Jonathan Bernard’s current status as partner in the swank Southampton specialty market, Hen of the Woods, could hardly be more serendipitous. Four years after embarking on an ill-fated career in urban farming, he is now principal buyer for one of the East End’s best luxury grocers.
The store opened in April in what used to be the eastern half of La Parmigiana, a venerable Italian restaurant that, during the pandemic, found it had a surfeit of dining space. Bernard and Suzy Yang transformed it in retro-cool apothecary style — vintage lighting, lots of wood cabinetry, sleek wainscoting — and stocked it with scores of items, many of which are rarities on Long Island: vaunted Red Cow Parmesan and Nonno Nanni stracchino, a fresh cheese from Treviso that is a favorite of Italian children; Rice Factory rice, imported from Japan in refrigerated containers to preserve its freshness; Yamaroku four-year-old aged Japanese soy sauce; Chiavalon olive oil from Croatia, Little Fork wine vinegar made from North Fork wines.
There’s a display of custom-made knives by East Hampton’s Dereyk Patterson and, for customers who prefer not to cook, a refrigerated case chock full of chef Kait Kelly’s seasonal creations. Recent offerings include thick-sliced Japanese-style "sandos" filled with lobster or egg salad, sesame-soba noodles with scallions and peanuts, seafood escabeche, rhubarb-almond cakelettes, ginger-scallion spring succotash with beans, asparagus, peas and favas.
The produce shelves at the front of the store hold specialty produce, both local (asparagus and potatoes from Sagaponack’s Marilee’s Farmstand) and exotic (fuzzy raw almonds and tiny finger limes from California), but pride of place goes to mushrooms, which were Bernard’s gateway into the world of gourmet food. His association with fungi goes back to that experience in urban farming: In 2017, Bernard signed up to be an apprentice gardener with Square Roots, a startup committed to establishing an armada of urban "farms" inside repurposed shipping containers. Square Roots instilled in Bernard’s mind a germ of an idea: The biggest challenge for raising vegetables indoors, he realized, was the lack of sunlight. He wondered: Was there something that liked to grow in the dark?
Mushrooms was the answer.
By 2018, Bernard had set up a shipping container in Huntington Station where he was growing wide-brimmed shiitakes, fat-stemmed king trumpet mushrooms, fluted oyster mushrooms, tiny-capped beech mushrooms and, the fungus that would lend its name to the store, the extravagantly ruffled hen of the woods, aka maitake mushroom, all of them sprouting from sawdust "logs" that had been seeded with the appropriate spores. Scaling up meant learning the preferences of each species. "When you’ve got 10 logs," he said, "it’s a hobby. You keep them at high humidity and a cool temperature and you’re OK. But when you’ve got 50 logs, it’s a whole different story. The king trumpets like it at 65 degrees and 85 to 90% humidity. That’s a good humidity for the shiitakes, but they like it a little warmer."
Bernard started selling his "Jon’s Gourmet Mushrooms" at local farmers markets but he found his most enthusiastic customers were chefs. "I’d go to the back door of the kitchen and show the chefs what I had." His top-quality mushrooms and his can-do attitude generated a cult following for the 25-year-old @streetleafsjonny, as he was known on Instagram. Beyond the mushrooms he grew, he also foraged for wild morels and ramps. Soon he began asking chefs, "what else are you looking for?" and, even though he had no experience in sourcing or importing, he started supplying uni (sea urchin) from California, Alaska and Maine. Doug Gulija, chef-owner of Plaza Cafe in Southampton, asked him to find olive oil from his native Croatia and, having accomplished that, he decided to start importing truffles from Italy and France.
During the pandemic, restaurant deliveries slowed, and Bernard pivoted to home delivery, with most of his customers located in New York City and the Hamptons. But as COVID regulations eased and people began venturing out to dine and shop, he had to pivot again. "Delivering one pound of shiitakes to one person’s home just isn’t sustainable." Now, he realized, was the time to open a retail market. Luckily, he had met Suzy Yang, a veteran restaurateur who, with her husband, owns Izakaya NoMad, Osamil and Cafe Salmagundi in Manhattan. An expert in Korean and Japanese cuisines, she and her family were now spending more time in their Southampton house and she was looking for work closer to home.
Bernard and Yang found that their talents and interests meshed perfectly and, with the hiring of chef Kelly, their team was complete. They opened their doors on April 16 and, since then, have continued to fine-tune the ratio of kitchen workhorses to luxury groceries to prepared items as they get to know their customers.
Hen of the Woods is at 48 Hampton Rd., Southampton, 631-834-9172, 48hampton.com