Celebration by the Lake
In small-town Indiana, a former farm boy turned world-class chef and his mom, nicknamed the Biscuit Queen, preside over a sensational Independence Day party.
"My parents rang a cowbell when it was time for dinner," says 40-year-old chef Daniel Orr about growing up in Harrison Township (population 3,444) in Bartholomew County, Indiana. "I was always running around outside—weeding the garden, picking buckets of currants, catching crayfish or gathering cattails, which I pulled apart and ate like hearts of palm."
Daniel left Indiana years ago—he is now the chef at CuisinArt Resort & Spa in Anguilla—but he returns every summer to spend the Fourth of July with his parents. His mom and dad, Mary Lu and Thomas (or Lefty, as he's been known since his days playing minor-league baseball), run a wheat, corn and soybean farm that originally belonged to Daniel's great-great-grandparents. His parents still live in the lakefront house where Daniel grew up, and they still raise everything from asparagus to grapes in their gardens and greenhouse.
Daniel got his start in those gardens. At age 10, he was experimenting with planting mizuna seeds and different mustard varieties. By 14, he was expanding his knowledge of food to caviar, foie gras and truffles, which he discovered at dinners prepared by family friends Claire and Jim Gregory, corporate chefs for a local diesel-engine manufacturer. At Jim's suggestion—and on an Eagle Scout scholarship—Daniel studied cooking at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Afterward he worked at Michelin three-star restaurants in France and Belgium before becoming executive chef at La Grenouille and then at Guastavino's in New York City. At CuisinArt Resort, Daniel is getting the chance to do some farming again. He plans to expand the resort's organic and hydroponic gardens, where he grows eggplant, bok choy, bananas and avocados, among other fruits and vegetables.
For this July Fourth, Daniel brought his CuisinArt chef de cuisine, Christopher Heath, and Christopher's wife, Jessica, to Indiana for the Orrs' holiday party. With flags and homemade streamers in hand, everyone sat on the porch to watch the annual neighborhood parade—a 20-minute display of children on bicycles and Rollerblades, and men driving tractors, antique cars and the local fire truck. "The parade has stayed pretty much the same except that we didn't have Rollerblades back when I was a kid," Daniel recalls. "My brother, David, and I just pulled each other on a red wagon."
Although his parents still plant much of their own produce, the selection has gotten more exotic, thanks to their son's travels. "Right now, they're growing loofah sponges—which are delicious pickled young—from seeds I bought in San Francisco's Chinatown," Daniel says. His travels have also influenced the Fourth of July party menu. Inspired by his frequent scuba diving trips to Cozumel, Mexico, he grills corn on the cob until it's charred and smoky, then coats it with chopped chile peppers, lime juice and pungent Cotija cheese. He tosses tart tomatillos from the garden with jalapeño, ginger, cilantro and lemon juice. During his time in Anguilla, he's created other dishes highlighting the Asian flavors that influence Caribbean cooking. He coats his chicken cutlets with Chinese five-spice powder and crushed potato chips, then sautés them until they're crisp; he flavors whole soybeans from the garden with a hot, citrusy Indian spice mix called pickle masala for a delicious snack to serve with drinks like his saffron-spiced coolers.
But one July Fourth recipe never changes—Daniel's grandmother's buttermilk biscuits, served with ice cream and berries. "No one except for my mom is allowed to make them when we're all together," he says. "She's the Biscuit Queen. They turn out so buttery and flaky, with the most perfect crust." Innovative and peripatetic as he is, Daniel seems happy that some things always stay the same.