A 1973 addition to an 18th-century stone tavern, the high-ceilinged room is built out of barn beams, streetlights and bluestone. This is arguably the most revered kitchen in Hudson Valley dining history.
The DePuy Canal House has closed its doors after 42 years, but its kitchen remains at the ready. “Forty-two was pretty much a mark for me,” said chef John Novi. “I was a little apprehensive for two weeks after [closing]. Then I suddenly realized I’m doing it better, and I’m doing it individually.”
In September, he served a multi-course meal for 60 in honor of “Chagall in High Falls,” an exhibition featuring photographs, documents and reproductions of paintings completed by the celebrated artist during his two-year tenure as a local resident. The chef’s table – two joined planks at the kitchen’s center – seats up to ten, and is always set for service. Recent guests include friends both new and old, from The New York Times reporter John Leland to congressman Maurice Hinchey.
They dine on Novi’s creative American cuisine; “Food as Art” is the title that he used for years in Canal House advertisements. The restaurant opened for business in 1969, serving colorful culinary compositions influenced by world cuisines. In its famous first year of business, Times critic Craig Claiborne stopped by the Canal House for a seven-course meal and responded with four stars.
Long before the concept of the American celebrity chef coalesced, Novi was one. He was featured in “The Fun of American Food,” a 1985 Time magazine cover story by Mimi Sheraton, in which fellow restaurateurs dubbed him “the Father of New American Cooking.” A photo shows a mustachioed Novi grinning over platters of fish, fruit and vegetables.
Though today the thick black mustache has morphed into a closely trimmed white beard, the smile is the same. For Novi, food is art – and art is fun. He called a favorite 1970s vegetarian entrée “Elton John”: a stuffed baby eggplant wearing gigantic puff-pastry glasses. To commemorate the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein, Novi presented a pork loin, boned and filled, stuffed with sweetbreads in lieu of brains, topped with blood-red rhubarb sauce. The dish was a favorite of former Culinary Institute of America (CIA) president Henry Barber, who pointed out that food was not among the ten major arts as defined by The Times. “We had to change that,” said Novi.
Over four decades, Novi imparted the importance of art in food to his staff and more than 400 CIA externs, including notable alumni Ann Sutherland, Roy Yamaguchi and Kevin Zraly. Novi will be extending the teaching aspect of the business with a series of in-house cooking classes on November 15. For $175 per pair, couples will spend the day in the kitchen, cooking side by side, and then enjoy what they’ve made, dining at the chef’s table or in a Canal House fireplace room. (Or one of a couple can cook, and the other can join him or her for dinner.)
Novi has received a grant to begin work on a series of holiday recipe instructional videos, produced by Elizabeth Edersheim. He helps other chefs and restaurateurs design their kitchens and brands through John Novi Consulting.
Novi plans to employ the Canal House space as a product development kitchen, working with farmers to produce value-added goods. A passionate supporter of local farms, he has been a board member of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association since its 2003 inception. Since then, the collective has grown from 20 establishments to nearly 80, from Ellenville to Kingston. “My desire is to get them growing new things, and you have to prove to them that they can make a business out of it,” said Novi. “If I could get farmers to grow salsify, I’d make a salsify sauce that would be great on chicken, fish, anything. That’s what I want to do: turn that kitchen into a chemistry station.”
Meanwhile, Novi is determining the next incarnation of the Canal House. He hopes that the building will eventually go to the town, and that its history will be preserved and enjoyed by many generations to come – and that the new owners will keep the kitchen. “I want to keep the Canal House alive during this interim of flux, and not knowing which way it’s going to go,” said Novi. “I’d love to keep that kitchen. It’s my studio. If I sold the Canal House, I’d probably have to build another, but I don’t want to do that. This kitchen, it’s like an old cheese company. You can’t move a cheese out of Wisconsin unless you smear the walls with the same bacteria that made that cheese in Wisconsin.”