By Rochelle Billow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
Photos by Onion Studio

If you’ve had any sort of connection to Finger Lakes food within the past ten years or so, chances are you’ve come across Samantha Buyskes-Izzo. She’s been cooking here since 2002, and since 2007 has served as the Executive Chef at Simply Red Bistro at Sheldrake Point Winery on Cayuga Lake, as well as at La Tourelle Resort and the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca.

It’s a fair assertion that she’s best known for her work at Sheldrake, where the bistro earned her a sort of cult following, attracting visitors from all over and curious local foodies. Samantha’s unique background — she grew up in South Africa — and elegant, thoughtful creativity meshed together there to elevate winery fare from an often boring paint-by-numbers meal to an exciting, complete dining experience. 

She’s a standout chef in her understanding of spices and how flavors work together. A mountain of shaved carrot, studded with Moroccan spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves — and moist with herbed cream cheese, piled high with sprouts on whole grain bread remains the best sandwich I’ve ever consumed. Each bite gave way to a gentle crunch and soft sweetness before finishing with a lingering heat. After finishing the sandwich and a lemonade sweetened with lavender syrup, I wasn’t just hooked — I was inspired.

SamagainI’m not alone in this sentiment, so I know I wasn’t the only one to react with trepidation when Samantha announced earlier this fall that she was leaving the bistro at Sheldrake Point to pursue a new venture, Simply Red Events and Culinary Center at the Highland Lodge in Trumansburg.

I called Sam earlier this week to talk about what the change will mean for her — and, selfishly, to inquire what it will mean for her fans like me. When I asked if, moving forward, getting a taste of her food would be as easy as ordering a sandwich at the bistro at Sheldrake, she paused and then laughed apologetically. 

“Well, no. But it will be a better experience.” She went on to explain that while the bistro gave her an extraordinary opportunity to champion not just her food and flavors, but also the Finger Lakes region, it was restricting. “Only in that I couldn’t be a part of the experience from start to finish,” she said. “If a customer came to eat, I might be able to stop by their table and say hello, but not much more. I couldn’t guide their meal.” 

Simply Red Events and Culinary Center will allow her that opportunity. The venture will invite curious eaters and cooks of varying expertise levels to explore all things edible in a more tangible, all-encompassing way. Cooking classes led by Sam will include trips to farms and food producers — when the weather warms up a bit — for truly a hands-on experience. 

For those looking less to create a meal and more to just eat one, Sam’s dreaming up music and food social nights at the Lodge. “I have someone checking out the acoustics there,” she said in typical Simply Red fashion, highlighting a detail with nonchalance that many of us might have very well overlooked.

I refrained from asking her if she’d miss the bistro at Sheldrake. I figured it was a given, and indeed she stated she would; very much. Instead, I wondered why she ultimately made what must have been a very difficult decision.

“I need to contribute to this community in a way that is about me… but not about me.” She continued, explaining that what she does in the Finger Lakes is important because it is unique and creative, but it’s ultimately more about what Simply Red means to the region and less about Sam the Chef.

“All the accolades on the wall don’t mean shit,” she said, before letting a warm chuckle escape and admitting that she is thankful for each one, including a cookbook (Mama Red’s Comfort Kitchen) and an appearance on the Food Network cooking competition, Chopped. “That was great, but it’s not about becoming famous. Deb [Whiting] and I used to dream together about everything we’d do for the region, culinarily speaking. When she passed, it shook me. I needed to figure out what I was doing, and how I was contributing.” 

She paused to catch her breath. “I have a rare opportunity here. What do I do with that?” 

Well, if things go according to plan, she expands her reach under the Simply Red umbrella. The food will still be available at La Tourelle and the Hangar Theatre, and an all-encompassing culinary experience will be open to the public at the Highland Lodge after the official opening in January of 2012. 

The concept for the basic classes goes like this: three hours, a three-course meal all paired with Finger Lakes wine. Each session is held together by a loose theme that serves to inspire the menu, rather than pigeonhole it. January’s for example, is to include spices that “entice and excite” the senses. February is about comforting, hearty foods, while March peeks at warmer weather with a spring-inspired roster of ingredients.

With a vision this big and a past so wide, I couldn’t help but wonder why she didn’t set her sights on a larger city. Her answer rang true.

“Everything just fell into place,” she said, reminiscing about her initial move to Podunk Road in Trumansburg (“Isn’t that great? I loved it.”) Sam, like so many fixtures in the area, found inspiration in the seasonal ingredients and sense of camaraderie among cooks, winemakers and food producers. Settling here was a no-brainer; the surprising part was what came after the restaurant. She never expected to be so enthralled by the idea of cooking classes but the longer she thought about it, the greater appeal it held. 

As we wrapped up the conversation, I began to realize my concerns were unfounded. The Finger Lakes region has many more spice and seasonal-inspired meals to look forward to because Chef Sam isn’t going anywhere — and neither is Simply Red.