A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL HOUSE
Chef John Novi looks beyond the Depuy Canal House
BY PETER AARON • PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER MAY
The wedge of locally grown radicchio is steaming. Just out of the hot cast-iron pan, it rests on an airy cake of quinoa, its cutlet-like breading a perfect shade of golden brown peeking from beneath a layer of melted locally made bleu cheese. Inside the mouth, it’s one astonishing texture and flavor giving way to the next: the moist, salty tang of the cheese over the light and flaky stratum of the breading, followed by the subtly bitter chicory crunch of the cabbage and a forkful of the clean, hearty quinoa. The dish is accompanied by purée of fennel cooked with Japanese mirin wine.
This whole mini-epic for the palate and eyes is just one more savory reminder of the genius that’s made John Novi, head chef and owner of the esteemed Depuy Canal House in High Falls, a contemporary culinary legend for 41 years. The intrepid pioneer of modern Hudson Valley gastronomy, Novi is internationally exalted as one of the key creators of New American cuisine. Once called “the father of American cooking” by Time magazine and singled out by People magazine for his “fearless and imaginative” approach, he’s an Old World–schooled, epoch-making chef whose 41-year-old fine dining and bistro offerings have earned his establishment acclaim by The New York Times as one of “the most interesting and best suburban restaurants in America.” Via their early years at the Canal House, he’s launched the careers of such luminaries as wine gurus Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World) and Steven Kolpan (Culinary Institute of America), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s restaurant chain) and others. And now, after all these years, he has his desire to move on from the financial aspect of the business, which often interferes with the profound enjoyment Novi experiences when designing recipes, menus and engaging in the more playful aspects of cooking. “It’s time for a new chapter,” says Novi, whose name, coincidentally, translates as “new” in Italian. The future of this historic building is his main concern, as Novi considers himself caretaker and steward of the property. Novi is brimming with ideas on what the next incarnation of the Canal House might be, and he is passionately in discussion with local investors and officials to make something worthy of the restaurant’s legacy come to fruition. But regrettably, the Canal House, as diners have known it for decades, is now dormant.
Novi’s is a life that’s had many chapters. His father, a junk dealer, moved the family upstate from Brooklyn in 1954 and started a homemade frozen Italian foods business out of their house. Novi worked as the company’s delivery boy during his high school years and grew up cooking alongside his mother, absorbing the rich gustatory traditions of her Neapolitan upbringing. The family seized an opportunity early on and opened a bakery and small Italian restaurant in a disused store the family had bought in the early 1960s that quickly proved successful. (The shop closed after Novi’s parents retired and is now the High Falls Café.) But this dalliance with the restaurant world only fed his hunger. To Novi, a preservationobsessed Canal history buff then fully bitten by the restaurateur bug, there was another structure in town that also cried out for a new life.
Built as a tavern in 1797 by Simon Depuy, the two-story stone Depuy House had been the central hub of High Falls, and played an integral role in New York State’s development beginning in 1823 serving travelers and workers on the Delaware and Hudson Canal. When Novi bought the place in 1964 for $4,500 with a loan from a local wealthy Cement company owner, he was 22 years old. Novi recalls the house was “Empty of electricity, heat or furniture, pretty much just a shell.” He spent the next four years renovating and redecorating the building, using salvage materials from Urban Renewal projects happening in small local cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie. He did much of the restoration work himself, including the beautiful interior of the architectural award–winning, brickaddition kitchen he built on in 1974. His old kitchen was fully furnished with a $35 stove, a $15 sink and drain board and a shuffleboard made into a work table. The most expensive item was his $400 refrigerator, which came from another local establishment.
In 1968 he went to Angri, the village south of Naples his parents were from, to work as a waiter and learn the trade from the masters of Italian cuisine. “The hotel/restaurant chefs loved me because I was one of the few people around who had a car,” Novi remembers, laughing. “I’d give them rides into town or run errands for them, so they took me under their wing and taught me what they knew. I had a photo of the Canal House I carried around with me that I’d show them and say, ‘This is the restaurant I’m gonna open when I get back to America!’” Which was just what he did, the following year, in 1969—although the Canal House’s unveiling wasn’t exactly earthshaking and in some respects was premature. “After five years the place still wasn’t finished,” he says. “My hippie friends were camping out upstairs, and we were using space heaters for warmth. But we opened anyway, and started out doing private dinners for smaller groups.” The lead-up to the official opening, however, simply gave Novi more time to develop the base European techniques he’d learned into what others have called New American cuisine but he prefers to call something else.
The Audacity of Cooking
“To me it’s just cooking without borders,” he explains. “Using food concepts from around the world as starting points, or points of inspiration, and seeing where else I can take them—while using as much fresh local produce, meats, fish, poultry, dairy and other ingredients as possible. I source most of the ingredients myself, and my favorite thing to do is to load up the walk-in refrigerator with everything I’ve found and then think, ‘Hmm, what can I do with all of this?’” So goes his menu. Novi loves to cook with fish and vegetables, however, one of his many customer favorites among his adventurous offerings is choucroute au Champagne (“a hearty German knife-and-fork dish made by layering fresh sauerkraut, equal amounts of onions, plus smoked pork hocks, bacon, diced pork loin, kielbasa, sausages and pinklewurst with fresh thyme, cooked in Champagne and garnished with sour cream”), another is the capriccio-style sake-cured salmon sliced thin and finished with white truffle oil and lemon garlic aioli, along with the always-indemand, but less audacious, beef and steak entrées.
