NOLS Instructor Tracy Young has learned to embrace the unexpected. “I always liked to cook but I never in a million years expected it to become a career,” says Young, who is a chef at Stone Park Café. The restaurant was opened by Young and her two partners, Josh Foster and Josh Grinker, last September in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.
Since then, Young has been busy manning the kitchen in the popular restaurant, which was renovated from a former Dominican bodega. The success of the eatery has been another surprise for Young. “New York is such an intimidating city in a lot of ways,” she admits. “There are so many good restaurants. We just hoped to have a good experience, and that hopefully someone would come and eat our food.”
And eat they have. Stone Park has had no shortage of patrons since a favorable review in the New York Times in March. “That review just sent us completely over the edge. It hasn’t been slow once since then.”
Loyal customers have found a surprising favorite dish—which also happens to be Young’s favorite to prepare—in Stone Park’s bluefish cakes, made with a fish most chefs dismiss as undesirable. The meat comes at about 10 cents a pound and is known for a strong “fishiness” typically considered at best an acquired taste. After brining and alder smoking the fish, Young forms it into cakes that she serves with a celery root slaw and grilled corn relish. “I love using underrated products that aren’t trendy,” says Young. This innovative attitude keeps Stone Park’s menu fresh and keeps customers coming back for more.
The dish appears to be a metaphor for Young’s career of late: a delightful result from unexpected beginnings.
Young’s career as a culinary professional actually began with NOLS. She got her start as an in-town cook for NOLS Pacific Northwest in 1988. Having had no formal training, Young describes the experience as an adventure. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says with a laugh. “I remember one time when [NOLS PNW General Manager] Mary Jo’s boys came in. The didn’t know I was in there, and I heard them say, ‘Damn, these cinnamon rolls are burnt to hell!’ That was how it went for a while.”
Her skills improved as Young spent several winters cooking at various NOLS locations, spending the rest of the year instructing courses. In 1998 she decided to enroll in the New England Culinary Institute and only after that began her first work in a restaurant. Young is passionate about her profession as a chef, but she remains dedicated to NOLS. “This job is a way for me to make the NOLS lifestyle work,” says Young, who had to be in New York all year but was able to lead a 23 and over Wind River Wilderness course this summer.
The transition between two such different lifestyles was a natural one. “I do really well in extreme environments, like New York or the mountains,” says Young. “The first night of our course, we camped at Granite Buttress and I just felt at home. Going from New York to the field was really easy in the end.”
Young says she feels like the luckiest person in the world, being able to do two jobs she loves. She does admit that the balance can be tricky. “In the restaurant if you make a mistake the worst that’s going to happen is that someone isn’t going to like their fennel salad. At NOLS, your actions have real consequences on peoples’ lives and well-being. That’s a huge responsibility.”