She is arguably the single most influential person in creating the Hudson Valley “brand.” And Laura Pensiero, the owner/founder of Gigi Hudson Valley Trattoria and Catering in Rhinebeck, doesn’t even use a PR company. Good old-fashioned word of mouth, much of it spread through her 2009 cookbook, Hudson Valley Mediterranean, has driven awareness of our idyllic corner of the world. And Gigi Trattoria has become as synonymous with the Valley as Chez Panisse is with Berkeley or Katz’s Deli is with Manhattan.
That reputation is what led Hillary and Bill Clinton to use Gigi Hudson Valley’s catering services for various events when their daughter, Chelsea, got married here in the summer of 2010. It also inspired the former president himself to drop by the restaurant the day before the wedding, looking all fit and greeting each member of the staff. “We had a 10-minute warning he was coming,” recalls Pensiero. “It was surreal.”
When she opened Gigi 13 years ago (with her now ex-husband), it was a hit from the get-go. Pensiero credits her success with knowing what her customers, many of them second homeowners, really want. “At the time, there were only a handful of restaurants in Rhinebeck, and we took a modern approach to a trattoria.” A former weekender herself (she lived in the city before settling here full time in 2001), Pensiero could relate to the second-home crowd: “You would feel like, ‘I haven’t seen my house all week long, and I don’t want a three-course meal for three hours.’ What was missing was a place where you could get a great, honest bowl of pasta or a thin crust pizza and a glass of wine. Here, if you just want an appetizer, you get a table. We’re flexible.”
That approach was a huge hit, as was Pensiero’s innovative and, at the time, groundbreaking approach to sourcing food locally, a movement that she has championed in the Valley. She continues to change things up. Gone is Gigi Market, which proved too time-consuming, and the focus of the trattoria’s menu has shifted from Italian to Mediterranean, with more small plates and a wider geographical reach. The catering business continues to grow. Still feeding off the buzz created by the Clinton wedding, the Rhinebeck area hosts a growing number of photo shoots for national catalogs, and Pensiero is has become the go-to caterer.
Pensiero credits her success with knowing what her customers really want. “Here, if you just want an appetizer, you get a table. We’re flexible”
Incredibly, there’s more. Pensiero is head chef and dietitian for Just Salad, the “fast food” chain where you mix and match veggies, toppings, and dressings. Locations saturate Manhattan and Brooklyn, and there are outposts in New Jersey, Hong Kong, and Dubai, with more in the works.
“A client approached me about it eight years ago, and said his son was going into the restaurant business and to talk him out of it,” says Pensiero. Instead, she encouraged Nick Kenner, then only 24, to run with his idea of providing inexpensive and readily available healthy food. “Young people come in after school in urban areas, and they’ll try all the toppings and check out the edamame,” Pensiero says. “It’s such a hip young brand, it really does resonate for me. It speaks to what I feel about healthy eating.”
Nutrition has always been at the heart of Pensiero’s passion. After a childhood in Putnam and Dutchess counties, she earned her degree at SUNY Plattsburgh and did her nutrition residency at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn Heights, where she later worked. “I was doing diet counseling for newly diagnosed diabetics and people with other diet-related maladies. Very often I would see people who had never received nutritional intervention when they were first diagnosed and it could have made a significant difference in their health. That got me really focused on prevention vis-à-vis cooking and nutrition.”
She attended the French Culinary (now the International Culinary Center) at night, which led to launching a recipe testing and development company for chefs, media outlets, food service, and healthcare operations. She even co-authored The Strang Cancer Prevention Center Cookbook. A gig as culinary director of prevention and wellness at Memorial Sloan Kettering had her doing weekly cooking demos for people recovering from cancer and those at high risk. “It felt like you were really helping people,” says Pensiero. “That’s still what I want to do with Gigi, teaching by what I put on the plate, and celebrating local seasonal food. It’s a good, rewarding spot to be in, and to have it all knit together.”