At Silvia, a relatively new restaurant on Mill Hill Road in Woodstock that specializes in open-fire cooking, a roaring pile of wood blazes nonstop as chefs sizzle, roast, warm, steam and tend to vegetables and carcasses hanging above the heat. The aim is to achieve primitive simplicity; think of a pre-fossil-fuel hearth with pots and kettles dangling, and maybe a rabbit on a spit extended over the coals. But the well-thought-out design of the space allows for maximum activity in the wide-open contemporary kitchen. Opposite is the broad prep table, surrounded on two sides with a bar-height counter. The only wall lining the space is covered with shelves where bottles and jars of handcrafted ingredients are displayed: kimchi. Preserved lemons. Chili/garlic sauce.
This total visibility is intentional. Dining guests are privy to the entire process of food-handling. Co-owner Betty Choi, who runs the back-office sourcing and bookkeeping chores, talks about the philosophy behind Silvia, which she started with her sister Doris Choi, along with both their spouses. “The whole restaurant wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the way we wanted to do it. It was never, ‘Oh, let’s open a restaurant.’ It was more, ‘Let’s open a restaurant where we’d want to come and bring our families.’
“It’s very personal for me, the whole approach. My son has had some health issues, and a lot of the way I feel about food came from that part of my experience. I used food as a way to be nourishing and healing, and as medicine. I’ve always tried to eat healthy and buy organic, and I really needed to find ways of doing something to help his condition – and seeing how it helped solidified the idea that food is nurturing and healing.”
The Choi sisters are focused on the way people used to eat, before the mass industrialization of farming and before fast foods. “How did people soak their beans? How did they cook their rice and their wheat? The way of cooking that they did forever,” says Betty Choi. “We wanted that to be an integral part of our restaurant. The open kitchen is about connecting people to food and knowing, being part of the process – not hidden away. When you go to the supermarket and find meat that’s packaged in a Styrofoam container with plastic on it, there’s no connection. This way, everything is connected: where we buy the food, how we source it from the farmers, the people that prepare it and the people that enjoy it. There’s a full cycle. It’s all about relationships.”
As much as possible, Betty Choi buys meats, veggies and dairy products from Chaljeri Meats in Callicoon, Highland Hollow Farm in Schoharie, Hepworth Farms in Milton, Hidden Camp Farm in Canajoharie, Ironwood Farm in Ghent, Longyear Farm in Woodstock, Dancing Ewe Farm in Granville, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in Ancramdale, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, MX Morningstar Farm in Copake, Lineage Farm CSA in Copake, Paffenroth Farms in Warwick, Farms2Tables in Rhinebeck, Hudson Valley Harvest in Kingston and Sunfrost in Woodstock, among others.
When asked how she established these sources without a background in restaurant management, she says, “I’m a bit of a control freak. When my son was born, I really wanted to go to the farms and buy from people, ask them questions… Living in this area, you can just get in the car and drive and ask questions. [The farmers] are so open, and they want to educate you, as well.”
While Doris Choi has a strong background in professional cooking – working nearly 20 years as a private chef and caterer, managing cafés and bars on the Lower East Side of New York City, and co-writing The Fresh Energy Cookbook: Detox Recipes to Supercharge Your Life with Natalia Rose – her focus on clean and healthy foods emerged only a few years ago. First introduced to the idea of detoxing through raw and vegan dietary regimes, she now feels that such an extreme way of eating is isolating.
“I felt like it was kind of exclusive. It alienated me from my family and friends; it felt almost elitist – as if you were special for eating vegetables. There was this ‘holier than thou’ attitude that I didn’t like at all. But it made me realize how we need to bridge the gap between the ways people in the mainstream eat and how people interested in health eat. Because of this, I got into consultancy.”
Her former reputation for raw and vegan-only foods notwithstanding, she thinks that some people may have been disappointed that Silvia is not an animal-free culinary zone. It was more important for her and her co-partners to hang their ideas of integrity on the holistic cycle of farm-to-table concepts. Their extensive menu does offer many vegan options. And the team is careful to utilize resources in the most sustainable manner as possible. With room to seat a good-sized crowd both indoors and out (in good weather), Silvia also offers a full range of handcrafted cocktails, sodas, beer and wine, served in a cozier section of the large space where the lighting is low and the walls are covered with art.
Interior décor aside, it’s all about the food. “And it’s not one way or the other. It’s about finding balance,” says Doris Choi. “That’s the reason we got a wood-fired grill. If we’re going to cook proteins and meat, we want to do it as it was done back in time. I hate that term [paleo]. Words like that make it seem food is a trend. I’m trying to think of the future of food, not something that comes in and out of style. And I’m fascinated by the concept of fire: how when human beings invented fire, they began to reflect.”
Betty Choi says, “You have ideals of how you want things to be; then you get into the business, and it might not be exactly everything that you want it to be. You have to work with it. I’d love everything to be organic, local and seasonal. But ‘organic’ is not all it seems… With ‘certified organic,’ you can use certain things that might not be environmentally friendly – such as massive amounts of sulphur, which is not great for the land, but it’s ‘organic.’ And being local doesn’t mean every single thing. There are spices that we use that are not local – might be from Asia – but the bulk of foods, it’s local. We’re so lucky to be in this area.”
Hitting what the sisters think might be a slower-paced season, they have time to reflect on what has worked over these past few months and what, perhaps, hasn’t. Their commitment to providing delicious, healthy foods using GMO-free ingredients from sustainable farming operations and cruelty-free practices is huge. Working together with their husbands managing other aspects of the business has been a pleasant challenge. Betty calls Silvia “a nice family project, which I wouldn’t have done if there wasn’t a family.” Again, the importance of relationships.
Dinner is served nightly from 4 to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and from 4 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Saturday and Sunday brunch is offered from noon to 4 p.m. Happy Hour runs from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and on Monday evenings, all bottled wine is 20 percent off. On New Year’s Eve, Silvia will offer a four-course prix fixe dinner menu, which can be viewed by clicking the “Menu” tab on the website.
Silvia, 42 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-4242, www.silviawoodstockny.com.