Photos by Dion Ogust
Talk about emphasizing the idea of “local” in the new “locavore” buzzword that’s all the rage in Hudson Valley food of late.
The new faces at three of Woodstock’s newest eateries — at Provisions, the Taco Lab, and Nana’s — are all actually veterans of the local restaurant business. With deep connections to town.
And all three have designed their businesses as a way of catering to the “locals” who eat in town, as well as a wider network of local food providers, from meat and vegetable farms to those they choose to cater for.
“We only deal in whole chickens. We have a number of farming partners and butcher all our meat right here,” says Emily Bonilla of Provisions, located on Tinker Street a few doors down from Overlook Liquors and the Center for Photography at Woodstock, when asked about the popularity of their various chicken sandwiches. “We took the space Valentine’s Day and opened two months later on April 15. There’d been a cheese store here, and our friends had a green space here before that was in…when we were getting ready to open people would stop in and say they felt sorry for us because the place was doomed.”
Bonilla’s partner and Provisions’ cook, Anthony Heaney, puts a hand on her shoulder and notes how much such comments hurt at the time. But immediately the pair start to speak of their years in the local food business, and deep roots in the area. She grew up splitting time between Woodstock and Accord, spent years working at Fleischers’ Meats in Kingston, then opened her own meat business in Reading, Pennsylvania as a place to train Heaney to butcher his own food.
Heaney, for his part, cooked for years at the Corner Cupboard, where Shindig has taken up residence in recent months, as well as at Bread Alone and other spaces around the area.
The two offer up one of their Bird Is The Word sandwiches, served on their own homemade bread with arugula and a roasted dill-lemon aioli, as well as a truly great sour-sweet dill pickle that they also made themselves. It’s out of this world…but the couple tells me what I should really check out, when it’s available only on Tuesdays, is their weekly batch of pastrami.
Across the way, at Tinker Taco Lab in the pebble courtyard back by Anatolia Rugs and Dharmaware, James Jennings is busy keeping up with a steady flow of customers coming in to pick up his handmade tacos and tamales. There’s room to sit, and those that do are commenting on their every bite as Jennings describes how beautiful, and simple, a great taco can be, from the grinding of local corn for the making of its tortillas, to the roasting of various locally-bred meats for what goes inside…again, including his own homemade pickled peppers and other items, including homemade cheeses and cremas.
“We opened up on Cinco de Mayo after several months preparation,” he says of the place located in a compound he’s owned for the last two years, ever since stepping away from 20 years in the restaurant business that saw him own and cook for Bois D’arcs in Red Hook and Zena, and later the Red Devon in Jimmy Cagney’s old steakhouse over in the Dutchess County community of Bangwell. “I wanted to do something fun after having stopped to get married and raise a family, then teach five years at the Culinary Institute. I grew up in Texas and learned early how beautiful a great taco is — some onion and cilantro and a perfectly cooked piece of meat in a fresh tortilla. I did some research deep in Mexico…”
As Jennings works his fast stream of orders, fielding compliments and howdy dos from well-wishers along the way, he hands over a tamale, succulent and moist but perfectly sized as an appetizer, and then a truly beautiful pork taco, subtle yet explosive with individual flavors.
While eating I overhear a longtime local business owner ask Jennings what he’d recommend for a new high school graduate regarding food schools.
“Get an internship in a restaurant and learn the ropes,” he tells the man to tell his daughter. “If you want success learn to be a chef.”
Down on Mill Hill Road at the entrance to town, across from the Woodstock Playhouse, Rachel Kandel’s been helming Nana’s Creative Cafe, named for her grandma, since February, when she took over and renovated what had been Lori’s for a decade before. And where she’d worked after getting a fine arts degree from SUNY Purchase. A little after lunch the place is still busy with obvious regulars ordering late breakfasts, items for dinner, or afternoon coffees and pastries.
“I didn’t make a lot of changes; just added a few things to the menu,” said Kandel, stepping out of her kitchen to show off some new items, such as her grandma’s treasured lemon pound cake and several savory lunch specials. “We have a quinoa breakfast bowl now, a crazy egg thing…we keep pretty darn busy and keep a certain slice of Woodstock real happy each day.”
She hands over that cake slice and it disappears fast, homey and yet expert, too. Like the other places up the street, Kandel — whose father has long shepherded new businesses to success through the local small business development office — tries to buy and work with local ingredients as much as possible. As well as her local customers.
Back at Provisions, Bonilla and Heaney talk about how they started noting almost immediately how many of their customers were coming back three or four times a week. As well as how they’ve shot up to number one on local Tripadvisor sites for the town’s eating scene.
“We do everything with care and love,” she says, noting how she worked to make sure everything was wrapped and presented well, and he not only cures their bacon but worked to make the best under-$5 breakfast sandwich he could think of. “People are eating meat again, but only when they know where it’s come from, and how it’s been prepared…we’re working very hard to make this succeed and work well for the community.”
The couple points to a bulletin board next to the cash register, where customers can pay for a sandwich, or just a cup of coffee, that someone else can claim when in need. They’d given out six such as this already that day. Then there’s their decision to only serve pastrami on “Fat Tuesdays,” because they wanted something just for locals.
One person comes in and picks up a large order of sandwiches. Outside, someone else hurries by with a stack of Taco Lab boxes.
How’s the catering business, we ask?
“We did Commune’s pig roast; we’re doing Houst’s community day,” Heaney says. “We keep getting requests to do slice meat sales but I don’t have the room. But maybe someday…”
Down at Nana’s, Kandel says she caters more and more local events, usually through her regular clients’ recommendations. And Jennings is getting requests for piles of tacos…along with his smoked and roast meats.
“You know, it’s very gratifying to be able to actually do food the way I want to do it. And do all aspects of it, right here in my home town,” adds Heaney. “I feel a lot of things coming together here, including the fact that we can make lunches every morning for our kids to take to school.”
As he speaks, a young woman comes in from another shop just up the street and announced how she’s gotten into the law school. Everyone shrieks and later Bonilla tells how the same woman had come in while they were prepping for the next day one recent night and read them her application essay.
Now how local’s that?