It’s rare when a trio of close friends manages to conduct business together for even a couple of years, particularly if it’s an ever-stressful restaurant business. Denise McCarroll, Salah Alygad and Brianne Lee have done just that since September of 2004, when the three associates working in another establishment struck out on their own. “When we came here, the restaurant was ‘rent with the option to buy.’ We didn’t have any money. I knew it would work because he’s good,” says McCarroll, talking about Chef Alygad. “But we didn’t realize it was going to work so quickly.”
Alygad says that he knew it would work because of McCarroll’s and Lee’s “excellent personalities with the customer.” They knew how to talk to people and provide the best hospitality. And they were very hardworking. “When we walked in that door, I believe it was a Tuesday,” Alygad says. “I was sure we could do something. We agreed on the place; we closed on Saturday. I came in on Monday with a new menu, and we opened Wednesday. The whole operation changed in two days. I did 68 covers on the first night. It was smooth. This is from all my experience with all my other jobs. It went beautifully.”
His former experience includes everything from dishwashing to short-order cooking to salad prep to sous chef to producing banquet-sized buffets in high-end eateries of New York City. Along the way he owned his own coffeeshop and restaurant and cooked for all kinds of people. Originally from Egypt, Alygad first landed at a cousin’s home in Kentucky, where he got a job as a bellhop at a hotel.
“It was quite an experience,” Alygad recalls. “I was about 24 when I came. I knew nothing about the food business. I was a chemist in Egypt. When my father died, there wasn’t enough income, so I went back to the academy to learn to be a captain of a ship. I had six months left to take my exam. But when we came to port here, I decided to stay. I didn’t know if it was the right decision or a bad decision. I was young, and I just did it.”
For many years, the ambitious immigrant worked in diners under talented cooks who taught him the trade, but eventually he realized that he needed to complete his education to be the best he could be. “I went to community college to learn. Going to work for Restaurant Associates was the start of my career as a chef.” Throughout his time in kitchens at large organizations, including the United Nations headquarters, Alygad continued to learn the ropes: how to be organized and fast, how to plan for large groups.
Alygad says that the food was very exotic, and the chefs he worked under were of the highest caliber. Cooking for the US Open with one such chef from Switzerland inspired him. “His hands were like gold; he touched something and it just worked,” Alygad recalls. It was on this intense career path that he ended up coming to Accord and went from cooking for the likes of Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat to the locals and weekenders of Ulster County.
At Friends & Family II, the menu offers lunch and dinner entrées influenced by Alygad’s own exposure to world cuisine: delicious sandwiches and burgers, grilled and roasted meats, shellfish dishes and an array of vegetable choices. Sunday brunch is less “Continental” but starts with fresh fruit and a basket of baked goodies. “I do specials every weekend, and everything is homemade,” he says. “Once a month I’ll do ethnic foods on a Thursday night: Moroccan, Asian, German, French. We’re different than a lot of other places. This is no destination; you don’t take a walk like in Kingston and say, ‘We’ll have a little something.’ No, you have to drive here. On Fridays it’s crazy busy. Not exotic, just homey, clean and fresh. We keep it simple… I have a meat man, a vegetable man. I’ve been with these people for a long time, and they’ve gotten to know me.”
Alygad is the only chef in the kitchen, although McCarroll is capable of stepping in to help. “I don’t make the recipes, but I follow directions. I work the line on Friday nights: expedite, grill, garnish. A lot of times I’m the last one who touches the plate. Now I bartend Saturday through Monday, and I hostess Wednesday and Thursday. My daughter Brianne, who works in an accounting firm, hosts on weekends and does most of the bookwork. Both Salah’s sons have been in and out of the business and have gone on to college. My two other daughters are servers sometimes. So it truly is a family business.”
As for the “Friends,” both Alygad and McCarroll repeatedly talk about how great their customers are. “We have a wonderful clientele,” she says. “The people in the area are lovely and are truly supportive. They truly are friends. People get sent to us by strangers at gas stations.”
“We have a reputation after all these years, thank God. We treat everybody that works for us like they’re our kids,” Alygad says. “Whatever I can do, I do for the town, hold meetings for the business associates; they have breakfast here. I love it more than any place I have worked in. The relationship between me and the customers – it’s good.”
They talk about the ups and downs of the economy, the hurricane that blew through and slowed everything down for a while and the bouts of cancer that each of them dealt with. Through it all, and with the support of the community, they managed to transform what was once a modest little Italian joint into a cozy spot with white tablecloths and a well-stocked bar.
“The sconces on the walls came from the French Corner in Stone Ridge,” says McCarroll. “The chandeliers came from another auction on Cooper Street. The paintings are from Wired Gallery. Sevan [Melikyan] changes them out regularly; he knows what we like. I’m convinced that you should let people who know what they’re doing do it. You can learn from experts. My sister, who is a retired union painter, does all my painting for me, outside and inside. We’re very lucky to be surrounded by good people.”
“The food business is the toughest and the best,” says Alygad. “Tough because if something goes wrong at the table, you have to fix it right away. It’s nice because you treat the food like a baby, so it’s clean, edible, good-looking.”
“It’s a life,” adds McCarroll. “We’re very grateful we can still do it, and we’ll do it with love until we can’t do it anymore.”