You know the story: Stingy villagers are tricked into sharing ingredients with a stranger (or a tramp or a monk or a wily pilgrim, depending in which country the traditional tale is told) who says he’s making “stone soup” that just needs a bit of this or that to be perfectly delicious. Soon everyone is adding to the soup. In the end the pot is full, and they all feast on it (minus the stone, of course).
In Kingston, Gwenn Sorensen and Steve Lewis have been cooking for the locals for ten years at Stone Soup Food Company. Little trickery is involved, however, unless unobtrusively getting people to eat wholesome home-cooked foods – thereby being nourished into good health and well-being without them even realizing it – is what’s up the couple’s culinary sleeves.
Situated amidst a string of eateries old and new, the Midtown establishment is known for its down-to-Earth delicious soups, salads, sandwiches, mac-and-cheese (some say it’s the best around), roasted and grilled veggies, fish and meat specials and quiches. Oh, and the sweet stuff, all done in-house and dangerously irresistible. What’s more, CIA-trained Steve and his partner, Gwenn, cater like crazy. They’ve managed events for multitudes, including the manufacturing of decorated cakes that just beg to be cut into and devoured. Like I said: dangerous.
On their so-called day off, after prepping and delivering food to one event and waiting to send a couple of those cakes out the door, they sat and told me their story. “We are in the middle of the workingpersons’ district, with the school, the hospital employees and so on, who tend to want to eat out a lot but are also very budget-conscious. When we first opened, people didn’t appreciate the fact that we make everything from scratch. So they balked when we charged $2.95 for a cup of soup. People weren’t used to real foods. We had to watch our price point, and we didn’t make much money.”
But they made it through, she says, and never lost faith. “You’ve gotta keep going, and here we are. I’ve always cooked – for about 40 years now. Steve was a chef for years, and then went to work for Sysco Food Company as a chef/consultant. Now we have six employees. We’re steady; I wouldn’t say business is booming, but it’s steady. The resurgence of new places gives us competition. But we do all right with the catering.”
He says, “Our walk-in trade we really appreciate, but that extra catering trade is how we get paid. Our walk-in trade is how we pay everybody else.” Sorensen and Lewis do a lot of luncheon and wedding catering, with regular clientele such as Temple Emmanuel (“We do their Passover every year”) and Chamber of Commerce mixers and local church events. “The Methodist Church uptown asked us to do a convention for people who came in from all over the country; they wanted us to do gluten-free macaroni and cheese, one soup, some wraps and dessert platters for 350 people. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
These clients discovered Stone Soup when a group of regulars who’ve been playing water polo at the Y for the best part of 20 years recommended them. “During the nice weather, they sit outside and eat breakfast after their thing at the Y.” Like other longtime businesses in town, they support worthy causes and donate their services when they can.
The crowded kitchen is well-organized to produce this constant flow of fresh food. In one area, Sorensen bakes. Her shadow cake, alternating layers of chocolate and vanilla cake with chocolate mousse and vanilla crème in between, is famous. One refrigerator holds these rich temptations. One wall out front is covered in autographed photos of famous people who have played at UPAC.
Lewis says, “Only a couple have actually been in this place. We go there to feed them when they’re on location to do their show. We enjoy pleasing people. I wouldn’t say we’re ‘cutting-edge.’ We’re not gluing things together with scallop enzymes. But we make honest, good food, as natural as we can, and still make it be affordable. We start with real food, whole food. Do we use canned black beans and tomatoes? Sure we do. But we have a walk-in full of vegetables and real meats.”
“I’ve always said that great chefs are illusionists,” says Lewis. “We are able to take relatively understandable stuff and not only make it taste great, but assemble it in the way that increases its value.”
“Your desire for it, the eye appeal and texture,” Sorensen chimes in. “Everything has its own design – not only the flavor profile, but the design. I think both of us try to do that.”
He says, “She’s more the artist. I cook quite a bit of food here, but she can orchestrate it from there.”
At Stone Soup, there’s something for everybody: vegan, meat and potatoes, whatever. “I would like people to know that we are as complicated or as simple as they are looking for and everything in between. We try to cover that whole range of dietary restrictions,” says Sorensen. “For our desserts, we use only local dairy products and real, unsalted butter and Belgian chocolate and fresh strawberries and raspberries. Our eggs are sourced locally. We walk the middle line. People trust us.”
Lewis wraps it up: “I want people to know that it’s a privilege to serve the public and garner that trust. We work every day to hit that mark. We realize that fewer Americans cook on a regular basis. There’s a certain pity to that, but we want to fill in, whether they’re taking it home or coming here for lunch with a friend. It’s a real privilege to do that.”
Stone Soup Food Company, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., 470 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 340-0470, www.stonesoupfoodcompany.com.