A sign has stood outside Juliet for the past five days asking “Who was Captain Leo Brooks?” Like many of the adornments around and inside the restaurant, Katrina built that sign. Like many of these things, this one is repurposed from another time. She first built this sign for our Spanish restaurant, the intentionally short lived Gitana. It stood tall on Highland Avenue for nearly two months proclaiming the availability of various jamon; Serrano, Mangalica, sometimes Iberico, tortilla espanola, patatas bravas, bocadillos, and our incongruous but never undersold lobster roll. Often the sign would also list the name of some punk band playing later that evening. Gitana existed in the entryway to a friend’s music venue/catering company, Cuisine en Locale. One night there was an unexpected burlesque performance in the accidentally double booked dining room. Another day, pinball machines were delivered right past our makeshift lunch counter. The sign was there for it all.
Its hinges had loosened sometime ago. Its chalkboard surface was cloudy. Katrina took one evening last week before dinner service and refinished it, secured its hinges, and put out a new message along with the expected hours of operation and the day’s special; a question.
Captain Leo Brooks was a retired commercial airline pilot who invested (money as well as time, and reputation) in a farming operation in his recent home of Westport, MA. There with his wife Barbara Hanley he committed everything to helping the Santos brothers revitalize a third generation single herd dairy, Shy Brothers Farm, through cheesemaking.
New England once had a rich tradition of dairy farming for milk production. That has become increasingly difficult for many reasons, most notably related to how the price of wholesale milk is regulated to favor large scale industrial farms. The region has been losing farmland, especially dairy farmland at a record pace for a few decades. I saw this firsthand working for a failing dairy in northern Connecticut over ten years ago. The farmers had to resort to cutting staff and other resources, working incredible hours for no income just to attempt to keep the farm in operation. Slowly I watched this fail as section after section of the land was sold off to developers. The conditions for the farm’s owners, staff, community and eventually even the animals there deteriorated rapidly.
Leo and Barbara saw another answer in the increasing demand for high quality local cheeses. Together with the family they fortified their herd and recommitted to only the best practices in raising it. They are always ready, even without notice, to show off not just their cheesemaking facilities but their entire farm of happy, healthy, and cute Jersey cows. They dedicated their time to celebrating and evangelizing the hard work of their farmers and cheesemakers, eventually pioneering a guild of similarly minded artisans and dairy producers across the state.
Barbara has had a standing invitation open for me to stay at her home for years. She called me once at Beacon Hill Bistro, just to say hi. My former boss there, Jason Bond, had been an early customer of Shy Brothers, using their now popular Hannabells in a baked pear dessert. I hated that pear (not because it wasn’t delicious but because the garde manger chef always failed to tell me we were running low on the ingredients to prepare it) but loved the cheese and the Hannabells were still on my cheese cart even after Jason’s departure to open his own restaurant, Bondir. She heard the young age in my voice when I picked up the phone and immediately asked me out to the farm. I think she just wanted to buy me lunch, which she did. She spent a minute brushing away parsley that was laid down in an unbroken ring all the way around the rim of her plate. She looked up at me and laughed.
“I have nothing against parsley but this is just here for no reason, isn’t that annoying?”
I love parsley. But yes, that is annoying. Barbara is from Alabama and reminded me of my mother in all the best ways. I was dying to take her up on her offer to stay that night, or any night.
Years later Katrina and I were called for a major catering event in neighboring South Dartmouth. We packed the car with everything we’d need to serve three services over two days. The capstone was a ten or so course tasting dinner prepared outdoors in a covered kitchen complete with range, oven and two dishwashers preceded by a picnic inspired lunch. The prep counter was a few feet from a pool. The pool was 100 yards from the sea. The opening meal though, was really special. Using nothing but a large grill we presented bouillabaisse in three courses. The way we imagined it might have been at L’Ane Rouge, a Michelin starred restaurant we visited in Nice but had failed to reserve 48 hours ahead of time to experience the bouillabaisse. That day we had our chance though, cooking it ourselves, oceanside. It was wonderful.
In between we stayed with Barbara. In the Martha Washington bedroom. At breakfast we met Captain Leo Brooks. Leo humbly regaled us with stories of visiting this country or that one while looking over his newspaper. He hinted at his profession in the skies, subtly. He got up to make us breakfast. Eggs from a neighboring farm. Scrambled well. Tomatoes, from their garden, with salt.
“Would you like some cloumage?” Leo.
Of course they want Cloumage!” Barbara.
Leo’s personality opened up at the stove. Booming now. Probably not on purpose, Leo was well over six feet and his voice filled the room as readily as his frame. He spoke more specifically about favorite airstrips around the world, and restaurants too. Leo had favorite places in France and Spain. I was interested in those, but predictably more so in his list for Africa, India, Vietnam. They each told us the story of how they first met. It was in a bar. Just like Katrina and I. There’s a lot more to the story than just that. Likewise again.
He tells me about his favorite saffron and goes hunting for it in a cabinet. I tell him not to bother, I have the best saffron. Ours is grown in Afghanistan and purchased directly from the farmers with the help of our friends at Rumi Spice. It’s awesome. His is Kashmiri. I’m sure it’s just as good. We both smile knowing ours will always be better than his if only for sentimental reasons. Katrina laughs to herself I’m sure imagining what her Iranian father would have to say to either of us. Katrina grew up with saffron smuggled in suitcases, first to Los Angeles and then distributed among the family on yearly visits.
“Look I just have to say it. I have to get it on the table. Leo was a gunrunner.” Barbara.
“Who’s ready for scrambled eggs?” Leo.
Reminding me of my mother again, I immediately know that although Barbara wasn’t lying, the real story was probably a little more complicated and a little less illicit than what was presented at first. Over those eggs we got the rest of that story, and a few more too.
Leo pulled out recipes collected from near and far, more than a few with stories of families and cooks to go with them. Barbara hinted at a cookbook project. I was dying to sign up to help without looking overly eager. Sometimes my ambition for ideas I love can roll out a little too quickly and a little too strongly. I left praying they’d write someday to discuss that project further. I’ve begun two short stories that center around Captain Leo. I look forward to having time to finish them.
Leo Brooks was a friend. Although we only met him that one time. He recently died, unexpectedly. Leaving behind a wonderful wife, and friends that I am sure are countless. We have a sign proclaiming his name outside the restaurant and we hope it draws you in. Of course because we’d love to offer you a toast for breakfast spread thick with his beloved Cloumage, a Shy Brothers Farm cheese that is worth a morning detour to taste, but also because we’d love to tell you more about him, so please ask.
At Juliet our farmers are important to us. We’ve been overdue in telling you more about them. We are proud to start with Captain Leo Brooks.