Kingston’s bluecashew aims to equip and educate home chefs

JT McKay and Sean Nutley (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

For just over a year now, bluecashew Kitchen Homestead has been one of Uptown Kingston’s leading retail attractions. True to the “survive it in style” motto affixed to the store window, bluecashew note only stocks everything you could possibly need for your kitchen, dining room and party but, true to its homestead theme, also sells fermentation crocks and butter churns. Even if not you’re not into food, kitchen design or cooking, it’s an experience to browse the store, which stocks a mind-boggling assemblage of dishware, cookware, glassware, salad bowls, pitchers, cooking, bar and baking implements, cutlery, place settings, candles, napkins and other supplies for entertaining, dish towels (including eco-cloths from Sweden designed to replace paper towels) and a handful of quality appliances. The wares are not only beautifully designed, but also well made. And not all the stuff is pricey: the store’s top-selling item is the $3.60 discount sponge.

The brightly lit space, which has a high ceiling and exposed brick walls, accommodates a fully outfitted kitchen in the back, where the store hosts cooking classes and demonstrations. The dark, wooden cabinetry is both stylish and welcoming. This year, bluecashew was nationally recognized with a Retailer Excellence Award from the trade association Gifts and Decorative Accessories.

Owners Sean Nutley and JT McKay, who share a house in Accord, offer a full schedule of classes and book signings. This Sunday, Dec. 9, Julia Turshen will sign copies of her new cookbook, Now & Again, and do a cookie demonstration. Turshen’s previous cookbooks have won a slew of awards, and the author has been featured on NPR as well as interviewed by and written for The New York Times and other national media. (See sidebar.) The signing will be from 2-4 p.m., and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the YMCA Farm Project. This Saturday, Dec. 8, there will be a Linzer tart baking demonstration with cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, followed by a fermentation class taught by Jori Jayne Emde on Dec. 15 and a book signing by Janet Elsbach on Dec. 16. The store is located at 37b on North Front St. For event reservations call (845) 514-2300.

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I recently stopped by the store for a conversation with Nutley and McKay:

Lynn Woods: Sean, I assume you, like many of the recently arrived retailers in Kingston, had a previous life before Blue Cashew. Where are you from, what did you do before, and what caused you to open a kitchen supply store? 

Sean Nutley: I grew up on Staten Island. I was in PR communications in New York City and also did events, mostly focused on fashion and lifestyle. I came up here and opened a kitchen store in High Falls back in 2002. When I came up here, I would buy crap from Kmart, and anything beyond that didn’t exist. The store was called the bluecashew Pharmacy. It was the kitchen antidote for whatever ails you. When the recession hit in 2008, I moved the store to Rhinebeck and was there for eight years before moving to Kingston in October 2017.

LW: Was it challenging owning a retail business?

SN: During my college years I worked at Barney’s [the clothing store in New York City]. I was stationed on the first floor with the accessories, the hats, gloves, eyeglasses, and jewelry. A lot of the things I sell now are related to accessories.

LW: How did you end up in the Hudson Valley?

SN: My parents bought a property in Accord when I was growing up, and I had a house in the Catskills for 12 years. Now we live up the road in my father’s hunting partner’s house, which started as a log cabin built in 1812.

LW: JT, what about you?

JT McKay: I grew up in New Jersey, went to Vassar, and worked for a restaurateur China Grill for 19 years. I started as an assistant to the owner and by the time I left was the creative director and director of marketing. We were the first restaurant company to make hotel restaurants cool. I also was in The Restaurant, a reality TV show about opening a restaurant in New York City.

In 2005 I bought a weekend house up here. After I met Sean at Burning Man, I moved up here full time and commuted to the city for six years.

LW: When you opened, High Falls was a retail hotbed.

SN: In the early 2000s, High Falls created an amazing brand and the town attracted a certain type of person. My brother, who owns The Green Cottage in High Falls, and I were the vanguard. 

JM: bluecashew was doing gangbusters, then in 2008 the recession happened, and overnight it was dead. Rhinebeck was the only place to do business in the Hudson Valley.

SN: In the beginning it was great, but then after several years there were tons of tourists, who wanted Rhinebeck mugs and T-shirts. On weekends, locals couldn’t find a parking spot. 

LW: How did you discover Kingston?

JM: The first time Sean brought me here we were walking from Boitson’s to the Stockade. We were walking by this store [then J&J’s Hobbies, which had closed] and I said, “I want that space.” Our neighbors wanted to buy investment property in Kingston and were looking for something with a storefront for bluecashew or a restaurant. They were interested in this building when it came on the market, but then the listing agent called and said someone from Texas bought it. Eight months later, the owner came into bluecashew in Rhinebeck and said, “I have a space in Kingston I think you’d be perfect for.” He wanted an anchor for the town. He gave us a good deal and we signed a 10-year lease. 

LW: What are your separate roles in the business?

JM: I oversee the cooking classes and kitchen programming, while Sean does the shop. I thought that people needed to have a more robust experience and interact with the things we sell. The pots and pans are on the expensive side, and people have more faith in the product if they can use it.

My idea was to build a community around food. Even if you love cooking, you do it alone and might resent people you’re doing it for. There’s not often you have a chance to enjoy cooking with other people as well as learn. 

LW: How many people in a class? What is the cost?

JM: The maximum for hands-on classes is nine, but my favorite class size is four. The average cost is $85 for a two-to-two-and-a-half-hour cooking session. You get to eat what you make — we try to schedule a lunch or dinner afterwards. We’ve done yogic, ayurvedic cooking, in which all the ingredients were vegan. We’ve done steakhouse classes, classes on meatballs, Chinese dumplings and French macarons. I want people to learn and be challenged, so even for the meatballs class I insisted we grind all the meat ourselves. 

LW: What were the challenges in designing the store?

JM: It’s the most exciting and fun thing I’ve every done. I had the best time working with the designer. I reused almost everything from the Rhinebeck store and had the wooden frames made so we could design the glass shelves differently. I found two posts rotting in the garden and used those. The kitchen is the heartbeat of the house, and I wanted to feel like the store was home. I was a drama major at Vassar. It’s connected, because here and in my old job I would approach things in terms of how it made people feel. 

SN: I call it a concept store. JT came up with the idea of homesteading. 

JM: The unspoken narrative is that you need to start figuring it out on your own, but there’s no reason you need to look like shit when you’re doing it. 

LW: As a business owner, what is your connection with the community?

JM: It’s important to us to give back to local organizations such as People’s Place or the YMCA Farm Project. I met Julia Turshen at the Farm Project gala last fall. Cooked half the courses and I did the other half. The Farm Project kids in the off-season formed a cooking club, and they cook here a couple of times each season. Now I am tapping teachers and other people to set up programming for the kids. 

LW: You’ve observed that Rhinebeck turned into a tourist trap. How can we prevent that from happening here?

JM: Kingston has a different history. I used to call it Williamsburg on the Hudson. We as retailers should not dictate what Kingston is, but instead realize our position and grow together. There’s an overall spirit of community here in every way, shape, and form. We sell these white plates with pewter edging that we almost didn’t put out because they’re so expensive, and we didn’t want to intimidate people. But it sold well here. The rich people in Rhinebeck who looked like rich people were pains in the asses and always asked for discounts. You’d never be able to pick the rich people out of a lineup in our neck of the woods.

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