At Chef Rob Handel's Kitchen, City Folks and Country Folks Find Common Ground
"We brought you some Brooklyn tap water for your bagel experiment," an arriving customer announces, placing a pair of gallon-sized jugs on the counter in Chef Rob Handel's kitchen.
The 25-year-old chef thanks him and says, "Well, if it's not the water, it's just my goyish upstate bagels!" For a moment, the farmhouse kitchen is filled with laughter, and although we were all huddled around the counter at the Bee's Knee's Cafe at Heather Ridge Farm, with the owners Carol Clement and John Harrison seating guests and entertaining my children, it feels more like a brunch party at a friend's home.
A combination of locals and weekenders make up the customer base here. "Everyone has a common thread of being interested and aware about food, agriculture, and animal welfare. Those who find us without having those interests are typically keen to learn more. That tends to make the café and farm store a very social place, with people jumping in and out of a common conversation (fortunately for me these are often within earshot of the kitchen) as they shop or eat their meals," Rob says.
Though Rob may not realize it, it's more likely that his culinary skills -- his cakey apple cider donuts with a crunchy sugared crust, a breakfast skillet that we dream about, his monthly five-course supper club -- are the magnet that brings people together. His thoughtful and generous presence may be the glue.
Rob grew up in Cornwallville, which is a hamlet in the town of Durham, and he still lives within a mile of his childhood home, in a house that once belonged to his grandparents. I think it's fair to say that he's the human embodiment of the old Catskill mountain lifestyle meeting the tech-driven ways of the future.
On his frequently updated Facebook feed, he shares his old-timey homesteading skills among liberal-minded political posts. On a regular day, he might be preserving the furry feet of the rabbits that he raised (and ate) or cooking pork heart sous vide in his new vacuum sealer. He might be sharing his homemade cherry mead and cranberry bean miso on a radio show about fermentation or bottling his herbaceous and delicious root beer syrup, which is available at Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow and I.U. Tripp in Oak Hill. He might be foraging wild mushrooms, or making lye from wood ashes to use in soap-making, or crusading for a community museum, or playing traditional Irish music. He's a man of many hobbies, and he's figured out how to make a living by doing something he loves.
"I grew up at my family's resort in East Durham and started helping my grandmother in the kitchen there at an early age. She instilled a love for food and cooking in me while I was very young," Rob says. "I started seriously learning about cooking while I was in college studying biology. I've always been aware of the parallel between cooking and science, but during this time I realized that I was more interested in the kitchen than the lab. I stopped pursuing my biology degree and went to SUNY Delhi for Culinary Arts for a year. At that point I had taken over the kitchen at the family resort after my grandmother had passed away, and juggling school, my daughter, and that became too onerous, so I left SUNY Delhi and have continued to learn by reading and doing."
After a couple of short stints away at school, Rob was happy to come home: "I’ve chosen to stay in Durham because it really is a very special place, and I have very close bonds with people who live in the community." He's a cheerleader for his hometown, noting that Durham is the home to a couple of big summertime music festivals -- Oak Hill's Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and East Durham's Irish Festival and Catskill Irish Arts Week, which "involves top Irish musicians from Ireland, America, and Canada setting up shop in town for the week. It’s widely regarded as one of the best traditional Irish music events in the world, and it’s happening at our doorstep," Rob says. "Many believe that tourism in Durham is dead (especially people who write for the New York Times), but they couldn’t be more wrong."
The Bee's Knees Cafe is a restaurant built into an old farmhouse, but Rob's cooking and the spirit he brings to the space really make the restaurant feel like a home. Whether you're traveling from Windham, Hudson, Brooklyn, or just down the road in Durham, it's worth a visit. Once you get there, you probably won't want to leave.
The farm and cafe are located at 989 Broome Center Road, Preston Hollow, NY; 518-239-6234. You can learn more about Rob Handel on his website.