He hails from “meat and potato country,” but Greenport chef Taylor Knapp, who grew up just outside Indianapolis, says sampling unusual cuisine wasn’t atypical for his family.
“I think my grandfather had a lot of influence in my food interests,” Mr. Knapp, 25, said last week while on the deck at Greenport’s First & South restaurant, where he’s executive chef. “He was an adventurous eater and taught his grandkids to be the same way.”
Armed with a childhood of chowing down on dishes that featured things like stewed sheep, morel mushrooms and Indiana pawpaws, Mr. Knapp is taking his taste for unconventional foods to the masses with Peconic Escargot, a joint business venture with friend Sean Nethercott.
To get things rolling, Mr. Knapp and Mr. Nethercott, 31, a real estate agent from Southold, launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month to raise money for the business. Their objective: to lease an acre of land from Peconic Land Trust in Cutchogue and build a small greenhouse with stacked shelving for land snails imported from Texas or California. Once the snails are ready to be harvested they’ll be blanched, packaged and sold to customers and purveyors around the country to be served as escargot.
“With this venture, we’re trying to show people who maybe aren’t the most adventurous eaters that snails are a really good, wholesome, fresh product,” Mr. Knapp said. “A fresh snail that’s been cooked well has the texture of a mushroom, so it’s not chewy at all. It has a meaty bite to it and an earthy, umami flavor.” (Umami can be translated from the Japanese as “pleasant savory taste.”)
As of Wednesday, Mr. Knapp and Mr. Nethercott’s campaign had raised $5,846, according to kickstarter.com. They have until Oct. 1 to reach their goal of $35,000, most of which will go toward purchasing an 18-by-36-foot greenhouse to farm the snails. As per the fundraising website’s rules, the men won’t receive any money unless the full amount is raised.
“I’m feeling pretty optimistic,” Mr. Nethercott said last Thursday, at a point when the effort had raised about $5,300 from 65 people. “We’re getting a lot of good reactions from [the campaign]. It’s just a matter of getting the name and the project out there.”
Their reason for wanting to establish Peconic Escargot is straightforward: In the U.S., Mr. Knapp said, fresh escargot simply isn’t produced and marketed for mass distribution. The first sentence of the venture’s online campaign reads: “Fact: 99.9% of restaurants that have escargot on their menu received them in a can, from France.” Mr. Knapp got his first taste of canned escargot on a cruise ship some years ago. It wasn’t a particularly tasty experience. “It tasted like chewy bits of rubber soaked in greasy garlic butter,” he said. Later, in New York City, he decided to give escargot another chance. It was still canned, but prepared better, Mr. Knapp said. The impetus to launch Peconic Snails, however, didn’t come until this spring, when Mr. Knapp was eating a snail dish at famed Manhattan restaurant Momofuku. “I asked where they got their snails and they said they came in a can from Burgundy, France,” he said. “That was a turning point to realizing even the best restaurants can’t get fresh escargot.”
Mr. Knapp decided to see if there was some way to get fresh escargot at First and South. He asked local chefs but they had little advice. Internet searches proved equally futile. Mr. Knapp reached out to purveyors known for finding lesser-used food items, such as caviar and sweetbreads, but they couldn’t find fresh escargot.
Finally, a former colleague suggested via text message: “Why don’t you just raise them yourself?”
“I kind of dismissed it,” Mr. Knapp said of the text. “Then I got to thinking about it and said, ‘Hey, why not?’ ”
After some online research, he got in touch with Mr. Nethercott, 31, a self-described natural-born entrepreneur, and the pair spent last winter and spring talking to state and federal officials to see what steps they needed to take.
And even the officials weren’t too sure.
“They didn’t know anyone doing it on the East Coast,” he said.
If Peconic Escargot gets off the ground, Mr. Knapp said, he plans to initially target chefs and home cooks, before moving on to distributors and maybe even specialty markets like Whole Foods.
But that can’t happen without support from donors, he noted.
“The thing we’re trying to stress to people is that, as much as we are a business, we’re not going to be able to make this happen without everyone’s support,” Mr. Knapp said. “If Kickerstarter doesn’t work, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I suppose we’ll try to find the money elsewhere. We went all-in on this and are hoping it comes out for the best.”
And what does Mr. Knapp’s grandfather, the original adventurous eater, think about all this?
“He’s really excited,” Mr. Knapp said. “He’s already donated some money.”