The Spring House Hotel Kitchen Cooks Inspiration from Own Gardens
On the ferry ride from Point Judith to Block Island’s Old Harbor, the first landmark you see is North Light, usually with a small fleet of sailboats racing nearby, and the sun glistening off of the ocean.
As North Light vanishes behind the terra-cotta-colored cliffs abutting Mansion Beach, the Victorian façades of Old Harbor draw near. The Surf Hotel and the National Hotel dominate the horizon, while the Spring House Hotel sits proudly on its perch uphill to the left, its red mansard roof and white clapboard siding drawing the eye, its iconic Adirondack chairs not quite visible.
The Spring House Hotel, a short walk up Spring Street—the road that begins just beyond the tall white statue of Rebecca in the tiny downtown traffic roundabout—is a favorite destination for vacationers and honeymooners alike, hosting at least one wedding per weekend during high season.
My husband and I celebrated our wedding reception there, followed a few years later by my brother and sister-in-law’s. Guests of both events followed suit, wanting to celebrate their big day overlooking the Atlantic, with the lights of the Newport Bridge visible on a clear night. The Adirondack chairs are perfect for a cocktail and contemplation, and food—the food that includes garden-fresh vegetables picked not more than 100 yards from the dining room.
Chef Carmello “CJ” Correnti has worked every one of the weddings held at the Spring House for the past 21 years, and has witnessed the evolution of the hotel’s gardens from the start.
“It started with herbs. Then we wanted to do wine, so we planted vines but that didn’t work out well. We moved on to tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans. Then I started to ask for more.”
Fortunately, owner Frank DiBiase was happy to oblige, and over the past four seasons the restaurant has reached its goal of supplying the bulk of its own produce from two large gardens, one on a slope below the hotel on the ocean side of the property, the other behind the hotel’s Annex building.
“It really is a labor of love,” Chef Correnti says of DiBiase’s dedication to the gardens.
Much of DiBiase’s gardening inspiration comes from his travels to Italy, and that’s reflected in the gardens, which include a number of heirloom Italian varieties of vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, fennel and Lacinato kale, as well as artichokes, which thrive in the oceanfront garden.
On a late summer day, DiBiase shows me around the lower garden. “I hear you planted 2,100 cloves of garlic last year,” I say to him. “2,100? Try 21,000,” he replies.
Though the actual number may be somewhere in between, by all accounts it’s still more than 10,000 plants from seed. In the barn bushels of seed garlic await, piles of newly harvested heirloom tomatoes are spread out upon nearby tables, while DiBiase’s 1950 Super 8 Farmall tractor rests in the midst of it all, taking a break from its job as Block Island Garlic Farm farm stand mascot. When you plant that much garlic, it warrants its own farm stand, in this case one that DiBiase built himself.
DiBiase grabs a few handfuls of seed garlic and places them in a bag for me. He’s given me enough for 70 plants in my garden, yet there is no noticeable dent in his supply.
“When I first started doing this, the chefs wanted to kill me. I’d show up with a huge pile of tomatoes for them to use,” DiBiase recalls. On the day I’m there, they have harvested five gallons of green beans and about a dozen heads of escarole. “See those green beans?” DiBiase says. “Those are for the wedding tomorrow. You just can’t beat the flavor when it’s this fresh.”
DiBiase has owned the Spring House Hotel since 1987, when he bought it out of bankruptcy. At the time, the hotel was being converted into condominiums. DiBiase restored the hotel, and began planting gardens on the property, a hobby that he had learned from his godfather as a boy and has pursued ever since.
Chef Correnti started working at the Spring House in 1992 during summer break from his culinary studies at Johnson & Wales University, joining his mentor, Chef David Houseman, who is now the general manager of the Spring House Hotel. At the time, Houseman was an instructor at the university and executive chef at the Spring House, and had asked Correnti to join him in working there for the summer. Twenty-one years later, farm-to-table dining at the Spring House is a collaborative effort between Chef Correnti and DiBiase and, like any farming endeavor, involves a lot of trial and error.
“Right now, we’re trying to sort out how much to plant, how to stagger the plantings so that we have what we need, when we need it,” Correnti says. “The hard thing is to slow it down. If we have 600 pounds of eggplant coming in at once, we have to bag it up and send it to the other restaurants,” he says, referring to DiBiase’s other Atwells Group restaurants: Providence Prime, Providence Oyster Bar and The Fire.
“It’s a learning process,” DiBiase’s son, Frank DiBiase III, tells me as we tour the gardens. “This year, we learned that garlic grows better in the lower garden. The heads were huge.” Likewise, root vegetables thrived in the lower garden, and in their first year of planting potatoes they harvested nearly 600 pounds.
“We’re going to do more potatoes this year,” Correnti says. “They’re versatile, we can do so much with them and they grow really well here.” To help plan the use of produce from the garden, Correnti has installed a whiteboard in the kitchen to let the chefs know what will be available from the garden in the upcoming weeks, which helps them plan menus. During high season, approximately 60% of the restaurant’s food is supplied from the gardens.
“One of the best things about having this garden is that I don’t have to wonder if the produce I’m getting is fresh. I don’t have to wonder about pesticides. I don’t have to talk to a salesperson to get it. If my daughter walks down to the garden, she can grab something and I know it’s good for her—and I know that the tomatoes I’m using are sugary sweet,” Correnti says.
Chef Correnti plans specials around smaller-yielding crops like corn and artichokes, while higher-yielding crops like cucumbers, eggplant, herbs, peppers, string beans, tomatoes and greens stay in heavy rotation on the menu during the summer. Butternut squash and root vegetables are featured in the fall.
The collaboration between garden and kitchen extends to the cocktail menu as well, with cilantro and jalapeños from the garden used in their Agave Rio cocktail, and during blackberry season the Block Island Sage Berry Smash utilizes the garden’s blackberries and sage. To help preserve more of the harvest, the Spring House is applying for a canning license to process and sell tomato sauce and pickled peppers, though the licensing process is a long one.
“We expect to have a canning kitchen running for next season, and eventually will get permits to produce jams and jellies along with caponatas and spreads,” Chef Correnti says.
In the meantime, surplus herbs and vegetables are sold along with garlic at the Block Island Garlic Farm honor-system stand, while still more produce is sent to the other Atwells Group restaurants on the mainland. Despite the freshly picked flavor of their produce and the opportunity for Chef Correnti to work with the best-quality ingredients from their gardens, DiBiase admits that it’s more costly for him to grow the vegetables himself. “Just the cost of the land alone makes it more expensive, never mind the labor.”
Yet he plans to expand the gardens just the same, cultivating more land near the Annex in the coming years. It is, truly, a labor of love.