by Chris Baggetta, Head Sommelier
Four Story Hill Farm, located in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Sylvia and Steve Pryzant. They moved to Pennsylvania from New York, where Sylvia worked for a nonprofit and Steve worked in food services for a nursing home. Today, New York chefs know them as purveyors of fine animals like milk–fed chickens and English Berkshire apple–fed baby pigs.
In 2008, they invited the staff of Eleven Madison Park to their farm to see firsthand where the products we prepare and serve come from. It had been about a year since my last visit, so I reached out to Sylvia to chat about what was happening at Four Story Hill Farm.
Chris: Sylvia, tell me the history of Four Story Hill. In the case of your farm, which came first, the chickens or the eggs?
Sylvia: Neither! Four Story Hill Farm was originally a veal farm. Then in 1997, there was a fire, and the barn where we had the veal calves collapsed. Consequently, we were out of a barn and out of veal, and that was all we did at the time. It was devastating. We diversified after this time, so as not to put all our eggs in one basket.
Chris: In one basket, no—but maybe in one coop?
Sylvia: Exactly. We started by building a small wooden chicken coop, about nine-by-seven feet. We had only about 25 chickens at that time. Our first customer was Chef Tom Colicchio, and then Chef Daniel Boulud. That is how it originated, little by little since 1997. For over 12 years, we have slowly been gaining companies and diversifying our products, although we have remained a small operation with only two other full-time employees and one part-time driver.
Chris: Tell me a bit more about the chickens themselves. What types of birds do you raise?
Sylvia: All types. We have capons, poussins, milk-fed poularde, and even free-range, grass-fed poularde, weather permitting. In terms of the breeds, we have Kosher King, which is a signature bird and a favorite for Asian cooking because it is nice and fatty and slow to grow. We raise Cornish chicken, which is a milk-fed, fast-growing bird. The Red-Meat Maker is also very lovely, fed on a combination of grass and corn, and is another slow-growing bird. When a bird is slow to grow, there is more flavor. They are great for chicken soup.
Chris: Chef Daniel Humm has featured your products on his menu for years. Where else are New Yorkers able to enjoy items from your farm?
Sylvia: We have worked with Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern for a long time; also with Per Se, Daniel, and Craft. But most of our business is actually outside of New York, throughout the country. New York is a tough market. Even with a good name and a good reputation, there is so much competition. But our product is a high-end product, and we are very proud of it.
Chris: So what is your secret to compete with the bigger meat purveyors? What can you offer that they are not able to?
Sylvia: Custom products are very hard to produce. When we were thinking that we couldn’t compete with the big guys, we decided to market our products based on the needs of our customers, like Chef Daniel Humm, who also have demanding customers. This is why we are able to have the chefs come to the farm and select the animals, if they wish. This is why we custom slaughter. But we cannot do things of this nature on a large scale. We remain small, but with good planning and good organization. We are very fortunate to have a core of customers who are very loyal to us and who, even if they cut back, still buy from us. And this is because we always stick by our principles, we never look to produce a cheaper product, and we have proper management of the farm. We were always very careful in our finances and reinvesting into the farm.
Chris: Can you explain a bit more about your principles and your philosophy about raising the chickens?
Sylvia: If I am going to put food on your table, it will be the same food that I put on my own table. I never want to cheat the customer, and that is something I feel strongly about. I want to show quality for the money they choose to spend with me. I am grateful when chefs choose to work with me, and I want them to feel that they get their money’s worth. This is a simple principle, but one that is not always adhered to. I want to ensure that my clients always feel confident about the product they receive from us.