For the past 45 years, thanks to the genius of chef/owner John Novi, the Depuy Canal House Restaurant in the center of the High Falls hamlet has had a well-earned reputation as one of the most extraordinary restaurants not just in Ulster County, but in the entire region. Craig Claiborne wandered into the place unrecognized during its opening year and awarded it his four-star maximum rating, and not because the food conformed to anyone’s preconceived notions of what great food should be like. The legendary New York Times food critic called Novi’s cooking “incredibly innovative and inspired…I think he began nouvelle cuisine before the term was ever introduced in Europe.”
What Alice Waters was to West Coast fine dining, Novi was to the East. But unlike other pioneers of what became known as the New American Cuisine, he didn’t just emphasize the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients – although he has certainly been a longtime champion of Hudson Valley farm products, and is a board member of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association (RVGA). No, his culinary brilliance ultimately lies in his utter disregard for traditional boundaries in terms of what goes with what in a dish.
One of Novi’s creations will typically mix ingredients from three, four or five different ethnic cuisines and combine flavors and textures in ways that would strike most diners as counterintuitive, but end up drawing hitherto-undiscovered sparks from one another. It will also very likely be as sprightly in color as in flavor, and so elegantly assembled that you almost regret sticking a fork into it – almost. He experiments constantly, fearlessly, playfully; and if not every new dish proves menu-worthy, many more end up starting trends throughout the rest of the culinary world. Remember back when it was briefly fashionable for every fancy restaurant to substitute popcorn for croutons in a spinach salad? John Novi’s idea.
Now in his early 70s (but no less a maverick than ever), the chef tried to hang up his apron in 2011, but quickly found that he couldn’t stay away from the Canal House’s kitchen for long, and ended up reopening the restaurant for business, on weekends only, the following year. But always in the back of his mind was the conviction that the 1797 stone building – which he bought for $4,500 in 1964, then spent five years renovating with reverence for historical detail and furnishing with antiques from the canawlers’ heyday – should ultimately belong to the D&H Canal Historical Society (DHCHS), of which he was a founding board member and past president.
So, coincident with the restaurant’s reopening, DHCHS submitted an application for a large grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) to finance its acquisition. That first try failed, and so did the second. But the third time’s the charm, they say; and with architect/planner Jennifer Schwartz Berky of Hone Strategic Development Advisors, LLC, on board to write the grant proposal and the Open Space Institute declaring its willingness to supply the required 50 percent matching funds, the historic preservation organization’s third attempt did indeed prove successful. On December 11, 2014, OPRHP announced that a $500,000 grant had been awarded to DHCHS to acquire the Depuy Canal House.
“This was pie-in-the-sky for three years; now it’s real reality,” exults DHCHS board president Bill Merchant. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for High Falls: getting a museum in the center of town.” Under the terms of the grant, the exhibits and some of the collections of the Society’s D&H Canal Museum – now headquartered in an 1882 former Episcopal church at 23 Mohonk Road and the circa-1860 Shaw House next door – will be moved into the Canal House, which is located only two blocks away, on Route 213. “It’s called the Canal House; we should be there,” says Merchant.
The main part of the stone structure now housing the restaurant, originally an inn, was built by Simeon Depuy in 1797 and sold to the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company during the 1830s for use as offices, a store and overnight accommodations for locktenders and passing canalboat operators. The wood-frame wing that houses the restaurant’s kitchen was added later. “The kitchen’s historic itself,” says Merchant, in reference to the interior renovations done by Novi. “It’s part of 20th-century history.”
Before you panic, diehard foodies, about the prospect of never being able to taste John Novi’s cooking ever again if you aren’t a personal friend, take heart: A cooperative arrangement in which the chef continues to use the kitchen that he designed to prepare food to be served in the former Chefs on Fire bistro space in the building’s cellar has not been ruled out as an option, once the museum has taken over the upper two floors for exhibition and storage space. Access to the kitchen by RVGA has also been raised as a possibility.
It’s apparent from Merchant’s regard for Novi’s work toward ensuring that the Canal House remains a public asset in perpetuity after his retirement that negotiations between buyer and seller have remained thoroughly amicable. “I want to praise John for his vision,” says Merchant. “He wanted to make sure it was preserved and got into the right hands.”
“I am a family man, not rich,” writes Novi, “however, I am very proud of my life story and how my destiny and instincts led to my gift today of the Depuy Canal House to the D&H Canal Society. I knew 50 years ago what I am doing today; I have always believed that the Depuy House belongs to the community as a public museum securing the history of canal travel and telling the story of the locktenders that lived in the house.”
Still, the ultimate disposition and uses of the building’s spaces lie in the hands of the DHCHS board. “There are no definitive plans for Mr. Novi to stay,” Merchant cautions. “It’s really the early days, because we haven’t met yet [since we got the grant]. We have to do a lot of research to find out what the building needs.” One large challenge will be making public areas of the museum compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, since the building is on the National Register of Historic Properties, which imposes strict limitations on how it can be modernized even for accessibility.
One possible low-tech solution, Merchant suggested, would be to use the second floor for storage of collections only, rather than exhibits. But DHCHS plans to continue its ownership of the existing museum space and Shaw House, so storage isn’t really its primary problem. Turning the old church building, whose lovely truss-beamed Gothic chapel is already used for weddings and lectures, into an event venue is one option that would serve to generate a new revenue stream for the organization. And the OPRHP grant doesn’t cover the costs of renovating or operating the relocated museum – only acquisition of the Canal House.
For his part, Merchant is eager to exploit the possibilities offered by the 1,500-square-foot building to mount more of the museum’s ever-growing collection of canal-era artifacts for public display, adding exhibits that are hands-on and interactive. “We’re hoping to double attendance,” he says. Another exciting attraction of the Canal House is the fact that the Five Locks Walk, a linear park that follows a stretch of canal ruins, begins at the High Falls Village Green right next door to the restaurant. Guided walking tours of the trail – some featuring wine-tastings – are among DHCHS’s most popular fundraising events. “I’m looking forward in a couple of years to being able to walk outside my doors and start the tour,” Merchant says with relish.
Only time will tell whether New American Cuisine and mid-19th-century industrial history will both remain part of a museumgoer’s experience in High Falls once the property changes hands. But John Novi has proven time and again that oddly assorted ingredients can often meld in an appealing dish, so maybe the D&H Canal Museum can become a living example of that cultural philosophy. Meanwhile, it will likely take many months for New York State to issue the grant check, so he’s planning to reopen the restaurant after its winter hiatus on Valentine’s Day weekend and continue operating it on weekends this spring and summer. Hours of operation and the current menu are posted on the Depuy Canal House website at www.depuycanalhouse.com.
According to Merchant, the board’s target date is to be moved in and set up in time for DHCHS’s 50th anniversary in 2016: “We’ll probably start our capital campaign before the acquisition.” The next big fundraising event on the organization’s schedule is a Mothers’ Day Gala on Friday, May 8, and others will follow as DHCHS gears up to replace the Canal House roof and complete other renovations needed before the museum can move in. Check out the campaign’s progress on the D&H Museum’s Facebook page or by visiting its website at https://canalmuseum.org. You can contribute to the effort by sending a check to the D&H Canal Historical Society & Museum, PO Box 23, High Falls NY 12440.