By Anne Maxfield, Accidental Locavore
There aren’t many chefs who can say they oversaw the first dish that went out of their restaurant and the last one. Especially when that was a span of more than 50 years ago.
But few chefs are John Novi.
In 1969, he opened the DuPuy Canal House in High Falls, a few years earlier than more well-known West Coast “American cooking ” restaurants such as Chez Panisse, and predated the farm-to-table movement by about 50 years (we have him to thank—or curse—for introducing kale to menus as early as 1985).
Only eight months after opening, Craig Claiborne of the NY Times awarded DuPuy Canal House their top honor—four stars—and the restaurant went from feeding about twenty people a night to 120 or more.
I recently attended a presentation and dinner at Mohonk Mountain House with Editor-in-Chief Laurie Szostak and Susan Marano Feldman of the OHV sales team. Mohonk Consultations was honoring Chef Novi with the Distinguished Achievement Award.
The event was sold out, and the love for Chef Novi was apparent throughout the evening.
It started out with a 1984 AT&T film about the restaurant and the man behind it. You see Chef Novi (with a huge mustache) carefully plating meals in a kitchen filled with perfectly polished copper pots.
From the various speakers, we learned all the insider stories behind DuPuy Canal House, and how Chef Novi affected so many lives.
One of my favorite stories was about an important party that was held at the restaurant. After dinner and dessert, there was supposed to be a chocolate cake. Somehow in the chaos that is any kitchen, there was no cake. Chef Novi dispatched his dishwasher to the local store for a dozen Devil Dogs and added some more chocolate to melt in the double boiler. They cut the ends of the Devil Dogs, shaped them into a rectangular cake, covered them with the melted chocolate and served it. The host thanked them profusely for dinner and praised the cake, saying, “It tasted like a gourmet take on a Devil Dog.”
And while he’s been described as “the father of American cooking” (to which he retorts, “Only American cooking?”), John Novi has many other talents. He’s an accomplished artist, creating landscapes of the houses and farms in the Hudson Valley. He did much of the work restoring the Canal House, digging out the basement, laying stones for a brick oven and adding an extension to the original building. In the beginning, because he didn’t have money to replace the many mullioned windows, he carefully recreated the look of the originals using masking tape for the look of 12-over-12 windows.
Since the beginning, he’s been passionate about supporting local farms, and now, with the award from Mohonk Consultations, he’s putting his money where his mouth is and choosing Rondout Valley Growers, a farmer-led nonprofit, as the beneficiary of his award.
What’s next on his plate? Chef Novi is working with SUNY Ulster to create a culinary program, hoping to become adept at cheesemaking and, with the help of his four grandchildren, making “slime” that may soon be the hand sanitizer at a restaurant table near you.