Picture this: it is a perfect, cloudless day on the North Fork and a legendary Manhattan chef isn't driving, no, not a Mercedes convertible, but a forklift, down a country lane. Add to this image the chef's lovely, blond wife off in a picturesque field somewhere, hand harvesting bunches of perfect baby beets in a rainbow of colors.
A couple of beautiful city people play-farming? No way. This is a serious endeavor. A real working farm. Just ask Paulette Satur and her celebrated husband, Eberhard Müller. And they have the passion to prove it.
"I had been looking for a farm for six years before I even met Eberhard," said Paulette Satur, her blue eyes flashing. "In retrospect, I'm surprised that the real estate broker kept taking my calls because he probably thought that this was a hobby with me, that I wasn't really serious."
But Paulette was very much in earnest even though, having grown up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, she had spent most of her teens and early twenties trying to get as far from it as possible.
After graduating from Penn State with a degree in horticulture, Paulette headed west to graduate school in Arizona, where she received a master's degree in plant physiology. She then landed in Manhattan where she held a variety of jobs before getting involved in the wine industry, something she did, not surprisingly, in a rather unusual way.
It was 1988.
"I called my friend Starr Boggs (of the eponymous restaurant in Westhampton Beach at the time) and he suggested I get in touch with Alex and Louisa Hargrave. "The Hargraves, now famous for being pioneers in the North Fork wine industry, were impressed and Paulette was hired to help with sales and marketing. She worked at the vineyard in Cutchogue during the season before returning to New York, where she tried to figure out a way to stay out east full time.
Two years later, with her East End wine experience, Paulette was offered a job at Martin Scott, an exclusive, upmarket Manhattan distributor of fine and boutique wines. She became one of their top salespeople over the next ten years.
"But I still wanted to own a farm. In fact once, right in the middle of an important Martin Scott portfolio tasting, I found myself bidding on a 33-acre farm in Mattituck. There were thousand of people in front of me and the real estate broker wanted to know if I was ready to make a final offer." Though the farm went to someone else whose offer was accepted before Paulette could return the call, she didn't lose sight of her dream.
"I remember leaving the Hargraves vineyard back in the late 80s in the fall when the harvest season was over, and across the street there was a field full of bright orange pumpkins under a brilliant purple and red sky and I remember thinking, what a pretty farm!"
In January, 1996, Paulette met Eberhard, a native of the Black Forest region of Germany, who had shot to fame at Le Bernardin after a stint at Windows on the World as executive chef. He was then head chef at Lutece (culinary legend Andre Soltner had recently left) and had just received a three-star review from the Times. Paulette decided the time was right to stop by and see if Eberhard was interested in updating the wine list.
"During Soltner's era, they didn't do wine lists like they do today. So when there was a staff turnover and a restaurant wanted to present something fresh and new, there were oppurtunities to expand the list. Back in the early 90s, remember, there wasn't that much that was new on the culinary scene in Manhattan. But from the mid-90s on, a lot started happening. And when I heard that Eberhard had taken over Lutece, I said, "Okay I'm on it!"
At dinner with a girl friend who's birthday they were celebrating, Paulette struck up a conversation with the sommelier who, in turn, went into the kitchen, and asked Eberhard if he'd like to meet the representative of Martin Scott who was dining there that evening. Paulette's friend, who smokes, took several cigarette breaks, leaving Paulette alone at the table.
"So Eberhard came to the table and, well, he kept coming back!" Paulette recalls. "The next morning, he called and asked me to dinner." Eberhard was so smitten, he actually got her number out of the reservation book. "Oh promise me you'll never do that again," she said, but did, nonetheless, accept his invitation. Still, it wasn't love at first sight, something that is often ironically the case with great love stories.
"We went to dinner and I wanted to sell him wine, but I'm not a late-night person and I didn't really want to date a chef." They went out a few more times during the late winter and, though Paulette remembers these dates fondly, nothing really happened to make sparks fly until Paulette had laser surgery on her eyes that spring.
"I had an appointment with Eberhard that Friday afternoon to taste wines and then I was headed straight down town to get the surgery. When I got to Lutece and told Eberhard what I was doing, he asked me, "Who's taking you down?" Paulette, clearly an independent woman, replied simply, "Myself". Eberhard said, "Oh no. I'll take you down and be back in time for dinner service." And thank God he did! I couldn't see a thing. Here I was on the streets of Manhattan and couldn't tell if the lights were red or green. And here was Eberhard bringing me soup and I started thinking, well, he is kind of nice!" This time, sparks flew.
As thier relationship developed, Eberhard asked Paulette what she really wanted to do wih her life and she told him about her dream of owning a farm.
"He said, well, I'm a chef and I need food, so that sort of works!"
That October, on the eve of Paulette's birthday, Eberhard asked her to marry him and now, with no reservations, she said yes. The next day, they took a ride out east to look for a farm.
