It’s rare to talk about the Hudson Valley without bringing up the farm-to-table movement. Or should we say way of life? In a region where farmers, growers, and makers abound, farm-to-table is very much a living, breathing concept that celebrates the bounty of the region.
For Chef Nicholas Leiss, farm-to-table is what it’s all about. After getting his start cooking alongside his grandma at the tender age of five, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 2010. From there, he worked in kitchens throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond, including The Roundhouse in Beacon and Valley Restaurant in Garrison, and fell thoroughly in love with farm-to-table cuisine in the process. Following a work experience at three-star Michelin restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, he returned to the Hudson Valley with the drive to bring his passion for regional cuisine to life.
When he founded Farm2ChefsTable, a concept dining and education program in the region, just before the pandemic in the winter of 2019, he did so to spread the word about all the Hudson Valley has to offer.
“I dug into research on how to shine a light on one of the greatest bread baskets of the United States,” he recalls. “This led me to shaking the hand that feeds us in the Hudson Valley…walking the fields and pastures of the farmers, heading into the woods with foragers, talking shop with artisans, and interviewing the many producers of wine, spirits, ciders, and beer.”
Through discussions with local makers, he launched Farm2ChefsTable to educate, entertain, and inspire. The brand consists of three main components: the website and blog, the Cornucopia Dinners, and his private culinary services, the latter which includes private dining, cooking classes, and consulting. On the website, Leiss treats posts as conversations and profiles in which he spotlights talented artists, farmers, and producers around the Valley. He also shares mouthwatering recipes (spiced orange octopus, anyone?) and offers a look into the food and dining industry from a chef’s perspective.
With the Cornucopia Dinners, he channels his expertise and passion for farm-to-table cuisine into a truly inspired dining program.
“Cornucopia Dinners [are] Farm2ChefsTable coming to life,” he enthuses. “[They’re] a great opportunity to showcase the potential of Hudson Valley cuisine and terroir.”
To prep for a Cornucopia Dinner, Leiss meets with farmers, producers, and artisans around the Valley to create a meal that is a collaborative effort among them all. At each dinner, he aims to use as many Hudson Valley ingredients as possible, from the food on the plates to the plates, glasses, and utensils at each place setting.
“That is what makes the Cornucopia Dinners so special,” he observes. “It can’t be recreated anywhere else outside of the Hudson Valley.”
Currently, the dinners take place seasonally, since they are generally held outdoors at farms whose ingredients are featured during the meal. The experience is an intimate one, with dinner parties consisting of 10 guests per evening. A few of the locations Leiss has featured or is planning to use include Hover Farms, a grass-fed beef farm in Germantown, Laughing Fork Farm in Highland, and Field & Larder at the Chester Agricultural Center.
As far as featured vendors go, those range from the farms and agricultural sites that host the dinners to Hepworth Farms, Migliorelli Farm, Greig Farm, Mead Orchards, Rose Hill Farm, Starling Yards, Letterbox Farms, and Long Season Farm, to name only a few. And that’s just the standard stuff. Leiss takes farm-to-table to the next level by working with foragers such as the Beacon-based Deep Forest Wild Edibles to showcase the underappreciated ingredients the Hudson Valley has to offer.
“One of the highlights of the meals is the focus on the lesser known and appreciated wild edibles from the forest of the Hudson Valley,” he says.
In addition to produce, Leiss also places strong emphasis on local dairy, meat, and fish. He looks to Churchtown Dairy, Chaseholm Farms, Edgwick Farms, Cooperstown Cheese, and Chatham Sheep Herding Company for his cheeses, while Hover Farms, Millbrook Venison, Premiere Pastures, Eggberts Free Range Farm, Bonticou Ducks, and Dashing Star Farm supply him with meat and poultry. For seafood, he loves Hudson Valley Fish Farm, Montauk Catch Club, and Beaverkill Trout.
And did we mention the charcuterie? Leiss turns to La Salumina and Jacuterie for savory, Hudson Valley-based morsels that he can weave into his meals. At a recent Cornucopia Dinner, he artfully placed a savory piece of Jacuterie sausage into a delicate squash blossom for a delightful intermingling of flavors and textures.
Unsurprisingly, drinks also get the local treatment. In addition to the unique, handcrafted juices that Leiss prepares to accompany certain dishes, he also sources wines, spirits, and ciders from producers like Wild Arc, Whitecliff, Fjord, Rose Hill Ferments, Eminence Road Farm Winery, Coppersea Distilling, Hudson Valley Distillers, and Taconic Distillery. With each dinner, he hopes to include a greater variety of producers to highlight the abundance of talented craft alcohol brands that thrive within the Hudson Valley.
Of course, food is only part of the hyperlocal experience. Leiss wholeheartedly devotes himself to his Farm2ChefsTable concept and sources pottery from Newburgh Pottery for his cups and platters, baskets from Stanfordville’s Willowvale, metal chargers from Canal Forge in High Falls, and wooden spoons and bowls from Hudson Valley artisan Julia Swyers.
Coming up, Leiss has Farm2ChefsTable Cornucopia Dinners scheduled throughout November, with tickets and updates on his website. Looking ahead, he has high hopes that the dinner program will segue into his dream of opening a restaurant in the Hudson Valley. Like with his dinners, the restaurant will showcase progressive farm-to-table cuisine with the same dedication to local artisans and producers that Leiss currently maintains.
“The restaurant would be a dual concept featuring both a fine dining room and a more casual tavern,” he explains. “Both concepts will work together to utilize, preserve, and highlight all the farmers, producers, and artisans of the Hudson Valley. Additionally, I would also love to work closely with a farmer on the restaurant property to produce vegetables for the restaurant and then turn around and offer those vegetables for sale at a seasonal farmers’ market on the weekend at the restaurant along with other farmers of the area.”
For now, Leiss is happy to celebrate the bounty of the Hudson Valley through his website and Cornucopia Dinners. As he connects with the artisans and farmers of the region, he’s then able to share his discoveries with his diners so that they too can learn more about all the Valley has to offer.
“There’s so much to Hudson Valley cuisine, from the fields, pastures, forests, [and] mountains [to the] waterways,” he says. “There’s really endless untapped potential in the highlight at a meal around the dinner table.”
Related: Bar Bene Is Hudson’s Speakeasy-Style Bar on Warren Street