Food Network’s executive chef and vice president of culinary and his wife share how their love led them to Kentucky
By Janice Carter Levitch
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Meet Robert and Nedra Bleifer, a national love story with down-home connections.
As executive chef and vice president of culinary for the Food Network, Robert oversees an array of chefs and is constantly on the sets for talk shows and photo shoots, creating menus and traveling the country.
What changed his path about 20 years ago and led him to a family farm in Kentucky was meeting his wife, Nedra (Morgan) Bleifer.
Robert fondly recalls how it all began in the summer of 2000: “Nedra had come to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her good friend and manager when she was out in Los Angeles touching base with the acting world, was the younger sister of one of my closest friends,” he recalled. “We met at a party that this close friend put together on the Upper West Side in New York. The chemistry was good that night, but at the time it was like, ‘Well, you’re an actress out in Los Angeles; I’m in New York, and how could this work?’ ”
The chemistry was there, though, and the two went on a first date to Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill to get to know each other over margaritas.
“After our margarita date, we had our first dinner date at our now favorite Indian place, Haveli, in the East Village of New York,” Nedra said. “Most of our dates centered around where to go for interesting food and drink. Rob took me to my first sushi dinner, where I ate way too much wasabi and choked. From then on, I’ve loved sushi.”
Now, 18 years later, they have two kids, 16 years of marriage and a home built on their family farm in La Grange, Kentucky, living a dream they’ve brought to life.
Navigating the hustle and bustle of life in New York City is no easy task. Add a weekly commute to that already busy schedule and you begin to understand the devotion Robert has for his family and the importance of life on the farm.
“My weekly schedule requires I’m in New York at the Food Network Monday through Thursday for filming and other responsibilities. I commute every week back to the farm here in Kentucky Friday through Sunday,” Robert said.
Nedra exudes a calmness that is exactly what living in such an idyllic setting can create. It’s one of the rewards for Robert that makes the commute all worth it.
Poised on an enchanting hillside, overlooking rolling fields lined with trees that tower over fence lines perched on the horizon, the Bleifer family farm has a playful charm that would melt away any stress of city life. Nedra is a Kentucky gal at heart and that has brought the family back home to raise their children the way she remembers growing up.
The Morgan family emigrated from England and Wales to La Grange, Kentucky, about 200 years ago settling on over 500 acres. Nedra’s family tree is in the land and knowing how to farm that land has been passed down through the generations. Nedra and Robert place great value on establishing a family legacy, especially when it comes to the experiences they want their children to have growing up surrounded by scenic hillsides and learning from such an early age the importance of farm-fresh food.
The Bleifers have incredible plans for the farm that they are currently exploring, which could include outdoor yoga, cooking classes and a venue for special events.
As this writer walked the property to get a sense of the land, it was easy to see that the possibilities are endless.
“My relatives came from England and that dates back to the 1700s,” Nedra explained. “I’m the seventh generation of the Morgan family. My dad, Garnett Morgan Jr., sold about 250 acres several years ago to the county so they could create the Morgan Conservation Park, and we knew at least that big chunk would always be preserved.”
The Morgans farmed tobacco, raised cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and a massive garden. “Growing up here was pretty awesome – watching everybody do the canning and learning how to pick beans and break them, too,” Nedra said. “We lived just down the road when I was growing up, and it was remarkable that we could walk across the creek, through the field and over the hill to get to my grandparents’ place, which isn’t something a lot of kids can do these days.”
Now that Robert and Nedra are building their home up the road from where she grew up, “Our two little girls can now walk through the field and take the dogs with them if they want to while they are on the way to their grandparents’ house,” Nedra said.
What’s also important, she added, is knowing where your food comes from. While living in New York, Nedra was involved with a school food program that would deliver fresh produce, cheeses and different foods from local farms to schools weekly. The program also provided information about each farmer involved to help students learn more about farm-to-table freshness. “People now more than ever want to know where their food is coming from,” Nedra said.
Meanwhile, Robert fondly remembers the small hamlet of Woodmere, New York, where he grew up. His mother had a little garden that provided fresh raspberries, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes. “Food was always a big focus for our family. Our house was situated in a new suburb, which was perfect to grow up in,” Robert recalled.
