Cultivating a Culinary Groove at Alderbrook’s Gathering Grove

A native of southern Oregon, chef Ben Jones’ career has taken him all over the country and the world. Tall and wiry with close-cropped dark hair and a well-groomed goatee, Jones went to culinary school in New Zealand and has worked in every spectrum of the restaurant industry, from a “down and dirty” fish house in intracoastal Florida to a swanky resort in Montana, and more than a decade working at Chicago-area restaurants. But, with oysters and clams dotting the beach and an ownership team dedicated to imparting Alderbrook’s special sense of place to guests, Jones knew he had found the canvas for his culinary masterpiece.

“I love being back in the Northwest. The opportunity to turn Alderbrook’s food and beverage program into something great was a huge draw. I want people to get to the point where they say, ‘It’s beautiful here. I love staying here. But, oh my God; I’m coming back for the food,’” says Jones.

Courtesy Alderbrook Resort & Spa

Chef Jones implemented, expanded, and oversees a number of unique programs at Alderbrook, starting with charcuterie. Last year, the kitchen cured its own bresaola (a dried beef sausage), which Jones served along with a parmesan cheese puff for the “Best Bite” win at Taste Washington in March 2019. He recently added pancetta and house-cured bacon to the roster, along with a dry-aged beef program. The resort has its own cheese cave that Jones plans to expand during the overall kitchen and dining room renovation in January 2020. Cheesemaker Sarah Gronseth (her Instagram account @sarahlovescheese911 says it all) is trying her hand at gouda and cheddar in addition to the signature tomme. 

Courtesy Alderbrook Resort & Spa

Jones loves fermentation, saying homemade kombucha is his go-to for maintaining good gut health. “I’ve been using the same [kombucha] mother that I received from a friend of mine in Montana, who received it from a Ukrainian woman, who says it has been in her family for 150 years,” he said. Jones’ kombucha will be used in a cocktail this summer, available at the Alderbrook patio bar. He also started a vinegar program using apples from his backyard and is partnering with local farms to use their “seconds” (excess produce that doesn’t sell) to make a variety of vinegars. When the cheese cave gets renovated, he plans to relocate the vinegars there, offering guests a cheese and vinegar tasting in the cave.

Last summer, Jones hosted a number of “Canal Cookouts” at the Union City Market located two miles from Alderbrook Resort. These laid-back dinners feature Jones cooking over an open fire while guests sip local wines, beers, or specialty cocktails and enjoy the stunning water views at sunset. Over the winter, he added weekend brunches called “Hook and Fork” at that location.

But the biggest feather in Alderbrook’s culinary experiences hat is the Gathering Grove. For years, Alderbrook Resort has built and maintained trails in the hillside behind the resort where guests can immerse themselves in forest bathing, Pacific Northwest-style. Last summer, Alderbrook staff cleared a small section of space under the canopy of trees, installing a gazebo dining area — the cutest outhouse you ever saw — a portable bar made from sanded wood slabs, and a cooking fire pit. Sunlight filters through the trees, golden threads dancing over frilly ferns and happy guests. 

The magical setting, however, is just the backdrop to the main event. Grove dinners are purely chef’s-choice experiences. Jones partners with a number of local farms, highlighting the bounty of the region from vegetables grown at Humble Stump Farm to chicken and eggs from Skokomish Farms, Hama Hama and Taylor Shellfish oysters, freshly caught fish, and foraged items like mushrooms and berries. Limited to 20 guests, Grove dinners are typically four courses, including a specialty cocktail made for the event utilizing something fresh, like an herb or fruit, and wines by Ded.reckoning Wine Company out of Anacortes.

Courtesy Alderbrook Resort & Spa

“Grove dinners are about the fire dance — cooking outside — and the farmer relationships,” he said. Though guests may not know Jones at the beginning of dinner, they are going to get to know him by the end. Indeed, his enthusiasm for food and his cooking philosophy are infectious. Jones’ favorite way to describe what he is trying to do with food is “The Grandma Effect” — that feeling of comfort, being cared for, the sensation that all is well. Jones likens it to unconditional love. “When you create that sensation, you know you’ve arrived as a chef.”

He says, nine times out of 10, cooks make one of two mistakes: They either overcomplicate a dish, or they don’t do an ingredient justice. For example, a perfectly ripe, in-season tomato is a masterpiece of nature and should be showcased with a little salt and pepper, and a drizzle of good olive oil. Nothing else is needed. 

Courtesy Alderbrook Resort & Spa

During a meal last fall, Jones did his magic with a spectacular piece of coho salmon, caught that morning by Evan Brady of Union Fish Co. Silky pink flesh perfectly cooked with snappy crisp skin, served over a bed of Humble Stump Farm savoy cabbage slaw with an Asian vinaigrette — talk about a sense of place. That night, we also sampled venison loin drizzled with huckleberry demi-glace, and one guest was beside herself with wonder at the purée of parsnip and celery root on the plate — gnarly, ugly vegetable roots elevated into awe-inspiring vegetable velvet. 

Jones would love to see Alderbrook recognized on a national level like Willows Inn on Lummi Island, or even an international level like Favikën in Sweden. Though the approach and presentation may be different, Jones admires the way chef Blaine Wetzel (Willows Inn) and Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson (Favikën) understand food locality and seasonality, producing incredible dining experiences around a specific place in the world. 

Like any artist, Jones wants to capture a feeling. “That’s wickedly hard to do,” said Jones. But when it all comes together in a moment where farmer, chef, and guest connect over a place, time, and flavor, Jones said, “It feels like I’m actually doing what I should be doing with my life — not just my career, but my life.”

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