When it comes to food, language is never a barrier for Aaron Oster. It’s the reason he became a chef and it’s what has drawn him to Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard. “Everywhere in the world there is a Slow Food group of people who want the same thing — they speak a different language, they eat a different cuisine, but they’re all connected,” Mr. Oster said in an interview this week. “And that’s one of the reasons I became a chef...everyone gets food. The ability to share a meal, provide a meal and cook something for someone else. That’s a pretty impressive thing.” This spring, Mr. Oster, 32, takes the reins as president of the Island chapter of Slow Food, the international organization that promotes “good, clean, fair” food. Slow Food began in Italy in 1986 as an antidote to the culture of fast food. Today the organization has 150,000 members representing 150 countries. Mr. Oster is also set to become the new chef at Port Hunter in Edgartown, where he’s creating a completely non-GMO (genetically modified organism) based menu. The restaurant opens on May 15.
In the coming year Mr. Oster wants to take advantage of Slow Food’s international roots and strengthen the organization’s connection to other Island sustainability groups.
“Slow Food is bigger than the Island,” he said. “What Island Grown Initiative, Living Local and Home Grown do is exactly what we agree with, too. In addition to all the great work that’s done with local food, we can turn on the lights a little bit and expose what people are doing.”
“That’s what Slow Food can do best – be the light,” he continued. “We don’t want to stake a claim, we want to help push the cart.”
Slow Food, both here and abroad, has been historically dedicated to promoting local businesses and local agriculture, Mr. Oster said. “I think it’s important for Slow Food to find a role in that this year.”
With 100 members and a dedicated board, “we’re talking about a really powerful group that can really do a lot of good.”
Education has also always been important to the Slow Food credo. This year the group plans to take on GMOs. On Sunday, April 28, the group is showing Genetic Roulette, a documentary that looks at the effects of GMOs on Americans, especially children, and how GMOs contribute to increased rates of disease. The film begins at 4 p.m. at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society in Vineyard Haven with a discussion to follow.
The film is a fundraiser for Slow Food and the Film Society and is the beginning of a larger project. Slow Food vice president Jan Buhrman and board member Sue Hruby are starting a GMO-free Martha’s Vineyard group which will educate the public on the background of GMOs and work with restaurants to help them make a commitment to having a GMO-free dish or a GMO-free menu, Mr. Oster said.
Other educational programs are also planned to increase connections. Coop de Ville, a chicken coop building program, will take participants on a tour of “all the great chicken coops of the Island.” For a Heavy Nettles event planned for May 5, Slow Food is bringing in restaurants that use nettles throughout the season.
“If through Slow Food we can recognize people who are focused on non-GMO products then we want to elevate their exposure,” Mr. Oster said. “If we meet people who are excited about nettles as a forageable, free, delicious product, we want to expose that.”
“It’s all a part of trying to build momentum with groups,” he added.
Raised in Connecticut, Mr. Oster grew up around food, however he took a few detours before circling back around to it. He dabbled in accounting at Rutgers University in New Jersey, apprenticed with a tailor in New York city (Mr. Oster has a fondness for Frank Sinatra and he wanted his own suits to fit just right), and worked at JP Morgan for two years before getting a job at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Later he travelled across Europe by working on farms and then returned to New York city to become the chef de cuisine for Salumeria Rosi.
But Mr. Oster and his wife Alex, a pastry chef, grew tired of the grind. After visiting the Vineyard for a friend’s wedding one fall weekend, the couple pledged to return. Last spring Mr. Oster worked with Ms. Buhrman at her catering company Kitchen Porch.
“Jan gave me my start here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jan.”
Ms. Burhman introduced him to Slow Food members, including former Slow Food president Cathy Walthers and the “impressive group of people at Slow Food who were so deeply involved with the community food here.” Ms. Walthers approached Mr. Oster this winter about taking the leadership position. It was also through Ms. Buhrman that Mr. Oster met Port Hunter owners Patrick and Ted Courtney, who “saw the potential and need for a different kind of restaurant.” Mr. Oster’s menu at the Port Hunter includes all GMO-free and organic products (the only non-organic products will be produce from local farms that do not have organic certification) including standards such as burgers, fish and chips and lobster rolls, as well as a more exotic take on what the local waters have to offer, Mr. Oster said.
“I don’t want to put tuna on the menu, I don’t want to put swordfish on the menu, I don’t even really want to put cod on the menu,” he said. Instead, featured items will include blood clams, periwinkles, dogfish, ocean perch, sand eels, scup, bluefish (“that’s not smoked, thank you very much”) and a Vineyard shellfish raw bar. Conch, one of the Vineyard’s biggest exports but rarely seen on Island menus, will also be on the menu.
Mr. Oster realizes pushing items rarely, if ever, seen on Island menus is risky. But he’s willing to give it a try.
“If we don’t at least try our best to put the cleanest product on the plate, then we’re doing a disservice to Martha’s Vineyard, to the fishermen and to our customers.”
Genetic Roulette shows Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society in Vineyard Haven at 4 p.m. Tickets are $7 for members and $10 for nonmembers. Visit slowfoodmarthasvineyard.org.