Last Sunday, the not-for-profit organization Mohonk Consultations bestowed its annual Distinguished Achievement Award, as it has been doing since 1984 in recognition of “unsung heroes” of our communities. The 2017 recipient is actually quite a well-known star in the international culinary firmament: John Novi, who opened the Depuy Canal House in June 1969 and remained its chef/owner until the end of 2015, when the historic building was taken over by the D & H Canal Historical Society and Museum. Hundreds, including a fair few ex-employees, congregated at the Mohonk Mountain House Parlor to pay tribute to Novi and share funny stories about the world-renowned restaurant and its visionary founder.
Conferred “for leadership in elevating the role of food as a catalyst for adventure, beauty and social responsibility,” the award was intended to recognize Novi’s seminal role in the farm-to-table movement and his longtime commitment to cooking with locally sourced ingredients — and, on a larger scale, to farmland preservation. The chef is a board member of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association, and designated that organization to be the recipient of the grant customarily given out by Mohonk Consultations alongside the Distinguished Achievement Award.
Mohonk Consultations board chair Brad Berg welcomed the crowd, briefly reviewing the history of the Parlor — a space that housed the International Arbitration Sessions that eventually led to the creation of the League of Nations — and its relevance to his organization’s mission. Fellow board member Kitty Brown then took over as emcee, introducing a short documentary about John Novi produced in 1984 by AT&T for its series The Taste. The screening drew appreciative chuckles from the audience, as much for its hokey narration and absurd ‘80s haircuts, clothes and eyeglasses as for its glimpses into the Canal House’s younger days.
Next up was a keynote address from Steven Kolpan, Wine Studies chair at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He gave an overview of the restaurant’s timeline, such as Mimi Sheraton’s acclamation of Novi as “the Father of New American Cooking” in a 1985 Time magazine cover story. He also reminisced about the “environment of controlled mayhem” in its kitchen, such as the night when Kolpan and Novi had to take over washing dishes when the regular dishwasher took off early to attend a Grateful Dead concert — the day after a rave review appeared in People magazine and the place was packed. “John has never failed to surprise me,” Kolpan said.
Michael Ryan, the spa therapist supervisor at the Mohonk Mountain House, talked about his 19 years of working for the Canal House, beginning at age 16 and continuing after he attended the CIA. He praised Novi’s zeal, innovative approach to food and offbeat sense of humor, recalling a Halloween when the restaurateur tricked local trick-or-treaters by passing off baby red potatoes dipped in chocolate as “very odd truffles.” “If Van Gogh was going to be a chef, he would’ve been John Novi,” Ryan averred.
Janet Crawshaw, longtime publisher of The Valley Table, discussed Novi’s long relationship with her magazine and his commitment to farmland preservation. Chris Marx, associate vice president for workforce and economic development at SUNY Ulster, spoke about a potential partnership that may lead to a new Associate’s degree-level culinary school, with Novi as head instructor, to be hosted at the Kelder House next door to the SUNY Ulster campus.
Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School, began his career as an internationally recognized wine expert by working as the Canal House’s first sommelier and bartender. He served as Novi’s official “nominator” for the award, citing milestones in the restaurant’s history and giving shout-outs to other former employees who were present for the ceremony, including Marbletown Town Supervisor Michael Warren.
Kitty Brown returned to hand over the award, after which Novi himself took the podium to screen and narrate a historical slideshow titled Evolution of a Menu — which will also be the title of his upcoming memoir. “What’s next for me? Cheese,” Novi said, showing a photo of a blackcurrant cheese with which he had been experimenting. He’s also trying to persuade dairy farmers in the Catskills to return their land to the growing of sustainable crops.
The crowd soon moved out onto the Mountain House porch for a buffet worthy of the honoree, catered by the venue’s Robert LeDuc and Jim Palmeri as well as SushiMakio. Wine was supplied to the celebrants by Whitecliff Vineyard, and a couple of John Novi’s most famous canapes also put in an appearance: faux oysters made with lychee nut and salsify and mock caviar made from amaranth. As the sun sank behind the Catskills, musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason serenaded the guest of honor with a most appropriate number: Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes.”