The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park currently spends around $1 million a year on local food for its classes and restaurants. Stephan Hengst, director of communications at the CIA, says that 30 area farms currently supply the school—between 40 and 60 percent of the food is regionally sourced—and that “local food is woven through he curriculum at all levels.” That investment is now paying dividends in the form of high-quality restaurants run by CIA alumni who have chosen to open their own establishments throughout the valley.
Ira Lee (everybody calls him “Lee”) graduated from the CIA in 1994 and opened Twisted Soul In Poughkeepsie in 2007. Lee grew up in Bedford Hills, and his parents cooked soul food exclusively. Upon arrival at the CIA, he says, “I wasn’t used to any of what we were making; it was all new.” His lack of prior experience in the world of food has had an effect on his mature style; the menu borrows freely from traditions around the world, creating playful and compelling dishes that ignore boundaries and treat any good idea as fair game for remixes and mashups. After spending six years in Mexico, teaching and running a restaurant, Lee traveled extensively all over the world—Central and South America, Europe, and Asia—voraciously learning the techniques of every country on his tour. Now his journeys are limited to one trip a year “strictly for food; I’m on a mission.” Each year he chooses a different country and visits the markets and talks to vendors and chefs, searching out ingredients and ideas. His soul food roots are also showing themselves more overtly in some recent preparations, like a fried chicken noodle bowl that quickly became a best seller.
The casual setting and street-food vibe of the fare belies the serious skill involved in its conception and execution; everything is made from scratch, and there are a lot of flavors and textures at work in every dish. Arepas, small corn cakes traditional in Venezuela and Colombia, serve as foundations for a variety of globally inspired toppings: pulled pork, jerked tofu, or Ethiopian-style tofu. The arepas’ crisp exteriors and soft insides make them an ideal substrate for the rich and spicy bites that are Lee’s trademarks. Korean-flavored chicken wings are sticky, savory, and with just the right level of heat, but some celery kimchi and miso-tofu dipping sauce (instead of the plain white rice with which they are served) would really take the Buffalo-Seoul riff to a fully realized place. Empanadas, noodles, dumplings, steamed buns, bubble tea: Twisted Soul is every ethnic joint you love rolled into one. The nature of the food means that many ingredients come from afar, but it’s impossible to order badly, and the price is right.
Edward Kowalski (CIA class of 1998) is the chef-owner of Crave, also in Poughkeepsie, which he opened in December of last year and which promptly won the Best Restaurant of 2010 award from Hudson Valley magazine. He feels strongly that his generation of CIA grads are kindred spirits when it comes to developing a regional cuisine, and makes a point of hiring current students and recent graduates; executive chef Catherine Williams was in the class of 2001 and sous chef Craig Capano finished in 2009. “We’re always trying to push things a little bit,” he says, adding that he and his staff enjoy challenging each other and their customers to try new things; after buying a whole pig recently, they served chicharrones as bar snacks and a torchon made from the head in order to use the entire animal. “Sometimes we have to be a little creative with the menu descriptions, but people always like the result.” He plans to rotate chicken off the menu soon and replace it with pheasant for a while.
Jessica Winchell (CIA 1996) is the chef-owner of the Global Palate on Route 9W in West Park. After working at Terrapin and the Emerson, among other restaurants, she decided to open her own place. “My style is definitely comfort food—especially now that it’s fall—and I use as much local food as humanly possible,” including vegetables from her own garden. “I want people to feel comfortable, and satisfied when they leave.” Winchell talks enthusiastically about charcuterie and features an appealing mixed plate of meats, cheeses, and pickles on the menu as well as cow’s tongue prepared like pastrami. Stone Church Farm duck breast came seared atop mashed potatoes with an elegantly simple celery-apple salad and confit of the duck legs. A cornmeal crust on the breast was less effective than it could have been, but then again, everything is less effective than crisp duck skin. The sauce, a cider gastrique, added a simple and revealing nod to the region; so many other chefs would have used citrus without thinking about it. A blackberry-Bordeaux sorbet was extraordinary.