Some people saw it coming early. Travel + Leisure writers Matt and Ted Lee journeyed north from Manhattan in 2002, having sensed "a quiet revolution" but half-fearing that they would find something "just like the Hamptons with sheep." Instead, they had a blast meeting farmers and eating fantastic food, and wrote "Sweet (Hudson) Valley Highs" about their adventures.
That was around the time that the Rondout Valley Growers Association was first getting organized. The concept of collaboration rapidly found favor among new niche growers and third-generation farmers alike. "There were informal discussions under way that led to the organization being born in 2003," says RVGA president Deborah DeWan. "Before the [farm-to-table] movement became a movement, we had a tradition—a community of growers who had been on and in the land for generations, practicing farm-to-table, giving mutual aid, delivering sweet corn to New York and ingredients to restaurants. It's an exciting and challenging time now that these things are on the tip of everyone's tongue—to our members, it's just who we are, in our core and at our roots."
The Hudson Valley's re-emergence as agricultural powerhouse and culinary paradise is indeed on everyone's lips. As the locavore and slow food movements have grown in national prominence, partly in response to the catastrophe-ridden and depressing saga of Big Ag (cardboard tomatoes, anyone?) the region has become a bubbling stew of activity centered around every phase of local food: growing it, marketing it, cooking it, and eating it. With the rising tide of food system consciousness, our proximity to the Big Apple (named, after all, for a prominent agricultural product) has fueled recognition of the importance of rich soil, crafty microclimates, and devoted expertise. Emblematic of the shift may be the fact that within the cavernous reaches of Tech City, where IBMers once labored, one of the most successful endeavors is a food packaging facility, Farm to Table Co-Packers.
Farm to Table grew from the sweet dreams of Jim Hyland, himself a transplant from the city who fell in love with the CSA concept and started an unusual one, Winter Sun. Having started with freezing their own produce because they loved having good local food in winter, the Hylands figured others would enjoy it too. They were very right. "We've been taking more space every year—we just added 2,000 square feet, so our total is 35,000 now," says Hyland of the food packaging facility he runs. "Farm to Table is mission driven. We want to help local farms and the local food movement by opening up new markets. Aggregation and processing of value-added products was a missing link. We're going out to every market we can think of, so the farms don't have to worry about it. Ken Migliorelli has created a whole line. Other farmers just drop off their produce and get paid. It's been a very positive direction. I think the growing popularity of farmers' markets was the leading edge with the public."
The Hudson Valley's modern era of food stardom dates back to 1972, when the Culinary Institute of America, founded 25 years earlier in New Haven, moved to Hyde Park. Recognized as the place where the best students go to become world-class master chefs, the CIA has only grown in luster and importance—this year, National Restaurant News named the college president, Dr. Tim Ryan, and two of the college's alumni to its list of the 50 most powerful people in the food business. Ryan himself is an alumnus, as are household-name celebrity chefs like Cat Cora and Anthony Bourdain.
Other grads have fallen in love with the charms of this sweet valley and opened restaurants of their own here. The CIA's website lists a couple of dozen of these, from the avant garde hot dog outlet Soul Dog in Poughkeepsie to such renowned bastions of traditional eating as The Would in Highland and Ship to Shore in Kingston and Bruce Kazan's Main Course in New Paltz, an early adopter of farm-to-table cuisine.
One of the CIA's own restaurants, American Bounty, boasts as much about its embrace of local and sustainable as of the menus crafted by its experts. There's a lengthy listing of "farm partners" on its website, in 10 different food categories. Yet more evidence of the CIA's ability to stay on top of the region's wonders: They're opening their own craft teaching brewery in concert with Brooklyn Brewery in 2015.
Not all of the region's great chefs come through the CIA pipeline. In the 1970s, Craig Claiborne of the New York Times discovered the DePuy Canal House in High Falls and John Novi, who would come to be called the Father of New American Cuisine. Decades later, Novi looks with great satisfaction on the emerging local developments. "I believe in destiny," says Novi. "Certain things are written in advance if we let our instincts lead us. Things are coming together in a sort of pinpoint focus in the region right now. I've already got producers making things specifically for me. Up at Harpersfield Cheese they're making an exclusive Canal House cheese. I've got a meeting scheduled with (heritage grain grower) Don Lewis of Wild Hive. Growers from the Catskills stop here on their way to the Greenmarket in the city, before they get on the Thruway, and I get first pick. It's a wonderful puzzle to figure out and put together."
Then there are the wild younguns like Noah Sheetz, one of the co-founders of the Hudson Valley Chefs' Consortium, a group that's part advocacy, part showmanship, and part having a blast and providing the dining experience of a lifetime. "It grew from a bunch of us who kept meeting up at local food events like Columbia County Bounty," says Sheetz, "and then things really got rolling when we got together with the director of the Bannerman's Island Castle Trust and hosted dinner out there. We've cooked on a sandbar that's only there part of the time, at the Athens Lighthouse—all kinds of nontraditional locations. We've worked with an artist friend, Chip Fasciana, on an event that put together a winery, an artist, and a meal. These all make for interesting logistical puzzles."