"I hadn't been out to look for a while and Eberhard had never really been out here. So the broker showed us a few things and I kept saying, no, this isn't it until, finally, he said, "The only other property I have to show you is a small farm in Cutchogue." It was the exact same farm where Paulette had admired the pumpkins in the sunset so many years before.
"Yes! This is it!" she cried. "Here it is Eberhard's first time out here and here I am buying a farm!" If he was shocked then, he seems, as evidenced by his skillful handling of that forklift, to have adjusted beautifully since.
The first summer the newlyweds spent on the farm, there was no house, just a barn and a shed. "I had a big 'garden' and grew leeks and tomatoes. But we didn't get out here until late Saturday night after Lutece closed. Then we'd be up early Sunday morning before heading back. It wasn't a lot of fun." Eberhard suggested hiring someone to run the operation, but to make this economically feasible, they had to have steady clients. So Paulette, who knew many Manhattan restaurateurs through her job with Martin Scott, called some of her old clients. Soon, top New York food establishements, such as the Four Seasons, Gramercy Tavern, and Le Cirque were among her "garden" clients. But a turning point came shortly afterward that would have a major impact on the future farmers' lives.
"Eberhard was doing a cooking demonstration at Macy's and he brought out a bunch of my leeks. As he was about to cut them, the crowd actually gasped. 'WHERE did you get those gorgeous leeks?' asked a woman. The white part was almost two feet tall! Eberhard replied proudly, "My wife grew them!" So Paulette decided that Eberhard was right. It was time to hire someone and to get serious. Satur Farms was becoming a reality.
The next winter, the couple would come out on weekends to work on the beautiful, shingled house they now inhabit. They had no kitchen yet and so often headed over to Paulette's old friends, the Hargraves, where all four of them would cook together. "We had a great time, all of us in the kitchen," she recalls. Then, the following spring, they hired a farm manager, dug new wells, bought a tractor and the business just started to take off.
Though local farmers were very supportive with advice and loans of equipment, the new farmers were warned that labor could be a big problem, especially since Satur Farms is run organically, a practice that is much more labor-intensive than conventional farming.
At first, Paulette hired a few retired people and a young, pregnant Guatemalan woman, but it was clear early on that this was not the answer, especially with crops such as micro greens, a Satur specialty, that must be harvested completely by hand.
Eberhard just looked at me one day and said, "This is not working." Then he went out into the field and gently told my motley crew to go home. "No!" I said. "You can't let them go! What will I do?'
What Paulette did, with typical resolve, was to head over to Flanders and knock on doors until she found a group of young men that wanted to work.
"They had no car, so I had a taxi pick them up and drop them off everyday. And from that house, I've pretty much gotten everyone who's worked here since. They're all from the same village in Mexico." Now the farm had a real farm crew, but, Paulette is quick to admit, the pioneering farmers still learned many things the hard way. Because many of the crops we were growing hadn't been here before, it took several years and a lot of money before they really felt that they knew how to go about making this new venture work.
Today, Satur Farms has a total of 50 acres under cultivation. They specialize in baby greens, heirloom tomatoes, rainbow-colored radishes, hard-to find herbs, baby carrots, fennel, leeks, potatoes and striped, candy cane beets, using only USDA approved organic methods and products. Their fresh, ready-to-eat greens salads are sold locally by King Kullen and in Manhattan at Gourmet Garage, among others. Included in each plastic container, which can be used to toss the salad in before serving, is a portion of Eberhard's delicious, freshly made salad dressing. (Arugula with white truffle dressing is my personal favorite.)
"It's been a revelation to Eberhard, the difference in freshness of something homegrown. And his cooking has certainly changed to reflect that."
Though Paulette believes strongly in the practice of farming organically, she doesn't get on a soapbox and chastise those who don't.
"I don't campaign for organics. But if I have a choice, I choose the organic product. I believe that we're supposed to take care of our bodies. I can remember back on my family's farm, my father coming in from the fields just coated with DDT dust. No one knew it was dangerous."
Fortunately, today there are effective alternatives to highly toxic pesticides for farming on relatively small scales. It's the weed problem that Paulette is finding more challenging.
"When I'm out in my fields, trying to control the weeds, I can certainly understand why farmers use herbicides to control them. The weed issue here is just immense. If it weren't for weeds, this would be a very good business!"
Eberhard has spent a lot of time on the farm this summer, traditionally the slow season in Manhattan, but will soon be spending more time at BAYARDS, the Manhattan restaurant he owns with Harry Poulakakos on Hanover Square in the financial district.
"It's a chef's dream to have a personal supply of fresh produce," he said, "and my wife works very hard to grow the very best for me and my colleagues."
Now in the thick of their harvest season, the pair are working 14-hour days, seven days a week.
"I never intended to farm on this scale," said Paulette. "I've even lost track of the numbers of tractors we own! And everyday there is a new challenge. But we just love it here. It's so beautiful."
As I tour the orderly fields with Paulette, who is clearly proud of her accomplishments, I am also struck, just as she was so many years before, by the beauty of this farm. She and Eberhard love it here. Yes. What's not to love?
by Susan Whitney Simm