Interview with Chef Colin Bedford – Fearrington House Inn – Yogurt and Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta

Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro, North Carolina is an enchanting and very special place just minutes from Chapel Hill.  This Relais & Chateux property offers the perfect mix of relaxation, elegance and gourmet food, thanks in part to their Executive Chef, Colin Bedford.  We were excited to be able to sit down following our Culinary Class in August to learn more about his background, philosophy on cooking and techniques that he uses in the kitchen.

Reared in England and trained in culinary school in the United Kingdom, Chef Bedford’s background is a little different from the other chefs we have met and interviewed.  After culinary school, Bedford apprenticed at The Castle Hotel in the UK, which is very much like Fearrington in that it is a small luxury property owned and run by one family.  Its restaurant has one Michelin star and is known as a training ground for up and coming chefs.  From there, Chef Bedford traveled to work in Ontario, Canada at The Prince of Wales Hotel where he quickly was promoted to Executive Sous Chef.  He then came to Fearrington House Inn in 2005 and by 2009 had earned the position of Executive Chef.

Chef Bedford in the kitchen at Fearrington House Inn

We thoroughly enjoyed Chef Bedford’s creative menus and exceptional flavors during our stay at Fearrington House Inn.  When we dine out, we look for chefs that use local ingredients and create layers of flavor through their culinary techniques.  This is exactly what Chef Bedford does at Fearrington House Inn.  In fact, Fearrington House has received many awards and accolades, including the Top Ten hotels for food in North America by Condé Nast Traveler: Gold List 2011, No. 2 Best Small Hotel in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler and a Gold Medalist restaurant in 2011 (News & Observer).

A firm believer in using local ingredients and supporting smaller farmers whenever possible, Chef Bedford buys the best ingredients he can find.  He also prepares only non-endangered and sustainable seafood in his kitchen.  This chef is concerned that when the new Farm Bill is implemented next year it could definitely cause a shift in what he can purchase and where it will come from.

In the Farm Bill, chefs and farmers will be required to provide extensive information about the foods they produce and use.  The new regulations will be much stricter and will place a higher burden on the small producers as they lack many of the tracking systems that will be required.    The Farm Bill will favor corporate farmers with extensive systems and economies of scale.

In the Garden House

Bedford believes the bill will also negatively impact smaller suppliers of fish and seafood.  “Small guys will get swallowed up (pardon the pun) by larger fleets that have all the high tech equipment.  Everything will become so streamlined.  Knowledge and skills that have been handed down through generations will get lost with the big companies.”

He hopes that there will be some grandfather clause that will protect some of his suppliers and that health inspectors will not be so harsh.  As he said, all it will take is one incident where someone falls ill and they can’t trace it back to the specific supplier and there will be a major backlash.

We learned how to properly fillet this halibut

Bedford feels that the “Farm to Table” philosophy is reaching a saturation point.  He thinks there will be a new culinary trend that is far more eclectic and possibly driven by dietary preferences and restrictions.  Guests will sometimes arrive at Fearrington House with a list of fifteen ingredients that they cannot eat.  He said that while it is difficult, he is in the business of customer service and has to facilitate these requests.

The question is – is this just a dislike or a true allergy?  People will claim they are lactose intolerant and he will prepare dishes based on that restriction, but then they will eat Panna Cotta for dessert.  I couldn’t help but laugh when he said, “I want a pharmacist on staff.  Here is a pill.  Eat your dinner.”  I don’t know how you accommodate all of these restrictions on a much larger scale (like a wedding reception) and still make everyone happy.  Restaurants catering to all of these dietary needs, restrictions or requests may be the next big trend as more people seem to be gluten or lactose intolerant, want to avoid certain foods or are allergic to certain ingredients.

Plating food to look beautiful is a real art

When we worked with Chef Bedford in the kitchen, our class prepared dishes that had some ingredients that I would not have thought of putting together.  “It’s all about palate.  You have to have all the components in the dish: the salty, the sweet, acidity and texture.  It’s not difficult to create the flavors, it’s just having the experience and knowing what to do and what NOT to do.  You can be the best chef in the world and very technical, but learning to season food properly is one of the most important steps.”

“We do good food at Fearrington.  It has to look good and taste good.  The first bite is with your eyes, but the flavor savors the memories.  The vision is gone after a few bites.  There is also a method in the madness when plating food.  There is something over there that is different from what is over here.  Nothing is worse than having everything taste the same on your plate.  It may be the same ingredient, but we treat it differently.  We push the envelope.”  This is why each bite in Bedford’s dishes has a different flavor that excites the appetite.  It’s like a symphony of flavors that all come together; layers of flavor incorporated in one dish.

