Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Behind the Swoon Kitchenbar

Chef/co-owner Jeff Gimmel in the kitchen.
From the archives; originally published 10/10/08.

HUDSON, NY -- Jeff and Nina are people of simple wants. Right now they want to bake bread at home.

In their own oven.

The one inside a brick enclosure attached to their 19th Century house.

The one that used to turn out bread products for workers at the nearby Pocketbook Factory that no longer exists for that purpose.

Is that too much to ask?

Jeff Gimmel and Nina Bachinsky-Gimmel clearly have put down roots in quirky Hudson, the small riverside city that serves as the county seat of largely-rural Columbia County southeast of Albany.

It is a place where the extremes of wealth and poverty are evident, where some neighborhoods are tumbledown ugly but others -– particularly the main drag, Warren Street – are prime examples of how to maintain and reenergize wonderful architecture by using it for a plethora of restaurants and antique shops.

Or in their modest section of the city, where the old Pocketbook Factory has been revived to create exhibition spaces to showcase artists and local arts events.

Indeed, it’s that sort of schizo-ambiance that lured Jeff and Nina to town four years ago to open Swoon Kitchenbar in the heart of the Antiques District, a neighborhood that draws its clientele heavily from New York City -– often via Amtrak which stops at the foot of Warren right along the Hudson River.

After a year of living in temporary quarters, the Gimmels purchased their current house, from the outside an unprepossessing place, but an eclectic gem inside.

It has a fairly standard layout at the front, but visually expands into a wide kitchen that itself opens onto a great room/dining room.

“This used to be the outside patio of the house before the house was expanded to encompass it,” Jeff explained, gesturing at the painted concrete floor, the tin ceiling tiles, the two small sofas flanking a gnarled-tree coffee table, and the dining table set for 10.

The aforementioned bakery is attached to the back wall of the great room. (“We’re trying to figure out a way to get it up and running again,” Jeff said, pointing to the copper-colored tubing visible through a small window vent.)

Because the bakery is narrower than the rest of the house, it leaves room for a walkway to the terraced backyard and its flower and herb plantings. Jeff had his rotisserie grill set up on the walkway, chatting amiably as he brushed barbecue sauce on a brace of poulets, delicate little whole chickens glistening golden-brown and juicy.

Nina and Jeff.
They would be served later with a rich, bacon-wrapped, layered-potato pie and a salad of lovage, English peas, chive blossoms and a fresh goat cheese just made by Swoon sous chef Jamie Parry. He’s a veteran of Manhattan’s Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and other popular spots who was helping out in the Gimmels’ home kitchen for the lunch as well. Such is the world of restauranting when even on the one day of the week the business is closed the work continues.

The unexpected atmosphere of the house –- there’s even a tiny brick-floored wine cellar in progress, with entrance gained through a wooden trap door inside a walk-in storage area – is reflective of the eclecticism in the Gimmels’ lives.

Take Swoon Kitchenbar, located just a few blocks from their house. Its atmosphere envelops you as soon as you enter what seems to be a rather small space before you realize there is plenty of room both before and after the 22-foot-long, steel-and-wood-beam bar that gives the place its name and where some of the cooking is done.

Intricate and intriguing plants abound. Numerous original paintings adorn the walls. An antique tin ceiling, swag draperies, tiny-tiled floors, marble-topped tables and an earth-toned color palette help complete the mood.

Or take food. Jeff is serious about it. The native of Gaithersburg, MD, near Baltimore, never wanted to do much else.

“I barely got through high school – a little problem with attendance,” he said with a small smile. “I didn’t like it, didn’t want it. I just wanted to cook.”

His love of food and his hometown are reflected in his choice of a “last meal” – “Perfectly seasoned Maryland crabs, the kind you serve with a mallet and a stack of newspapers to catch the mess,” he said.

He didn’t actually carry his distaste for school too far. He attended culinary school at highly-regarded Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI, and became a chef in nearby Newport before going off to study in France. That led to kitchen stints in Manhattan, at such spots as Savann Est and Michael’s.

Nina, who hails from nearby Saugerties, likewise is a professional foodie, but her first love was dancing. A knee problem ended that, but she has plenty to fall back on. She holds a B.A. in photography from Bard College and her resume as a pastry chef includes work at such Manhattan gems as Union Square Cafe, Le Bernardin, 44 at the Royalton Hotel, and Café M of the Stanhope Hotel, a role she continues at Swoon.

In 2000, Nina and Jeff left New York City for Nantucket, RI, where they spent a year as co-owners of a catering company. Then it was back to New York state for a course in cheese making at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. near Hudson, before traveling to New Zealand to soak up some vinicultural education at the Ata Rangi vineyard.

All this travel is reflected in the wide variety of food and wine served at Swoon, which the Gimmels have made part of the region’s strong and growing sustainable agriculture movement, with its organic/naturally grown produce, meats and poultry.

The main dining area at Swoon.
Today, in addition to her work at Swoon, Nina is a painter, photographer and food stylist whose work has appeared in print, on television and in film. One of the first things you see when you enter the Gimmels’ house is her studio.

“I suppose I’d have to say I’m more into photography (than painting) these days,” Nina said. “Food photography is a fascinating topic.”

Some of her photographs of dried vegetables -- what Jeff jokingly refers to as “her Dead Food Period” -- are so crisply defined and seemingly three-dimensional they at first glance appear to actually be pieces of food laid down on glossy paper.

Another fixture in the Gimmels’ household is a television set tuned to a tennis match.

“Tennis is very big in this house,” Jeff explained. “If there’s a match on TV, we’re tuned to it.”

This was said, somewhat ironically, on the first day in six weeks he had been able to bear weight on a knee that had been arthroscopically repaired after a tennis injury. That’s a lot of forced inactivity for a chef used to being on his feet most of the day.

As Jeff tested the knee, with the support of crutches, while tending the rotisserie, Nina and several helpers glided around the kitchen finishing up a platter of gravlax, toast rounds and capers to be served up as an appetizer accompanied by tall glasses of chilled, sparkling hard cider, a beverage making a gradual comeback in American households.

In addition to Swoon, art and tennis, technology affords the Gimmels another outlet. Their formal restaurant Web site is cleanly designed and easy to navigate, but they also maintain a casual, conversational blog to keep customers, vendors and friends up on their goings-on.

It’s a good place to get an insider’s view of how dishes are made, what the Gimmels look for during farm visits, what seasonal treats are coming up … and it also is a window into their sense of humor. Witness this entry:

“In the cavernous depths far below Swoon Kitchenbar & Warren Street lies a secret cave. A cave so secret outsiders must be anesthetized in order to enter, very similarly to Batman's. It is in this cave that we hang various cuts of meat to cure.”

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but an accurate indicator that things are not always as effortless, or as simple, as they first appear for the Gimmels and for Swoon.

ON THE WEB
• Swoon Kitchenblog
• Hudson Antiques District
Pocketbook Factory
Dowd's Guides

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