Chef and farmer, husband and wife, Connor Dore and Heather Sedlacek are the complete package—and Jersey’s got them. That wasn’t always a sure thing, though. The food-systems-savvy couple had been working together in Durham, North Carolina (Connor’s hometown) when they realized they needed to be able to have time off. “We started scheming a plan to do a more seasonal thing,” Dore puts it. “We thought, let’s check out Jersey.”
That was three years ago. In between, there have been some ambitions—to find a brick-and-mortar space down the Shore (dashed, but probably a good thing), as well as in-home cooking and pop-up dinners for private diners in and around Avalon (last year they launched the “Summer Salt” pop-up out of Isabel’s Bakery & Café in Avalon). The couple recently purchased 23 acres of New Jersey farmland. No surprise, they have ambitious plans for the space, called Bayleaf (think responsible agro-tourism, possibly a bed and breakfast, aquaponics, and continued local events).
We caught up with the busy couple to ask about their journey into food and farming together, Shore life, how the Summer Salt pop-up is doing, and what to expect of the 23 acres they’ve already begun to prep for 2021.
Table Hopping: How did you get into your respective lines of work?
Connor Dore: I got into cooking weirdly enough through gardening. I wanted to be a “green builder.” I was working within this green building architecture group. Then in 2008, the housing market fell off. I was bouncing around different urban gardens down in Durham and someone told me about a restaurant opening downtown with a rooftop garden, Mateo Bar de Tapas. I started bussing tables. The rooftop garden never really happened but the restaurant did go on to win a James Beard award.
TH: How did you end up in the kitchen? That’s a leap, from gardener to bussing tables to cooking.
CD: A dish inspired me, actually. I remember it—Remolacha Salad, with beets, whipped ricotta, orange supremes, pistachios, and avocados. I remember eating it and I was floored, like this was what I had to do in my life. I kept asking to get into the kitchen. Finally they let me peel potatoes before a [bussing] shift. Finally a spot opened as a prep cook, then line cook. They let me try out for it. I kept going. From there I kept working at other restaurants, went from line cook to sous chef to here!
TH: Heather, where are you from? How did you find farming?
Heather Sedlacek: I grew up in Central New Jersey and my grandma always had a place in Avalon. My cousins and I would spend summers here. It’s definitely my happy place.
And I’m actually primarily a meat farmer. I do animal husbandry. And there are so few women in meat. It happened a bit by accident. After I graduated college, I decided to take a year off. I didn’t want to be a tourist and I needed money so I joined World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). It was perfect. I got to travel the world with real families, in real places. In the process, I completely fell in love with farming, particularly animal husbandry. It’s super physically intensive, and I love having my life intertwined with nature, the animals I’m working with.
TH: Was it always a plan to work together as chef and farmer?
CD: We see it as intertwined. We love educating and bringing awareness to sustainable and local agriculture and there’s no better teaching moment than taking a bite of out of something really fresh and knowing “This is what real agriculture tastes like.”
TH: Tell me about your new farm, Bayleaf, in West Cape May?
CD: We bought it two months ago! Great time to launch a business, right?
HS: It’s 23 acres, about six acres of traditional cleared pasture, 10 acres of woods, and seven acres of wetlands—wooded marsh leading out into the Delaware Bay. We bought it this spring, but we’re really excited to see what kind of animal husbandry we can do in the marsh—duck, water fowl, potentially, oysters, fish, crustacean. That’s all down the road, though!
CD: It’s agro-forestry and aquaponics. There’s so much that can be done and explored within the realm of preservation and production.
TH: Was that the draw—a sort of triple-threat of ecosystems to cultivate in?
CD: We’re definitely not the first people to consider how you can create productive agricultural spaces out of otherwise “wasteland” areas. There are great examples, for instance, outside of Charleston [in South Carolina]. But compared to traditional agriculture, especially in New Jersey, this is the forefront.
HS: Nobody wanted this land because so much of it is wet. To a traditional developer, it’s useless. Especially post-Sandy, so much of the land can’t be developed. This is a really opportunity, with rising sea levels where we can’t build homes or roads or traditional architecture, to see what we can produce from hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in New Jersey.
TH: You also event hosts. How did the Summer Salt pop-up start?
HS: We’d wanted a brick-and-mortar spot in Jersey. We spent a season or two looking at options but we were so disillusioned by the cost. We knew margins were tight in restaurants, but when we started crunching numbers, it was all compromise—“let’s cut back on employees, see what that does, what if we lower quality of some ingredients, okay we’ll just do dinner, okay forget about farming.”
CD: In a way, thank goodness nothing came through!
HS: We thought about going back to North Carolina, but our friends Rhianne and Justine Lowe [of Isabel’s] must have thought “We can’t lose Heather and Connor!” It sounded like an idea they’d been mulling, like “We’ve got this location, we close at 3pm anyway—come use the space” with something like a pop-up. That was two years ago.
