Every chef has a story about how they found their way into the kitchen. For Zac Olson, the 28-year-old executive chef at the Vintage at Millbrook Inn, it was a missionary trip to Baja Mexico, where he found himself apprenticing for a Spanish-speaking cook in a cinder block hut. Upon his return to America, the then-16-year-old found work at La Puerta Azul in Millbrook and began his culinary journey in earnest.
Olson worked at the upscale Mexican eatery throughout his time at the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated in 2014. After that he cheffed on and off at Monte’s Local Kitchen & Taproom, the Nic L Inn, and for the Bonura Hospitality Group, which owns establishments throughout the Hudson Valley, including Blu Pointe and Shadows on the Hudson. He also worked directly under Panera’s former executive chef Dan Kish at his hospitality R&D firm, Food Fixe. “Working with Dan blew my mind and opened my world,” Olson says, “I learned critical thinking about systems and how to do things in a more streamlined way.”
- The Vintage's chef Zac Olson
Ultimately, it was this systems knowledge that Olson brought to the table, coupled with his own kitchen experience, when Yvette Fromer contacted him to consult on the design of the restaurant and bar for her new project, the Millbrook Inn. Fromer purchased the property in 2019 and spent the past two years renovating the nine guest suites and building out an addition to house the Vintage.
But it was quickly apparent that Olson could add a lot more value to the project than simply being a sounding board for the design of a commercial kitchen, staffing questions, and advice on budgeting. He came of age in Hudson Valley restaurant kitchens as the farm-to-table movement was dawning, with a culinary ethos deeply rooted in a sense of place. So Fromer brought him on full-time to helm the kitchen he had helped design.
- Chef Zac Olson
“Yvette's whole thing is ‘country inn, reimagined’—American traditional with a bit of a twist,” says Olson, who has applied himself interpreting the design edict from a food perspective. “So we’re using the finest products you can find locally.” He started with a 30-mile sourcing radius, but that quickly shrank as neighboring meat and produce farmers began knocking on the kitchen door. “I am shocked at the abundance of stuff farmers have been bringing me,” Olson says. “We’ve honed in to a 10- to 15-mile radius for 75 percent of our goods.”
Olson anticipates approximately five major menu change-overs per year. In June, the dinner menu featured a stunning pink beetroot pasta made with local flour and topped with roasted crispy and raw beets. Despite its immediate success, it’s off the menu already as the season marches forward. “It has been a tough challenge,” Olson says of customer education facet of seasonal cooking. “Everyone expects to go to a restaurant and get that thing they love. Guests always say to me, ‘What happened to that dish you fed me last time?’ And I have to say, ‘Well, that’s not readily available around here anymore. This is what I have now, I promise you’re going to love it.’”
Last week, Olson switched over to a midsummer menu that makes ample use of the corn and tomatoes that have just started arriving at his doorstep. A popular new starter is the smoky tomato salad, which features fresh heirloom tomatoes over stewed tomato chutney with smoked pork belly lardons, a light blue cheese from Chaseholm Farms, pickled mustard seeds, and a sherry vinaigrette ($16).
Another standout is the beautifully plated trout tartare, which makes use of sustainably farmed steelhead trout from Hudson Valley Fisheries and comes served over a bed of thinly shaved cucumber ribbons topped with crispy shallots, capers, Meyer lemon aioli, and delicate, edible, blossoms ($17). The CSA special—a farmer-chef collaboration that changes weekly—is the menu’s secret weapon. In mid-July it was a housemade cavatelli served with olive oil garlic sauce and tossed with roasted red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and sundried tomatoes that packed an impressive umami punch for a veggie dish.
Looking for something heartier? The summer fowl is a dry-rubbed, oven-roasted spring hen served with ratatouille and white bean puree ($32). There’s also a steelhead trout main ($34) and a char-grilled, 10-ounce sirloin steak with garden chimichurri, corn pudding, and a rotating veg ($45). And while you may balk at the $28 price tag on the Vintage’s Union Vale burger, it is handsdown the best burger this hungry writer has eaten in several years. Made with a custom short rib beef blend and served on a brioche bun slathered with ramp aioli, garden greens, and Chaseholm’s tomme-style Stella Vallis cheese, it is topped with a fried, free-range egg that oozes gooey, golden yolk. Don’t snooze on the house-made root chips, which include rainbow beets. Dipped in the side cup of aioli they are a delightfully crunchy accompaniment.
Olson is sourcing his beef, dairy, eggs, and cured pork products from Millbrook Beef & Dairy, less than two miles down the road. Similarly, the produce is from Stonewood Farm, just seven miles away, while the chickens come from Quattro’s or Red Hook-based Yellow Bell. In addition to his regular producers, Olson has also cultivated relationships with local mushroom and plant foragers. Come August, he’ll switch modes and begin prepping for the winter menus with homestead tasks like drying mushrooms, canning fruit preserves, pickling, and salt curing. “Root veggies are going to be huge, and wintery items such as cabbage, “Olson says. “It could look very much like one-pot meals, soups, and stews—very cozy comfort food. Not so much traditional restaurant-style, ‘here is your menu,’ but more ‘It’s the middle of winter, here is what we’re offering to keep you comfortable and warm.’”
In addition to dinner, which is served Monday and Thursday through Saturday, the Vintage also offers Sunday brunch. The menu features a short stack of housemade pancakes with maple crystals baked into the batter and topped with a cup of fresh fruit ($16). The Hudson Valley steelhead trout benedict is another popular Sunday pick, with house-cured steelhead trout, a poached duck egg, grilled asparagus, and lemon hollandaise ($17).
When he steps out from the kitchen to do his nightly rounds of the dining room, c“It’s been a blessing,” Olson says. “I’ve done a lot of farm-to-table stuff but definitely not this micro. Yvette has given me all the tools and let me do my thing, and I’m still speechless. This is where you get the opportunity to explore the true art of connecting with your food and being creative.”