Looking back at the influence his mother’s little garden had on his interest in fresh foods, he remembers California cuisine being all the rage almost 30 years ago. “They weren’t calling it ‘farm to table.’ It was called ‘California cuisine,’ and it was literally daily farmers markets. The food was picked that morning, and it got to the restaurants by the next day. Everybody raved about California cuisine. At first it was all about the talented chefs – yes, all the chefs were talented – but everybody finally realized when the food is that fresh and hasn’t traveled across the country or halfway across the globe, it elevates the cuisine.
“So, now we are realizing there are all these local farms, and if one farm can’t provide for the entire area, those 20 small farms can provide for the area,” Robert affirmed. “It’s amazing and very exciting to see the rise of all the green markets.”
Eventually, Robert decided that after culinary school he wanted to experience New York City-style chef training. But a year into trying to decide who would be the next big city chef to push his talents to the limits, he was given an opportunity to freelance at the Food Network, which – at the time – was in its second year of operation. He began working six to seven days a week on contract until the network eventually offered him a full-time job.
Robert wanted to stay in the restaurant world, but the allure of numerous paid vacation days and instant health benefits piqued his interest and strengthened his passion for cooking. “Two years into the job at the Food Network, I was still learning so much and loving it,” he explained. “Two years became three, then four, and then my five-year review happened. I finally thought, ‘My time here is up and I need to move on.’ But, they propositioned me with the job of running the kitchen, which shocked me. I didn’t expect that at all. There were two sous chefs ahead of me, and that’s why I thought there was no room for advancement.”
Running the kitchen also gave him the opportunity to meet every chef and restaurateur in the tri-state area of New York because they all came through the Food Network kitchen. That 5-year review was more than 17 years ago, and Robert’s job keeps morphing and reinventing itself every four to five years because of the ever-changing dynamic of the food industry and the network.
It took Robert five years of working for the Food Network to realize it’s right where he’s supposed to be, and that’s what made it easy to stay. “It’s unfathomable to think this fall will be 23 years since I began there. (But) Nedra had commented to me at one point that New York City was an experience rather than a way of life. Once our first child was born, we knew we would get out of the city and back to the suburbs where we could have a garden. While I certainly wasn’t happy about becoming a commuter, it was best for our family. It’s all worth it when the kids can pick a tomato or cucumber right off the vine and experience food that fresh,” Robert admitted.
When he was 8 years old, Robert remembers curiously watching as his grandfather picked a tomato right off the vine and ate it like an apple. He thought to himself that that wasn’t the right way to eat a tomato, but all these years later, he understands that eating a tomato straight off the vine is the proper way after all.
Even if you don’t have access to your own garden, Robert suggests using window boxes for herbs and shopping at farmers markets as often as you can. Roof-top gardens and vertical gardens are options as well. Another suggestion he offered is to buy large quantities of what’s in season and then freeze it to cook with at a later date. If you’re pressed for time, you can also have your protein ready to go at home in the freezer and make a quick stop for fresher produce at the grocery on the way home.
“We have hunters in the family, and that provides us with fresh venison, which is our main source of protein. That makes great stews or soups and is a favorite meal for us. Especially for the kids, you can put a lot of ingredients in a stew or soup that they usually don’t care for and cooked as a stew they eat it up,” Robert said.
“In the colder months, we get the kids in the kitchen and they can help, too. We are working on our garden now and feel a little lost without it, but next year we’ll get it established. One of the first things we did before we started building the house about a year ago was to buy some fruit trees. We have apple trees, cherry trees, tangerine trees, along with blackberries and raspberries that are already planted and ready to go,” Robert continued.
“I need some fig trees and especially chestnut trees because of the connection to old America. One of my favorite features in our kitchen is the wood-burning pizza oven we are looking forward to finishing. And, of course, my razor-sharp chef’s knives are another favorite,” he said.
Added Nedra: “Coming back home to Kentucky was the best decision Robert and I could make to create a lifestyle that we want for our children. I need to feel my toes in the earth.” VT