TH: “Summer Salt” is a great name. What’s the concept?
CD: We really are so ridiculous! We were in the car trying to think of a name, rattling off words we liked, what represents us. We wanted the “je ne sais quoi” factor I guess. We thought “What are things that are summery and beachy but also don’t necessarily have ‘Shore’ this or ‘Beach’ that or ‘Wave’ this in the name. As for the concept—we really wanted a neighborhood place. And we’re 100 percent super seasonal… The concept behind Summer Salt is pure ingredients, simply prepared. The morning’s harvest is already perfect. I want to spotlight our ingredients rather than overwork them or cover them up.
HS: The Summer Salt menu is inspired by Jersey agriculture, time abroad in the Mediterranean, and our tradition of weekly dinner with friends. My year of apprenticing on farms in Europe highly influenced me… Another huge influence for Summer Salt were our Tuesday night dinners. Called “Venny Tuesday’s,” short for Venison Tuesdays, [they] started in Durham when a hunter friend had excess venison that needed eatin’. It was Connor’s only night-off from [the] restaurant, and after cooking on the line all week. Tuesday dinners were his chance to be creative in the kitchen, to sit down and enjoy the meal with friends. When we moved up to Jersey, we kept the tradition going. Dinner was always at 7:00, the menu was never finalized until sometimes minutes before it hit the plate, and we always lingered on the porch for hours. Rhianne and Justine [Lowe of Isabel’s] joined us every week for three years. Then, as we were letting go of dreams of a brick and mortar, they said,“Hey want to do this at Isabel’s?”
With Summer Salt, we wanted to create an ambiance closer to a dinner party with friends than a restaurant. A meal is the one thing that consistently brings us all to the table. Even when we don’t speak the same language, we can clink glasses, butter our bread, and smile.
TH: You’re not farming from Bayleaf this year. Where do you source local produce and animals?
CD: Our main producer is this guy Seth Cooper, of Cooper Brother’s Market Garden. He’s absolutely incredible. A young farmer, our age, doing no-till giant poly-cultural work. Tons of stuff.
HS: This guy has the greenest thumb ever… The chickens are also at Seth’s farm, in West Cape May.
CD: Seriously, it’s glow-in-the-dark level. In the beginning of the season I’ll get beets, different lettuces, turnips, kohlrabi recently. Tomatoes coming out, squash, different cucumbers.
TH: Heather, what does a day in Jersey Shore animal husbandry looks like for you?
HS: I’m up very early. I go to the farm first-thing, have about two to three hours of “farm chores,” I call them. I’ll give the chickens water and food, let them out so they can get some total free range time. And they’re mobile coops, so I move them to fresh grass every day.
TH: As your Bayleaf farm develops, any thoughts on other animals you might raise?
HS: I’m going to challenge myself to do pigs next year. And ducks are natural because they’re so similar to chickens, though how they’d do on a menu here in the summer is another issue.
TH: This is year two at Summer Salt, so you have a stark comparison. Is business up or down?
HS: Business has gone up!
CD: That’s not uncommon from what I’ve heard from other friends in the industry. As you can imagine, a significant portion of other players in the food industry aren’t open but there’s still demand, so people are funneled to places that are open. It’s been more of a question of keeping up with demand. We’re turning people away—which we hate to do! We want to be able to feed people.
TH: Maybe being unattached to a brick-and-mortar space is a blessing?
CD: I think we’re very lucky to say we’re nimble.
HS: I remember the heartbreak of realizing we wouldn’t be able to have a restaurant up here [in New Jersey], how hard it was to accept that reality. Looking back I’m like “What a blessing.” It forced us to think outside the model, to ask ourselves what skills we have, how can we find a way to do what we love? How can I raise still animals and how can Connor cook, how can we gather people around a table without the brick and mortar?
TH: Are you still doing in-home cooking for people while also doing the pop-up?
HS: We are. We have a lot of clients this summer. Many [people] aren’t comfortable going out yet. So there’s been an uptick in private dinners.
TH: How long will you run the pop-up? It’s called Summer Salt, but if we all keep dining outdoors, could it go into fall?
CD: It’s so hard to say what the future holds these days!
HS: We would love to extend the season as much as we could. Though fall is a good time for in-home events. And then of course we’d love to have January and February just off! That would be the dream. To truly live easily, with the rhythm of the farm.
Summer Salt pop-up operatesFriday through Sunday, 5–9pm out of Isabel’s in Avalon. Bayleaf Farm will levolve over the next year. Ultimately, says Connor, “it’s going to be a really beautiful destination. We’ll have events out here, we’ll be able to cook.” Reserve spots for the pop-up here. You can also order Summer Salt takeout here. Isabel’s, 2285 Dune Drive, Avalon. For Summer Salt, call 609-796-2096 or email [email protected]Click here to leave a comment