Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Copper Oven ~ food, wine and style

Editor's note:  The Copper Oven at Cayuga Ridge Winery on Cayuga Lake has quickly developed  a name for itself within the food community in the Finger Lakes.  Last year they created the hugely popular "Drink Finger Lakes Wine" t-shirt and just yesterday released a photo of their new placement menu that caught our attention and prompted this interview with owner, Mary Jane Challen.  The Copper Oven is one of fifteen restaurants participating in the Finger Lakes Wine Country Restaurant Week, June 18-24. 

Mary Jane, Seth, and Graham Challen of The Copper Oven
Over the last couple years, you have really been able to generate a lot of buzz from foodie and wine lovers alike with your “copper oven” concept. Can you tell us more about The Copper Oven. How did you come up with the idea and what your food mission is?

The Copper Oven came as a result of a conversation we had one day about a wood fired sauna (that we still have yet to build) in our backyard. I said to Seth, “You can have your wood fired sauna as soon as I get a wood fired oven.” One thing led to another, until we found ourselves talking about a wood fired pizza business connected to my family’s business, Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery.

In the process, we did a bunch of research, traveled to a few places to test ovens and eventually fell in love with the one we purchased. The core of our 6,000 pound Le Panyol oven is made up of “Terre Blanche” (White Earth), a kaolinic clay that has been specially harvested in France since 1840 for the many special properties that make it ideal for wood fired cooking.

Over the years we have travelled to various places around the world, and the meals that always speak to us are the ones made from the freshest ingredients, using the most local produce. At The Copper Oven we strive to tell the story of the cornucopia of flavours available in the Finger Lakes. We want our guests to feel a sense of community when they visit. I think the reason we capture such a vibrant response from food & wine lovers is that they can truly feel our commitment to the Finger Lakes region.

The food mission at The Copper Oven comes from my main influences – my mom and dad. From my dad I learned a love of growing things. We put together a large garden each year and many of these vegetables make beautiful pizza toppings. And from my mom I learned a love of cooking. Rustic, family style meals were always served in our home growing up. Seth and I feel very lucky to be part of the family business and to use it as an opportunity to connect to the people who grow the ingredients we use and to the people who visit us as customers.

Photo credit:  Brooke McConnell of Hudson Photography
In addition to locally sourced food and wine, you have an amazing design aesthetic. Tell us a little of the story behind the graphic design, especially the idea for the new menu.

We really have to give credit to my sister and our graphic designer, Katie Challen and to a couple of artists that we’ve been lucky to work with. Everything that we do from a design perspective has been inspired by an ongoing appreciation for this thing that is happening throughout the Finger Lakes region, that is much bigger than we are, and that being in business allows us to participate in.

For example, the centerpiece of the placemat/menu that we’ll use for the 2012 season is part of a piece of art that we commissioned Alyson Thomas to create for us. You’ve probably seen Alyson’s work before if you’ve visited a Williams-Sonoma in the last year or so and come across a book on their shelves titled, The Cook and The Butcher. Just like what she did in the book, Alyson is known for these amazing butchery diagrams of all kinds of funny things including dogs, pigs, pizzas, coffee and cocktails (see www.drywellart.com for more info). The piece Alyson created for us is essentially a butchery diagram of our pizza. The art itself is beautiful and zany and entirely conveys who we are and how we are connected to this “something bigger” that’s happening in the Finger Lakes region.

And that’s exactly where my sister Katie comes in. We give her very loose instructions about what we are looking for and she comes back to us with stuff that is out of this world. In fact, already we’ve had customers ask for extra placemats so that they can take them home. Katie is also responsible for our advertisements in Edible Finger Lakes magazine. She created the website for our family’s winery as well.

The last integral member of our motley design crew is my husband, Seth. He created The Copper Oven’s website. He also designs the postcards we give each table at the end of their meal. He comes up with our t-shirts ideas each year as well.

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