Seared Halibut with Couscous, Escabeche of Vegetable and Oven Dried Tomato Dressing

There is nothing quite like learning professional cooking techniques while working with a chef in his kitchen.  For the home cook, Chef Bedford offered up this simple suggestion to assist in preparing dinners or entertaining; “Write down your thought process when preparing a meal.  If it’s a 3-course meal, take twenty or thirty minutes to get it all down on paper.  It’s all about logistics.  You need a reference point and a timeline, a cheat sheet.  It’s all about planning.”  That is great advice to remember with Thanksgiving right around the corner.

Thank you so much to Executive Chef Colin Bedford for taking the time to meet with us.  We had a great time learning a little bit more about his philosophy on food, techniques and cooking beyond our Culinary Class.  His comment “The first bite is with your eyes, but the flavor savors the memories.” is so true.  We always remember exceptional meals, like those we had while dining at Fearrington House Inn.

I highly recommend attending a Culinary Class with Chef Bedford.  It offers a special opportunity to work with a very talented chef in a beautiful and tranquil environment.  Besides, Chef Bedford is quite funny and has lots of great cooking tips and techniques.  The British accent also adds a nice little touch to the overall experience ;)

Could Chef Bedford be the next Iron Chef?

Chef Bedford has allowed me to share another one of his recipes with my readers.  His recipe for Local Corn Soup with Apple & Bacon Remoulade and Smoked Scallop is excellent, so I would suggest you take a peek at it as well.

I thought everyone would enjoy this elegant Yogurt & Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta with Summer Berry Soup, since desserts are always a hit.  You should be able to find fresh berries in your grocery store, although most of you will not find local berries.  This will certainly be a great addition to your dessert repertoire, especially since it can be made ahead of time.

On a final note – Iron Chef.  If there was ever a perfect contestant in appearance, intensity in the kitchen, talent and overall presence, it has to be Executive Chef Colin Bedford.  Don’t be surprised if you see him in competition someday.  That’s my humble opinion and I’m sticking to it. ;)

You will love the combination of flavors in this dessert

* Disclosure – I attended the Culinary Retreat as a guest of The Fearrington House Inn.  I have not been paid to write any of these posts. The opinions I express regarding the property and the class are my own.

Yogurt and Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta with Summer Berry Soup

Yield: 6 servings

Prep Time: 1 1/2 hours (plus chilling time)

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

This is a perfect dessert to prepare ahead for guests. The spiced Summer Berry Soup is a lovely compliment to the light texture and flavors of the Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta. * Please note that many of the ingredients in this dish are listed in milliliters or grams. You can convert them to standard U.S. measurements, however, if you have a digital scale, you can weigh them as the recipe states.

Ingredients:

For Panna Cotta:
200 ml Greek Yogurt
300 ml Half & Half
80 g sugar
2 leaves gelatin (You can order these from Amazon.com)
2 vanilla beans
1 Tablespoon dark rum
A sprig of Lemon thyme

For Summer Berry Soup:
750 ml red wine
750 ml red port
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
10 g fresh basil
5 g fresh mint
6 g black pepper
1 vanilla bean
2 cardamon pods
1 orange
1 lemon
8 oz raspberries
8 oz. blueberries
8 oz. strawberries

Directions:

For Panna Cotta:
1. Infuse the cream by placing the vanilla bean in the cream with the sugar and bring to a boil, let sit for an hour at room temperature.
2. Place the gelatin in cold water until soft. Warm the cream and vanilla mixture, add the rum, lemon thyme and the soft gelatin. Strain mixture into an ice bath and cool down until the vanilla seeds start to float. Then pour into a single serving ramekin and chill for at least 6 to 8 hours. Overnight is better.

For Summer Berry Soup:
1. Combine the red wine, port, sugar, vanilla bean, cardamon pods, black pepper and water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Cut the basil, mint, orange and lemon up and place in a bowl (bowl needs to be large enough to hold all the red wine).
2. Then pour the hot wine mixture into the bowl with the other ingredients and let stand at room temperature for one hour.
3. Strain the wine over the berries and store in the fridge until ready to use.

To Serve:
1. Place the outside if the panna cotta mold in hot water for 5-10 seconds not letting the water come up over the lip of the dish. Tilt to one side and break the air lock and the panna cotta will slide on to your serving dish.
2. Spoon your berry soup around the outside and serve immediately.

