WILLIAMSTOWN - Mezze Bistro + Bar has been at a few different locations over the years, most recently on Cold Spring Road in Williamstown, overlooking Sheep Hill. But for the past five years, Chef Joji Sumi has been the man running the kitchen and directing the food.
However, he is quick to point out Mezze was already aligned with his goals.
"There was already a philosophy in place," said Sumi. "Most of our food comes locally year-round. We are a bistro, so we stick with mostly that style of bistro food. My background is half-Japanese, half-Irish, so sometimes you see influences from my cultures. There's not a set way to explain the food here, just a philosophy of food. As Mezze Restaurant, we just try and evolve that."
Sumi has been working in restaurants ever since starting as a dishwasher back in Michigan at the age of 16. After that, he worked in Connecticut, Florida, Chicago, and again in Michigan as a baker, before finally moving out to the Berkshires to work at Mezze.
"I started in a small restaurant, before farm to table was a thing," explained Sumi. "But we were in the middle of nowhere near farms, so that's where we got our food. Mezze sounded like a good place for me to get back into being a chef; its philosophies were where my roots where. I didn't work for any chefs of notoriety -- although I did work for a teacher at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] who I learned a lot from -- but I worked for chefs who were serious about the food, in serious kitchens."
Sumi continues to take his job seriously, especially when it comes to the importance of using fresh local ingredients at Mezze. They purchase a lot of storage vegetables in the winter, buy mostly cheeses and herbs this time of year, when the rest of the food comes from the farms. Most days he will either be going out and picking up food, or having farmers deliver directly to the restaurant.
"We concentrate on a small group of farms, rather than trying to buy from everyone," said Sumi, with the idea that it's better to make a bigger impact and strong relationships with a few places. "We depend on each other."
Two farms key to Mezze's food supply are Peace Valley Farm in Williamstown and Mighty Food Farm in Pownal, Vt.
"Mighty Farm does fresh or stored produce year-round; there's never really a gap with them," said Sumi. "Sometimes, in the winter, it gets difficult because you're cooking mostly root vegetables, so it's hard to think of new things to do with root vegetables, but it's a philosophy and commitment we've made, so we try and stick to that. Earlier there was a tomato blight, so we had lots of green tomatoes. We'll help our farmers out, buy things they're in surplus of, and find ways to utilize it."
One of the things Sumi has recently found more ways to utilize is whole animals. The restaurant's previous location on Water Street had a much smaller kitchen, but Mezze's new home offers a lot more space, some of which has quickly been put to use for whole-animal work.
"That's been the biggest change in the menu," Sumi confirmed. "We do a lot more whole-animal work, all of our own charcuterie work in-house from local animals. We have a schedule of animals delivered to us, and we're using all the parts as best we can, making those parts delicious in their own way. We make sausages, we use the bits a lot of chefs aren't interested in, we have trotters [pig's feet] on the menu. We have a system for what we do with all those parts. The front end goes into sausages or braising meats, the prime parts are featured on our menu, we make patés with some offal, and lots of sausages."
Naturally, starting with whole animals means lots of work for the Mezze kitchen. "It's not the easy way to do things," admitted Sumi, who is used to working long hours. "Chef's hours, during busy season especially, are like doctor's hours or farmer's hours. It's a lifestyle where there are always long hours, as a cook who takes things seriously. I guess it goes back to the philosophy that you get out of it what you put into it. If you only put in a little effort, your product isn't as good as if you put in greater effort."
While Sumi may have the same passion for food common to more notorious chefs, he has never shared their love for the spotlight.
"It's not about me," said Sumi. "It's a bout our whole team as a group. It's hard to find the committed people to do all that work. I'm the leader, but there's a lot of people that work really hard. All of our em ployees from the dishwashers up, there's a big commitment on all of our parts."
Mezze Bistro + Bar is on Cold Spring Road (Rt. 7), and is open Sunday through Thursday, from 5 to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, from 5 to 10 p.m.