Becoming a chef wasn’t always part of the plan for Peter Berley.
In fact, it hadn’t crossed the Roslyn native’s mind until he began working in restaurants while studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
It was there, in the early 1970s, that he was introduced to macrobiotics.
A term coined in the 1950s by Nyoichi Sakurazawa (known to Westerners as George Ohsawa) in the 1950s, the macrobiotic philosophy of health embraces a diet based on whole grains, additive-free food and locally grown, seasonal vegetables.
“It’s so mainstream now,” Berley said with a slight smile during a recent interview at his North Fork home. “But at the time, it was a radical idea to think of eating seasonally. It felt cool, rebellious.”
Somewhat predictably, the macrobiotic philosophy was embraced by the hippies, who rejected Wonder Bread and TV dinners for brown rice, kale and seaweed.
As the adage goes, “You are what you eat.”
If that’s true — and if “the personal is political” — what’s more personal than food?
Nothing, Berley would argue.
“I love to share [home cooking] with other people, because it’s such a simple way of improving our lives,” he said. “It has an impact on global warming, on politics, on socioeconomic mobility, health. On everything.”
Berley quietly preaches these ideas by way of small cooking classes offered at his teaching kitchen in the South Jamesport home he shares with his wife, Meg.
From September to May, he opens his kitchen to groups of eight students looking to refine their culinary skills for often sold-out sessions that rely heavily on word-of-mouth.
With each session, students gather around his large butcher block baker’s table, ready to roll up their sleeves and learn.
The bright yellow kitchen is thoughtfully designed but homey, with shelves filled with cookbooks, equipment displayed beautifully and functionally, and a wood-burning oven framed with azulejo painted tiles.
“I know that isn’t practical for most people at home,” he said of the wood oven. “But it’s an awesome experience for people here,” who learn to prepare pizza crusts, pita and naan using his sourdough starter method.
The two-day courses are technique-driven rather than recipe-driven, and the students share meals built around those skills.
Though the menu varies, one thing remains consistent: Berley’s focus on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients.
Since swearing off restaurant life, he’s found a haven in the North Fork’s abundance of produce, sustainably produced dairy and seafood plucked from Peconic Bay, just steps away from his kitchen.
Eating locally and seasonally, he believes, is not only a way to support small farmers, but also lessens our reliance on food trucked in from far away, relying heavily on fossil fuels to arrive on our dinner tables.
“There are amazing things happening on the North Fork,” he said. “The [Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training] program with oysters, snail farming, mushrooms … there’s more and more good stuff happening.”
Dairy from Ty Llwyd Farm is used to make cheese and ice cream, fish from “Charlie’s” for ceviche and a plethora of vegetables sourced both from farm stands and from raised beds in Berley’s garden for roasting, pickling or canning.
Classes start up again in September, and Berley said fall is “prime time” for pickling. “As October comes in, we’ll get into winter squashes, and the art and technique of braising,” he explained.
Though winter can be a tricky season to source entirely local, Berley knows that kale and root vegetables are ideal for soups and broths, paired with freshly made pasta or sourdough bread.
Private, customizable classes are also available.
“This isn’t really a business. It’s a private practice,” he said, something he began in 2011. “It’s like if you’re a music teacher and someone comes over to your house for a lesson. That’s what I wanted, something intimate.”
Cooking, he said, is more about skill than natural talent.
Consider the poached egg. It’s more advanced than scrambling, sure, but can be learned in one morning.
“It’s not going to take you years to learn how to poach an egg,” Berley explained. “It will take you years to learn how to poach 30 eggs at once and serve them at the same time. OK, that takes experience.”
He teaches those important restaurant industry skills as well, to students at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, though he prefers working with home chefs in Jamesport.
Berley hasn’t worked in a restaurant kitchen since 2000, when he left his post as executive chef at the acclaimed East Village vegan restaurant Angelica’s Kitchen, which shut its doors in 2017. He had left to pursue a career as a writer and private chef.
“[Restaurant life] is tricky. They go out of business constantly. I was tired and realized I could have a more balanced life,” he said, adding that he longed to have weekends off to spend with Meg and their daughters, Kayla and Emma.
Surprisingly, Berley himself is neither vegan nor vegetarian.
The most appropriate term to describe his diet would be “flexitarian,” which inspired his 2007 cookbook, “The Flexitarian Table: Inspired Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers and Everyone in Between.” He also published “Fresh Food Fast” and “The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen,” which received awards from both the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the James Beard Foundation.
Whether sharing recipes through his books or online courses or hosting students in his kitchen, Berley’s mission is to help people better enjoy their lives — and cooking.
Around his table, strangers become friends as bread is broken and wine is poured. And though it’s a “class,” the teacher isn’t concerned with assigning grades or harsh critiques.
“What’s most important is the experience of crafting something in the moment and sharing that with other people. It’s never going to be the same again,” he explained.
“Food brings people together in an amazing way. People from every political spectrum. People I might not necessarily eat with or have over,” he said, from bankers and lawyers and engineers to artists and writers and teachers.
“People’s points of view come out over the dinner table, and I love that.”
For a class schedules visit, peterberley.com/classes