Executive Chef Colin Bedford
Fearrington House Inn
Pittsboro, North Carolina

10 Responses to “Interview with Chef Colin Bedford – Fearrington House Inn – Yogurt and Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta”

  1. 1

    Drick — October 11, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    thank you Gwen for taking us on another great culinary tour and as always, so educational.. I always have fun when traveling with you … I am so for the little guy, the farmer down the dell with only a couple of milk cows, a small acreage garden and just enough goats to support the family, hopefully pay the bills – that is where I like to shop… have not heard any one using leaves of gelatin in the home, well maybe ‘gelatine’ from overseas for religious reasons…or maybe I have that wrong, I will have to google it

    • Gwen replied: — October 11th, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

      Hi Drick,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, we always prefer to buy from the local and smaller farmers when we can. I guess we will all have to wait and see what happens when the Farm Bill is implemented next year. Unfortunately, it may have far reaching implications to buying local foods from smaller producers.

      Gelatine (or gelatin) leaves are used more in Europe, but you can find them in the U.S. (Amazon.com is one source). You can substitute regular gelatin in the recipe or Agar-Agar (if you are vegetarian) and will have to convert the measurement, depending on what you use. I gave the chef’s recipe as it was written, so there was no confusion in the conversion.

      Gwen

  2. 2

    Jamie — October 12, 2011 @ 3:31 am

    What a great post. I love his way of thinking, his philosophy….and also his view of the way people now are allergic to so many things and have special diets when it suits them. Where are the good old days when people actually enjoyed their food, found pleasure without fear and guilt? That said, his food looks and sounds fabulous and I would so love to eat there. And take a class with him if I could. This panna cotta is outstanding, and you know how we love our panna cotta here. Beautiful weekend and write up(s) Gwen.

  3. 3

    Gwen — October 12, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Thank you, Jamie. I agree about the food allergies. Yes, some people are truly allergic to foods, however, I have personally run into this situation at my home where people eat what they want, not adhering to the “intolerance” they say they have. It will be interesting to see where all this goes, especially as more people cut certain foods out of their diet, for whatever the reason.

    The panna cotta is delightful. I love the subtle flavor of the lemon thyme with the lightness of the yogurt/half and half combination. It is a great recipe.

    Gwen

  4. 4

    Lora ~ cakeduchess — October 12, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    Love this post, Gwen. Your interview w/Chef Bedford is great and informative. I think people always had food allergies but are now more vocal about it when they dine out. Even more prevalent (I think)when they go to a nicer establishment. It gets very complicated for a chef on a busy night when they have to deal w/ many accommodations. Those that have severe allergies most likely don’t risk going out or if they do, may even bring their own meal to be safe. That panna cotta looks divine!!!

  5. 5

    Devaki @ weavethousandflavors — October 13, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Dear Gwen – What a great post and that panna cotta looks absolutely divine.

    chow! Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  6. 6

    redkathy — October 14, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    Hi Gwen, Another wonderful trip, thanks for taking us along with you. Chef sounds like an amazing person in addition to his fabulous culinary talent!. His tips are well take, especially the logistics point. I know how true that is having a big family and a small kitchen!

    I worry not only for the farmers but also for all of the small businesses across our nation. These new regulations are nothing more than “big brother” power plays. The idea is to crush small business hoping we will change our self-reliant responsible minds and depend upon them to live….. I say Bull Snitz to that and am hoping 2012 will bring us like-minded leaders!!!

    Have a fab weekend :)

  7. 7

    Brian @ A Thought For Food — October 16, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    That panna cotta sounds mighty delicious but its that perfectly cooked halibut that has me drooling!

  8. 8

    Walter McElveen — November 5, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

    Gwen, a very good interview with one of my favorite chefs. As a repeat student in his cooking school I can testify he is the real thing. On my next visit I am going to bring a list of 15 things I WANT to eat. Please continue to inform us on the Farm Bill’s impact on great chefs selections.

    • Gwen replied: — November 5th, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

      Hi Walter,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree, Colin is extremely talented and our class was both informative AND fun. You cannot ask for more than that. I came away from our class with a number of great tips and the food we prepared was incredible.

      It will be interesting to see how the Farm Bill impacts the chefs that use more local ingredients from smaller farmers. I recently attended a huge produce convention here in Atlanta that had both smaller and larger produce farmers and manufacturers. Many of them are already implementing the QR-Barcode, which tells consumers exactly where their food comes from just by taking a scan of the code with their phones. Obviously, this will be a bigger burden to smaller farmers.

      Gwen

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