In July 2006 – before we had kids, before Old Tioga Farm – I was newly enrolled in law school, ready to buy my books and start classes in the fall. But before starting, I treated myself to an experience related to cooking, my principal hobby. I spent two weeks in the kitchen of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, VT, a sort of mini-apprenticeship, or stage [rhymes with “lodge”], as it’s sometimes called. It was two weeks that changed my life.
Dillon and I had learned of Osteria Pane e Salute in a bookstore a year or two before, stumbling across their cookbook/memoir Pane e Salute (since republished as In Late Midwinter We Ate Pears). Perusing just a few pages of the book, it was clear I’d found kindred souls, both in cooking philosophy and love of Italy. We decided to make a trip to the restaurant, and we were impressed. We met with the proprietors the next day – Caleb Barber manages the kitchen, Deirdre Heekin the front of house – talked of cooking, Italy, and the possibility of staging at the restaurant. They were kind, generous, and enthusiastic. We made plans to return for two weeks in July.
Back at home I was teaching cooking classes in my spare time, having already developed a clear and committed approach to cooking through studying the writings of Marcella Hazan, but had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. Caleb’s cooking spoke to me too, based as it was on the same understanding of Italian cooking as being rooted in the home kitchen: traditional dishes meant to comfort and nourish, more than impress with novelty. It was soulful cooking.
Despite my hopes to one day have a farm, at the time we were living in a city, both working full-time and saving money for the future. As a private school teacher, I didn’t see a way to earn enough to ever buy a farm, and law school seemed like a more practical career option. The agricultural dream was indefinitely put on hold, if not completely dead.
But staging at the osteria changed all that. Woodstock is the most picturesque Vermont town you can imagine, with a creek running right through the center, the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen, and independent businesses lining Main Street. It’s surrounded by agricultural land, and small, productive farms abound. Here was the world I really wanted. The restaurant was small, magical, and exciting. The osteria was exactly the sort of restaurant I recently wrote about, one in which the proprietors actually do the work, a restaurant in which a talented person with excellent taste cooks for those who appreciate the personality of his/her dishes. I worked for two weeks in the kitchen, and Dillon joined me for the last several days, working with Deirdre in the front of the house. The day Dillon arrived, I told her I wanted to drop out of law school.
The rest is history. Instead of law school we decided to start a family, and Peter was born the following July, one year after the Pane apprenticeship. The Christmas after the apprenticeship, exactly 10 years ago from the time I write this, we stumbled upon an exquisite but negelcted old farmhouse on four acres in Northeastern PA, just a mile from Dillon’s family. Walking through the house, we knew it would be right for a business – maybe a B&B, maybe for cooking classes, maybe a farm-based restaurant like we had seen in Italy a few years before.
A lot has happened in the ensuing decade, both for us and Caleb and Deirdre. A year after we found our farmhouse, the restaurant at Old Tioga Farm was born. We welcomed two more children into our family. We started a vegetable CSA to ground our experience in agriculture. Three years ago, I was finally able to resign from my off-farm job in order to expand the restaurant. Now I lead culinary tours to Rome and Bologna.
Deirdre and Caleb’s journey has been just as rich. They had always lived in the country, some distance from the restaurant. But they began to give more attention to food production there, from their gardens and orchards. Deirdre wrote a second book, Libation: A Bitter Alchemy. Despite all the successs and business they could want at the osteria, Deirde decided she wanted not just to study and serve wine, but to make wine herself. She studied in France, planted grapes on their farm, and took the first steps toward crushing and fermenting the fruit. The results have been nothing less than spectacular. Long dismissed as a region incapable of producing fine wine, Deirdre has shown that the unique terroir of Vermont is actually capable of producing wines of real interest and character when produced by someone with good taste and the right experience. She wrote a third book, An Unlikely Vineyard, which caught the attention of Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, who was so intrigued he found time to visit them at the farm and write about it here. They’ve reduced their hours at the osteria in order to devote more time and energy to the winery – La Garagista – and they’ve begun offering wine and food events on their farm in addition to the winery. Perhaps a time will come when they will let go of their Woodstock osteria and become an exclusively farm-based winery and restaurant. Caleb and Deirdre have been one of the seminal influences in our life, and we like to think our lives and businesses have been an inspiration for them too.
A ten-year anniversay is a good time to celebtrate. I raise my glass to Deirdre and Caleb and offer a warm embrace for their friendship and example, and good wishes for new things to come.