Novi maintains the Depuy was the first local spot to feature duck “served in sections; sautéing the breast and slicing it rare while making the leg and thigh confit. The menu would read ‘Duck Two Ways’ for that. On the first day we opened we had octopus, which we did as a cold salad, since it was summer: cooked octopus, sliced thin and combined with Italian parsley, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and lemon, served with sliced ciabatta bread soaked with tomato and topped with Pecorino cheese. That was a big hit with the older people in the community, who had grown up with something that no one else around here was making. So the word started to spread.” But, thanks to one customer in particular, the word would soon be spread much farther.
Eight months after the establishment opened, The New York Times’ Craig Claiborne—the dean of American food critics—happened to stop in with seven other Times writers and chefs. Blown away, he gave the Depuy a raving, four-star anointment, saying of Novi, “[He’s] incredibly innovative and inspired. I don’t think you could categorize his cooking. It’s really his own nouvelle cuisine.” The rustic farmland house instantly became ground zero for the Hudson Valley’s rebirth as a major restaurant destination and a prime stop on the worldwide culinary itinerary, drawing chef-fans and celebrity diners like Aidan Quinn, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro (who even got married on the premises). DeNiro is a fan but not yet a friend says Novi after Novi blurbed his remarks about the wedding to People magazine. In an age where chefs are the new rock stars, Novi is the culinary equivalent of Tom Waits: influencing many of his greater-known peers but never courting the limelight nor receiving the celebrity they so often bask in. He’s remained free to do what he wants, boldly combing tastes, textures and colors in ways few others dare to conceive of. “John could easily be as big as Wolfgang Puck or Alice Waters, who started doing New American cooking shortly after John opened in 1969,” says Kevin Zraly, who worked at the Depuy from 1970 to 1976. “He’s incredibly attentive to details, and not just with the menu and the service. He really strives to keep the historic ambience of the building in place.”
“He had the building listed on the National Register for Historic Places two years after opening. Say, if one of the doors needs a new knob, he’ll go out and search through antiques stores looking for just the right one from the right period—he won’t just go to Home Depot and buy one. But he’s an artist first, not a showman, which translates so beautifully to the plate. He’s had his chances to go the TV-chef route, but it’s not his style. He’d rather just cook.”
But being a freewheeling pioneer, Novi’s naturally had his share of experiments gone awry. “There was one time I got this idea of adding gold leaf to a locally made cheese,” he recounts. “So I took all of this gold leaf to Harpersfield Cheese Farm in the Catskills and had them mix it into their cow’s milk cheese base. What we didn’t know was that after a certain amount of time aging the cheese the gold oxidized and faded into the cheese. Which kind of defeated the purpose. I wanted gold to be visible as strikes.”
The Next Chapter
Undaunted, however, Novi continues to explore, using ingredients from farmers involved with sustainability. His one local joy is his involvement with RVGA—the Rondout Valley Growers Association, where he serves on the board as a charter member. He sees his influence with this group of farmers as his avenue for promoting diversification for them to fearlessly grow foods that are grown in other parts of the world but can be adapted to grow in the Rondout Valley.
He also lords over quite a land compound in High Falls, owning not only the Depuy, but also the remodeled barn behind it (which serves as his home and office), the adjacent New York Store 1880 building which houses the Last Bite Café and, directly across Route 213, the 1860 Locktender Cottage, which offers charming overnight accommodations.
The Depuy Canal House restaurant has another restaurant called Chefs on Fire bistro located in the downstairs wine cellar; The COF bistro specializes in gourmet brickoven pizza from the only known underground brick oven. Both restaurants are now for lease preferably or for sale.
“Ultimately, if I had my way I’d stay on as a consultant with investors or a new owner,” muses Novi, who is also a composing pianist and an accomplished painter whose creations adorn the interior of the Depuy. “I’m also looking to move into designing world-class kitchens and menus, and working as a guest chef at well-known kitchens in the U.S. and abroad. I’d like to finish my cookbook and my memoirs, and conduct eating and cooking tours of Italy. And I’m really excited about doing private cooking lessons, or house parties where prospective customers buy a bag of fresh local foods and have me turn the ingredients, [previously] unknown to me, into a great dinner to feed their guests that day or night.”
“So there’s a lot of things I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Novi says, perhaps a touch wistful as he looks back on his decades of experience. “And now seems like the time to start doing them. I’d love to keep the kitchen I have now, but it’s part of whatever the future is for the Canal House in someone else’s hands. I love the Canal House and would have enjoyed making it better, but the times do not want me to stay. I have no desire to move away, though. My children and grandchildren are here, I’ll never stop cooking for them or my friends.”
For that, Hudson Valley area diners will surely breathe a collective sigh of relief.
DEPUY CANAL HOUSE
103 Main Street, High Falls