John Singer, current head chef at the Freight Yard Pub, has now been at the restaurant for 25 years. Of course, he didn't start as head chef right when he arrived. Back in 1987, he joined the staff in the first few years after the Freight Yard had opened.
"Twenty-five years ago they had a full salad bar upstairs that was open seven days a week," recalled Singer. "I replenished the salad bar, was extra hand in the kitchen, and that's where I started learning it all. As time ran on I became a cook, then second cook, and then pretty much where I am now, all learning there from experience."
Not that the Freight Yard Pub was Singer's first restaurant. He had worked in various other Berkshires restaurants in his younger years doing prep work and assisting chefs, in a role he described as "kitchen helper". In addition to a few chain restaurants, he worked at the Sheraton Inn in Adams when it first opened. After a stint at a mill, he decided to apply to the Freight Yard
Singer's work was always in the kitchen, helping with things like catering. "My experience was all hands-on," he said. "When the pub first opened they had consultants come in who I would learn from, there were lots of different people coming through there. The chef there at the time would come in during the day, and I started working mornings, so he'd put the order together and give it to me. I kind of became the chef's right hand man over the years."
When the restaurant was sold in 1992, Singer wasn't sure if he would stay on with the change in management. But Colleen Taylor, one of the new owners, asked him to stick around. (Taylor still runs the Freight Yard Pub today, with her brother Sean.)
Singer explained, "I continued to do the ordering, but I was always making the soups and sauces. Some I had learned from previous chefs there, then I read books and had picked up more ideas, and here I am."
Singer continues to enjoy the freedom afforded by his position as head chef at the Freightyard, especially in comparison to some of the places he worked previously. "Some places can be boring; I've worked in places like chain restaurants where it's the same thing day in day out, frozen foods, heat the food, serve it. This is cooking, it's more of your ideas, you do what you want. A lot of our soups, sauces, the chili, it's our own. We've changed it over the years, so it's not a boring thing; you have a lot more freedom."
The chili is something that Singer is particularly proud of. "My chili, people will say, ‘I don't like chili but I like that!' People will try it on the nachos, and realize they like chili. It's not frozen, canned, or chili powder, it's my own herbs and spices. Last week we had beef stew, and I still make it like my mother used to make it."
Unlike 25 years ago, these days Singer tries to make sure everything at the restaurant is homemade and not processed.
"In the beginning we'd buy the salsa," he recalled, "but then I decided to try making our own. We tried different recipes and came up with ours. We're aways open for everyone's input, we do change things from time to time."
Things don't change too often, however, because Singer describes North Adams as a "meat and potatoes" kind of place. "It's the demand of what the people really like. We've tried different things that don't work, and if it ain't broke you don't want to fix it. If it is, you adjust it a little bit. That's the great thing about Freight Yard. Our steak tips, we've been doing the same way for a long time, Black Diamond steak tip, I wouldn't change that. The only thing we've changed is that I found a better cut of meat to use. We still hand-cut them."
This time of year, soups are a big hit, and Singer enjoys knowing that people will call ahead to ask if his famed Vermont Cheddar and Beer soup will be available. With the holidays approaching, Singer has been preparing for holiday parties and catering, and the Freight Yard Pub has already been taking reservations.
Meanwhile, when it comes to food, Singer just enjoys making things people want to eat. "We never stop learning," he said of his time at the Freight Yard. "I started learning there, and I'm still learning there over 25 years later."
Now you try ...
'Vermont Cheddar and Beer Soup'
equal parts flour and butter
Sautee the vegetables in the butter until tender. Add the flour to make a roux. While the roux is cooking, pour a can of beer in a big pot of chicken stock. Add the stock to the roux, and finally, add the cheddar.