Amenia, New York is a quiet town of around 4,000 people less than a 2-hour drive north of NYC. It might as well be a world away. For city dwellers looking for an ideal city retreat, this Hudson Valley hideaway offers admission ticket in the form of Trout pond. Once a private estate, the stone-clad luxury hotel is a true fortress of solitude that anchors a 250-acre estate and nature reserve.
As soon as you enter the lobby, it becomes clear that this is much more than a typical country inn. During its 200-year history, this homestead has been home to legendary artists such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the naturalist John Burroughs. Today these walls draw strength from this creative past, celebrate local artists and serve as an ongoing gallery for their work.
But creativity doesn’t stop with the visual offerings. Troutbeck is a resort dedicated to art for all the senses. Case in point: kitchen and bar under the direction of the chef Gabe McMackin. The property has brought the prized talent out of Manhattan and he has settled in with aplomb in his new home. The tasting menus here are based heavily on local products from the numerous farms in the area.
Still, this kind of mindfulness is expected from every high-end restaurant these days. A meal from McMackin makes it clear that there is something much more personal at play here … An artistic expression from the chef himself. To get a better feel for how he brings his vision to life, Forbes sat down with McMackin for a little Q + A. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Describe the concept behind your menu at Troutbeck.
The most straightforward way of saying it is that we make seasonal American food. It’s a little bit of fine dining, it’s a little casual, it’s rooted in American traditions, but we are also very much aware of global traditions and techniques. We think what’s in season, what’s fresh and light – and best raised by our friends nearby – is the most exciting thing you can put on your plate.
Where do you get inspiration for the articles?
The story of Troutbeck is infinitely inspiring, but our goal with the menu is to root guests in the present moment. Much of what we do starts with what we can get – what excited the farmers we work with?
We take this energy and walk with it. We look for inspiration in the world around us. We look at Troutbeck for ourselves! The house is a great inspiration – eating here means so much to BE here and the same goes for cooking. We need to be connected to this space for the food in it to make sense. It’s the colors, it’s the weather, it’s everything from art to politics that make us feel like a certain way that comes together in a dish or meal.
Are there one or more branded items on the menu at this time of the season?
There are a few dishes on the menu that I brought back from The finch. They come and go, but things like the yams with Meyer Lemon Mayonnaise, liquorice and shiso or the Swiss Chard Lasagna are so tasty and fun that it’s hard to keep them away for too long. Our Trout Toast is a classic Troutbeck because we source its central ingredient – trout – from Hudson Valley Fisheries; a local producer we trust and admire in Hudson, NY. The other elements change depending on the season. It embodies my style of cooking and serving … and of course there is “trout” in the name!
How do the property and the feeling of location influence your menu development?
It’s all. There are so many ways people can enjoy being at Troutbeck and we try to make exciting food that goes with it. Whether it’s a picnic by the river or a 7-course meal for a small wedding, we think about how our guests use each of our rooms. The food we prepare for parties outside in the Pole Barn usually comes from our incredible wood grill. It is wonderful to use the fire in Troutbeck, to be outside in the meadow, to cook with friends. Being in our kitchen is special, but cooking outside under the stars with our team is just fantastic.
Can you briefly describe your culinary history? What brought you to Troutbeck? Where have you been before?
I’ve been involved with food for almost 30 years. When I was young I got infected from washing dishes in a restaurant and tried to find a way to balance the love of hospitality, the dance of cooking, the joy of being a guest, the joy of being a host with life outside of business. It’s a delicate and challenging thing to do. I’ve attended some incredible places and learned from incredible people in the restaurants. These experiences have contributed to what I think of hospitality and how best to share it. Whether it was my time cooking in Saratoga when I was growing up, working at Blue Hill in Stone Barns in the early years, being the head chef for Martha Stewart, being part of an incredibly strong team at the Gramercy Tavern, or figuring out what it was supposed to be feel like having dinner at Roberta’s – all the incredible experiences I’ve had to make what we do at Troutbeck special.
What are some of the most unique aspects of working in this particular property?
The Troutbeck story is a home for thought leaders, artists and naturalists and that makes it the perfect place to create in the present, to look for food, to challenge ourselves to build a healthy work environment based on positive energy, respect for others and love based on what we do.
What are some of the most unique aspects of dining in your restaurant?
The space! There is nothing better than being in this house. Troutbeck was a home before it was a hotel, and we still think of it as such. It is central to our hospitality credo.
What’s the best thing you’ve heard from someone who really impressed you about their experience at your restaurant?
I got to cook for my father last night and he said it was the best meal he ever had. Feels pretty good. A former chef and mentor had some very thoughtful words about the experience of dining here. To be able to grab his attention in this way, reflect what he taught me, and add my own voice in a way that really makes him respond, feels great. A recent message from a mother of the bride that her new son-in-law considered the chocolate cake to be the best he had ever eaten. The team works hard. Getting this kind of feedback feels very good. But every time we hear someone’s feedback, it means a lot. We see the experience through someone else’s eyes
There seems to be a strong thread of visual art running through the property. Does this environment affect the way you approach the local food?
Fine arts absolutely influence food. We want the food we prepare to feel good in the dining room, in the gallery, in our public spaces. A lot of these spaces are influenced by the art we show. It’s wonderful to see how the energy of the dining room changes with what’s on display on the walls.