Who Fly Fishes?

Who Fly Fishes?

Tom Balenti, chef, restaurant owner

  • By: Stephen Camelio
Tom Balenti

Tom Valenti

Tom Valenti was still in high school when he apprenticed to local chef Etienne Merle at L'Auberge Du Cochon Rouge in his hometown of Ithaca, New York. Stints as a private chef and pastry chef in Westchester, New York, and a chef tournant in Paris soon followed. Upon his return to the States to work at such Manhattan hotspots as Gotham Bar and Grill and Alison on Dominick, Valenti's cooking was praised by renowned New York Times food critic Ruth Reichel and Food and Wine, which named him one of the "Ten Best New Chefs" in 1990. It was during this busy time that Valenti first discovered fly-fishing as he drove along the Beaverkill River on his way to visit Ithaca. In 2001, after years of getting rave reviews at Cascabel and Butterfield 81, the "Flavor King of New York" opened his own restaurant, Ouest, which serves dishes that are "equal parts comfort food and four-star inspiration" to celebrities and neighbors on Manhattan's Upper West Side. That same year he also created Windows of Hope, a non-profit organization that has raised over $23 million for families of food-service workers killed on September 11. So while others talk passionately about his food and fund-raising, Valenti chatted with FR&R about his real passion: fly-fishing.

A lot of fishermen come from your neck of the woods.
Yeah, I'm from upstate New York. I never fly-fished as a kid but when I was very young we had a cottage on Cayuga Lake. I did some worm and spoon fishing but I was never that enamored with that sub-surface fishing. It's like, 'God only knows where they are, and what they are doing down there.'

How did that translate into fly-fishing?

It didn't, really. After I moved to the City, I used to go back and forth along Route 17 and quite often stop about halfway through the trip and pull off by the side of the road and sit on a rock by the river. I find the flow and movement of rivers very calming and therapeutic. Part of the road ran along the Beaverkill and I looked down on these men in the river flashing these switches back and forth, and I thought, what the hell are they doing?

When did you first give it a try?
About 17 years ago, I got cabin fever when I rented a house near Stratton Mountain in Vermont and started driving my girlfriend at the time crazy. We had noticed all the fly shops up there so she told me to go see what it was all about. I poked around and a couple of the guys encouraged me to take a casting lesson. They showed me some fundamentals and took me to this big farm right at dusk. The stream was about six feet below grade from the field and these cows were watching me as I was casting a Blue-Wing Olive, which I thought was the most bizarre name for anything, into this riff. And that was it; I was hooked.

And you've got a house in the Catskills, about halfway between New York City and Ithaca.

Yeah, once I got bit with the fly-fishing bug I had to do it. I had actually been in the process of looking for property up there and as I got into fly-fishing it occurred to me that it would be a delightful idea to find some property on the riverfront. It's part of the equipment acquisition. I needed a house on the Beaverkill to support my rod and reel habit.

That's prime trout habitat right there. Do you go for any other types of fish?
Trout. Period.

Doesn't sound like you have to search too far for fish, but have you prospected for trout farther afield?
I've been out West to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. I love the setting out West and obviously there is some great water out there. But the Delaware River system, when it's on, is really fabulous. I'm very lucky that I don't have to travel. It's the luxury of having probably the greatest fishery two hours from New York City.

The restaurant business is notoriously fast-paced. Is fly-fishing the yin to that yang?

Indeed. The amount of people I interact with on a day-to-day basis, from staff and clientele, is a delightful existence. I wouldn't change that whole dynamic for anything, but you need a little peace and solitude once in a while. I like to get away and go fishing with my pals. When I fish I never feel good enough, and that has a lot to do with the people I am fortunate enough to fish with. Amazing fishermen like Al Caucci [of The Delaware River Club], Galen Mercer [noted sporting artist] and Art Lee [renowned fishing writer]. Their ability to fish is only trumped by their thorough knowledge of insect life and knowing where the fish are. Galen's at the point where he fishes with a 2-weight and throws more line than I can with a 6-weight. It's poetry in motion.

I've heard Gordon Ramsay is a big fly fisherman. Ever run into any other chefs on the river?
I've fished with a bunch of different chefs over the years. Tom Colicchio, [of Craft restaurant and the hit TV show "Top Chef"], and I were rabid freshwater guys back in the day. He has a home on the north shore of Long Island and has since discovered the beauty of saltwater fly-fishing. I know he recently got a boat so I'm afraid I've lost him forever.

So do the trout ever go from the stream into the frying pan?

Never. If everyone who fished up there took fish, there wouldn't be any left. In the past if I hooked a stocked fish I'd take one or two, but I haven't done it in years. That brings up the question of the whole stocking thing. Do they weaken the natural strain and push in on the natural food source? I don't know. I suppose it is good for the economy and perhaps if there weren't any stocked fish there would be an enormous amount of pressure on the native population. It's a question of what pressure is worse.

The Catskills are the home of the American dry fly. Is that your method of choice?
Yeah, I very rarely strap on a streamer or do any nymph fishing. I love the visual aspect of dries, studying the rise forms and trying to untangle that puzzle. Obviously it depends on the season and conditions, but I've always seemed to have good success with an emerger with a trailing shuck because you can float it, jig it or sink it. Still, I find that Delaware fish are tough-finicky, selective and fight like sons of bitches. I love it-up to the point where I break the rod over my knee. Little bastards.

But that region has also had some horrific floods of late.
Yeah, we've had three 100-year-floods in the last two years that I believe are a direct result of what we are doing to our planet. Now when you go to fish a favorite riff, it may not be there anymore. A lot of cleanup has to happen, but it's important for the fishermen and environmentalists to come together with the homeowners to find an environmentally sound stream restoration plan that will protect the fishing and the region's homes.

So then, what's the connection between cooking and fly-fishing?
It's the learning curve. I'll never have enough time to master either, so I always learn something. There are restaurant responsibilities that take me away from the meditative pleasure of cooking. With fishing there are some guys who are on the water 200 days a year. Sometimes it feels like I am starting all over from one weekend to the next. It is even more extreme with these rivers because the Beaverkill changes with the weather and the Delaware is beholden to New York City water flows. It's like starting a painting, dropping the brush and coming back the next weekend to find the painting has changed. But you obviously have to adjust to what Mother Nature and the City throw at you, and keep chasing that dangling carrot.