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Chef David Hirsch,
Moosewood Collective Personified
gourmet articlesmoosewood collective personified

July 2002

"Sooo, that's done," murmurs Chef David Hirsch as he opens the oven, his glasses steamed by the savory-scented heat. He is retrieving a Moosewood classic- halved eggplants, grilled, then stuffed with a medley of colorful vegetables finished with oozy, bubbling cheeses. He speaks softly and infrequently as he assembles dish after delicious dish for the capacity crowd attending his class. The latest cookbook in the famed Moosewood Collective Restaurant collection, Moosewood Restaurant New Classics, has just been released, and Hirsch is on a promotional tour. His thoughtful, calm instruction is dotted with humor. "You know," he warns with a wry smile, "we're watching you all and anyone who does not finish their tofu will not be served the Chocolate 'Moose' dessert." He evokes the essence of the upstate New York Moosewood Restaurant legend and personifies its earthy reputation.

Asked about the structure of the Moosewood Restaurant Collective, Chef Hirsch describes the 30-year-old organization as "like a family…and all the good and bad that comes with that." He affirms the experience has been fulfilling. So much so that it's kept him content for over 25 years.

A young New York City architect searching for a gentler lifestyle in the late 70's, Hirsch found the ideal "alternative lifestyle" when he joined the Moosewood Collective in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. He explains that the Collective's members earn Moosewood "shares" based on years of membership and hours of service. All major decisions affecting the restaurant are put to a vote among the members. Not one who enjoys meetings, Hirsch explains that the Collective format requires a great deal of patience and willingness to compromise for the benefit of the group and its objective: the continued operation of Moosewood Restaurant.

The food, like the Chef, is straightforward and honest. Although punctuated with spices and herbs from all over the globe, the dishes are not designed to hide the fact that there is nothing more than simple, abundant, seasonal vegetables at play. Visuals are significant cues to Hirsch and he explains he often modifies dishes based on color. More than once he calls his students' attention to the beauty, variety and colors of the assembled ingredients. He frequently comments that a recipe may be a bit too "fussy." He prefers fewer ingredients in his own original creations.

Surprisingly, Moosewood and its members are not steeped in organic ideology or vegan philosophy. From its inception, the Moosewood objective says Hirsch has been "to provide the community with good, wholesome food at reasonable prices." The menu has always included fish he says. He explains the high cost of organic ingredients prohibit the Collective from adopting a 100% organic mantra since maintaining "reasonable" prices would be difficult if not impossible if such were the rule.

In addition to creating and preparing Moosewood dishes, Chef Hirsch also maintains a garden for his personal use. "Through my own herb gardening, I've grown to respect farmers and their willingness to accept the risks associated with growing crops," says Hirsch. The difficulties with animals, weather and Mother Nature in general are more challenging than he anticipated prior to starting his own herb garden.

When diet and health questions are raised, Hirsch, consistent with his grounded, practical beliefs, agrees with those health experts willing to push aside trendy diets and food fads in favor of a "well balanced" diet.

Too modest to end the class with a flourish, Chef Hirsch closes the evening by humbly offering his thanks to the Cooking School staffers who have assisted him. True to the collective spirit, he's most comfortable sharing the work and the accolades with all in his kitchen.

Written By: Jane Boaz - In addition to her full time career as a Product Development Manager for an online legal research system, Jane is a freelance writer and culinary instructor. She has a law degree and recently earned a Certificate in Culinary Arts from Cincinnati State College.

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