a handful of fresh black currants—these tomatoes (fetching prices that would make even a tomato blush) were thoroughly enjoying their fifteen minutes.
Garcia, who was a sous chef at Le Bernardin, and the opening chef at Gloria, in Hell’s Kitchen, before being courted by the Four Seasons, appreciates the hard work that goes into growing superior produce, and he visits the farm periodically for inspiration. His own gardening experience does not run deep: “I grew a bean plant in elementary school,” he said in an interview.
As the first frost approaches, Garcia—who says the restaurant speaks “an American vocabulary”—will assign coveted roles on the fall menu to Rochambeau’s cabbages, chards, curly kale, and Brussels sprouts.
Down on the farm, Niccolini has wandered farther. “Radishes!” he shouts, gathering the little red orbs into a nosegay. “Maybe you’d like to have a couple of radishes with butter?”
To watch the seasoned restaurateur—whose ability to tame tigers at peak lunch hour is legendary—delight in finding so many good things to eat growing all at once in one place, is plain fun.
“Eggplant! Hello!” He yells from a far row. And in a blink, he’s back at the farm stand, with a captive audience: wide-eyed twin toddlers. He hands each a big tomato and has the last word: “If you eat tomatoes you will live a long life!”