Friend of the Farmers
Bryan Miller - April 2014
It’s not fresh and seasonal unless Modesto Batista says so, and anyone with bins spilling produce in New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket knows that about the eagle-eyed heart and soul of Gramercy Tavern. Bryan Miller goes shopping with the king of the market.
It’s a mid-autumn lunchtime at Gramercy Tavern on East 20th Street in Manhattan, and, as usual, it’s standing room only. Beautiful plates of lamb and beef and striped bass and trout swoosh out of the kitchen. From my vantage point in the middle of the room, I can’t help noticing the abundance and vibrancy of the accompanying vegetables, a hallmark of the restaurant since day one, thanks in part to the nearby farmers’ market at Union Square.
Charged for stocking the giant, ravenous maw of one of Manhattan’s most popular restaurants with the best provender is one Modesto Batista, 55, the restaurant’s esteemed and indispensable steward for nearly 20 years. Gramercy Tavern serves nearly 500 diners a day, a feat that employs more than 80 kitchen workers and even more support personnel like servers and management. I was told that Batista is quite a character and an authority on all things that sprout from the ground and grow on bushes and trees. So I tagged along with him one day to the market.
At the farmers’ market, which he visits three or more times in the morning, Batista is a personage of considerable authority and sway. On an average day—the market runs year-round on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—he spends up to $5,000 on hundreds of pounds of produce and specialty goods. His means of transportation is a big rolling plastic tub that he weaves through the crowds like a cabbie. When the tub is full, he maneuvers it through traffic and pedestrians for a couple of blocks to the restaurant. If there are last-minute orders that call for another trip, he might lug the goods by hand on a large heavy palate braced atop his belt buckle.
I followed Batista on his rounds one luminous October morning. It’s quite an experience. Before heading out, he confers with executive chef Michael Anthony and is given a detailed order sheet for the day’s menu. “We try to buy just the food we need to stay fresh—not too much—knowing that we might run out of a menu item,” says Anthony. “Modesto has an intimate understanding of the market and has the authority to buy new ingredients that we’re not using to nudge us forward.”
Within seconds of arriving in Union Square, a chorus of “Hey, Modesto!” begins, as if he were a celebrity or the guy carrying the payroll checks. In fact, he is the guy carrying the payroll checks for many of the farmers. The greenmarket sellers have come to depend on Batista’s regular big-ticket purchases as a mainstay of their business. After years of frequenting the market, Batista has even persuaded Gramercy Tavern owner Danny Meyer to set up accounts.
A nearby farmer, Franca Tantillo, of Berried Treasures in the western Catskills town of Cooks Falls, New York, overhears the payday remark and interjects, “Without Modesto, none of us would make any money!”
Batista is a gentle bear of a guy, nearly six feet tall, heavyset, with a mustache and playful eyes that can spot a perfect ramp at 20 paces. In autumn, he favors fleece jackets, worn jeans, and a black cap. A native of the Dominican Republic, one of 10 children, he came to the United States in 1984 with two of his brothers to work in construction (three brothers were already here.) His father followed in 1990, finding work as a security guard on building sites.
“My father was in the construction business until he was 86, a hard worker,” says Batista, rolling his eyes. “Then he went back to the Dominican Republic to start a farm, 150 acres. He’s now 96, so he can’t do all of that work anymore.”
On a trip home in the late 1980s, Batista met his wife, Iris, with whom he has two children. They moved to Brooklyn for two years, then relocated to an apartment in Harlem, where they reside today.
As the result of a casual tip in 1986, Batista was able to abandon his brawny trade for a position at the luxurious La Côte Basque restaurant, then at 5 East 55th Street. He started as a dishwasher, then progressed to the prep station—cutting, chopping, and washing produce—where he developed an appreciation for food. Being a trained electrician and plumber, he also became the go-to guy for all things malfunctioning. “If it broke, they called Modesto. I fixed it—electrical, pipes, kitchen equipment—you name it. It was a good feeling.”
The restaurant was forced to close in 1994 over a lease issue and shortly thereafter moved a block west. “When Côte Basque closed, I heard about Gramercy Tavern opening and went over to see them,” he recalls. “Got hired right away—a week after they opened.” He has been there ever since, proudly noting that he has never missed a day.
Batista refers to two men as his American fathers. The first, Jean-Jacques Rachou, once the chef/owner of La Côte Basque, has been a mentor, friend, and occasional banker to numerous aspiring chefs who trained in his kitchens. When Batista wanted to purchase a house back in the Dominican Republic but hesitated for financial reasons, Rachou encouraged him.
“Jean-Jacques handed me five thousand dollars, just like that, and said, ‘Buy that house.’”
The second is Meyer, for whom he has worked for nearly 20 years. “Modesto is all about pride,” says Meyer, owner of the Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, Shake Shack, North End Grill, Blue Smoke, The Modern, and Maialino, plus offshoots). “His DNA is woven with Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Hospitality.”
Adds Anthony: “He has the biggest heart in the business.”
Throughout the market, Batista is highly respected for his purchasing acumen and generous checkbook. He begins a typical day there by dropping in on some of his favorite purveyors, like Paffenroth Gardens, located in Warwick, New York. “Look at these bright vegetables—carrots, squash, beans—you can tell a lot just by looking at the colors.” Owner Alexander Paffenroth welcomes Batista warmly—not surprisingly, as he was holding an invoice for $946. He moves on to Cherry Lane Farms (Bridgeton, New Jersey) where a fellow in his late 20s calls out, “Here’s the man who can really wheel and deal!” Lewis J. Depietro III leans over his long produce table and greets Batista affectionately. “I’ve known him since I was 12 or 13, and he hasn’t changed a bit—still the best.”
Next stop is Mountain Sweet Berry Farm out of Roscoe, New York. “Look at these leeks,” Batista exclaims, holding up a big fat one and rubbing his thumb over the root end. “See how the white on this is really long? California leeks have more green and less white. These are better for the chefs.”
Rick Bishop, the farmer and owner, walks over and remarks: “You can be sure that if there’s anything really good in the market—swoosh!—by the time you turn around, Modesto has all of it.”
We return to the bowels of the restaurant, walking along narrow corridors past workers’ lockers and sundry storage rooms. Batista stops occasionally to show me an electrical socket that he fixed, a leaky sink pipe he repaired (“They had the leak covered with duct tape!”), and shelves he had built to hold staff uniforms.
“Don’t they look nice, all folded neatly?” he points out, proudly patting a pile of chefs’ jackets. As steward, he’s in charge of everything that comes and goes out of the place and maintaining the round-the-clock engine that propels one of Manhattan’s busiest dining venues.
His rabbit warren of an office holds two desks and a couple of computers. I take a seat, and he reaches for a faded sheet of paper taped to the wall. Nearly glowing, he hands it to me. It’s addressed to his younger son, Angel—a 2009 letter of acceptance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Everything, everything paid for,” he points out. I couldn’t help notice that his expression was the same as that when he showed off his uniform shelves. Jobs well done.
Angel, also a high level chess player, graduates in May. His older son, Yunior, 25, manages Meyer’s Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Iris drops in. She’s a small, soft-spoken woman. This makes 19 years she has worked in the prep room at Gramercy Tavern. “We spent so much time here we had to hire babysitters when the children were young,” she says. Batista hangs up the phone and informs me that he has to return to the market—his fifth trip. I obligingly go along.
“My father told me that if you work hard, you’ll never grow old,” he declares, pointing to his heart for emphasis. “I hope I have a lot of years left.
Former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan J. Miller is a food and wine writer living in Tarrytown, New York.