Travel: Cooking in the Berkshires

It started out as a weekend of heirloom beet salads and ended up, as usual, with burgers. Our trip to a country hotel in the Berkshires was supposed to be about learning how to cook glamorous new dishes. But wherever we go, somehow we always end up with burgers. And the ones we ate in the Berkshires at a restaurant called Bistro Zinc were fragrant, charred and crumbly, with Jarlsberg melting into the craggy meat. Perfection!

It all began when we went to Wheatleigh, an Italianate mansion-turned-boutique hotel where I had signed up to takea cooking class with the hotel’s chef, J. Bryce Whittlesey. Wheatleigh is an exquisite (and expensive) 19-room spot that caters to fabulous New Yorkers, as it’s not at all country-ish inside. At home, we were in the middle of moving and had a ton of unpacking left to do, so the timing was delightful: We went from a box-choked home to a mini-world of serene order with the scent of freshly mown meadow outside and monochromatic rooms punctuated by orchids inside.

“Welcome,” said the tall, imperturbable young man who greeted us in an Austrian accent at the grand front entrance. Everyone who works at Wheatleigh seems to have a European accent, and they all dress in ­Armani-looking dark suits and are quite formal. Unlike the men in dark suits who work the fronts of hotels in New York and Miami, however, at Wheatleigh they smile, perhaps in concession to the leafy lawns and mountains that surround the place. With so much beauty around them, how could they not feel happy, even if they are Austrian?

Wheatleigh is the beigest beige place in the world, yet it all looks nuanced and multi-layered. The design is modern-in-a-19th-century-building, starting with the lobby and its ornate, massive fireplace flanked by two angular sofas. In our guest room, there were thick European cotton drapes and silk armchairs and elegant lamp shades and thick carpets, all in subtle beiges. The walls were a slightly darker taupe-beige, and there was a marble-and-tile Waterworks bathroom and an austere little balcony from which to look out at the mountains. There was also full-on cable TV and beautiful lighting, very beige in effect.

“Let’s go home and make everything in our house beige,” I said to John. “We could live in a relaxing beige world.”

Before my evening cooking class, we could choose from endless antiquing, hiking and cultural attractions all around us. Tanglewood, the outdoor performing arts center, is next door to Wheatleigh, and is open until the beginning of this month with everyone from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Josh Groban and Tony Bennett performing. There is the Mount, the rambling Edith Wharton estate in the village of Lenox, with a writers’ series that includes talks by Witold Rybczynski and Richard Guy Wilson. We drove around the towns of Stockbridge and South Egremont and walked around Lenox, where we wandered into the Lydia Mongiardo Collection, a store selling beautiful minimalist paintings and furniture made by Nicholas Mongiardo, who also designs and builds stores for Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

At 5:30, John settled into a beige armchair to watch ESPN, and I went down to the serene lobby, where three 40-something women in white chef’s jackets were sitting with glasses of champagne in front of them. It turned out that the mysterious J. Bryce Whittlesey was delayed at the airport as he flew back from the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, but we were assured by men with German accents that the chef would be back at any minute. Michelle and Lorraine were New Yorkers with weekend houses near the hotel, and explained that they were Whittlesey groupies who frequently take Chef’s classes; the third woman, Lydia, was Mrs. Mongiardo, from the cool shop we’d been in earlier that afternoon. Michelle and Lorraine talked about how ordering meat online from Neiman Ranch has spoiled them for any other beef while several Austrians handed around olives and almonds.

Suddenly there was a flurry of air kisses and toasts, and the buzz that erupts when a celebrity enters a restaurant: Whittlesey was back! And to be honest, I could see what the furor was about, because Whittlesey is really tall, good-looking, and—once we had followed him through a very hot corridor to an extremely neat and very hot back room in the kitchen—patient and even-tempered. Focusing on salads and vegetables for this class, he shaved white-and-pink candy-striped beets and vibrant yellow beets on a scary French mandoline; he quickly roasted shallots in the billion-degree restaurant oven, peeled them, and tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper and a tiny snip of chives to make a raw beet salad; he showed us how the smallest pinch of salt and sugar in the water for boiling fresh peas gave them the faintest tangy sweetness, and explained how this improves the flavor of any green vegetable. He roasted the beets with rosemary and olive oil in aluminum foil, and they came out steaming and irresistible.

After two hours of very useful vegetable instruction and snacking on the most incredible beets and English peas and shallot-infused vinaigrette, I met John in the green-velvet-and-glass dining room, set in an enclosed loggia of the hotel. During dinner, which costs $95 per person for three courses, we were flanked by a group of hipsters in jeans, and an incredibly preppy older couple drinking scotch-and-­water. Before my lemon-and-ramp-filled handmade agnolotti and John’s delicate filet, there were no fewer than five amuse-bouches, all of them little sculptures that we couldn’t identify, other than the chopped raw salmon piece of art. John doesn’t eat things that he can’t ID, and after my first amuse-bouche, my bouche was sad rather than amused, because it was foie gras, which I can’t stomach. But all was very lovely. After dinner, we were walking back to the lobby when we saw the whole cooking class, including Whittlesey, dining in the Library, the more casual dining room, with long taupe velvet banquettes and another ornate fireplace. Whittlesey was uncorking a bottle of smooth mezcal given to him by a friend who’s a spirits fanatic in Mexico, so we sat down for a shot of it. It tasted like saki, sort of, by way of Oaxaca. …

Cut to breakfast, which was crumbly, crispy, buttery, walnut-laden pastries made on-site. There’s also a caviar soufflé omelet, which you can get with smoked salmon or fromage blanc and either a quarter-ounce of Russian Royal osetra caviar ($27) or a half-ounce ($38); there is brioche French toast with toasted ­walnuts ($17); and a rasher of bacon is offered for $6.50. I’ve always loved the words “rasher of bacon” but have never actually ordered one.

After a 15-minute “workout” in the hotel fitness room (beige and exquisite), we went to town, where after five minutes of window-shopping, we were starving. “What about this?” said John, pointing to a low white building labeled “Bistro Zinc.” He’d found the coolest place in town. There were long ­Parisian-style bistro banquettes and mirrors, and beautiful people sitting at tables, including a group of young women just out of yoga class, and the windows were open. We looked at the yoga women’s salads and both ordered burgers and frites. They were the greatest burgers we’d had all year. “Let’s paint our ceiling silver,” said John, after we’d both had a chardonnay. (Everyone at the Zinc drinks at lunch.)

When we got home, we found we couldn’t make the whole house beige, because on a near-daily basis Spike the cat throws up tape he eats from the moving boxes that are still around us. I haven’t made a shaved beet salad yet, either, but we do always add a little sugar and salt to the vegetables now, and we did paint our dining room ceiling silver.

* Where to Stay
Wheatleigh, Hawthorne Road, Lenox, 413-637-0610,; rooms from $655, with cooking-class packages available.

* Where to Eat
The Library at Wheatleigh, dinner for two, about $125 with wine.
Dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, from $250 for two with wine.
Bistro Zinc, 56 Church Street, Lenox, 413-637-8800; lunch for two, about $40.

* What to Do
Antiqualia Antiques, Italian and Spanish antiques and accessories, 2 Main Street, West Stockbridge; 413-232-0040.
Lydia Mongiardo Collection, 51 Church Street, Lenox; 413-637-0809.
The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, 413-637-6900,; tickets $18.