Ten years ago tonight – December 31, 2007 – Old Tioga Farm was open for the first time as a restaurant, though I’m quite sure we didn’t yet claim that lofty name for it. We had purchased the farm almost a year earlier, and we’d moved in August 2007, with a one-month-old infant in tow, Peter, whom some of you might have met on one of the rare occasions that he’s helped Dillon during service in the past year. I was teaching full-time off the farm, a 45 minute drive away in Kingston. Dillon was home with the baby, adjusting to a new and unfamiliar home, life with a newborn, rural isolation, and a husband gone for 10 hours a day. It was cold in the drafty old house, and oil to heat the radiators was expensive. I slept with a winter cap on at night.
It wasn’t, perhaps, an auspicious first winter. Indeed, toward the end of it we considered a return to our former city life. But a vision had brought us to the farm. We saw so much potential and character in the old empty house. Would it be a B&B? A venue for cooking classes? I had a dream to raise vegetables, and Dillon’s family lived only a mile a way. I began offering cooking classes to friends, and friends of friends. Word spread a little, and we received a request to cater a private family dinner at the farm on New Year’s Eve. I don’t remember what we served or how it went exactly, but somehow within a month or two we’d repeated the experience, this time open to the public. The details are hazy, but we kept at it, and soon enough when we advertised an event it would sell out rather quickly.
We had no extra money, so we used the same old rickety secondhand furniture we used for our family meals. Italian cooking is home cooking, so we didn’t see any need for a fancy stove or expensive equipment. Dillon had little service experience but excellent instincts and a natural desire to make people comfortable and feel cared for. At first we offered a choice of dishes for each course, but soon enough people were expressing confidence in the cooking and were happy to eat whatever we wished to prepare for them. There was a wonderful community of local farms from which we could source meat and dairy, and we were growing our own vegetables. We doubted there would be enough people in our rural area to support a restaurant like ours, but we learned that there are all kinds of people everywhere, and that good, straightforward cooking appeals to people from many different backgrounds.
By 2014, we were doing about 30 events a year: too many to do justice to both the restaurant and my teaching. We knew we could survive without my teaching salary if we could be open 100 nights a year — every Friday and Saturday — but trying to triple our business in one year seemed like a suspect proposition. At some point you have to jump, though, so I resigned my position that year and committed to full-time work on the farm: the restaurant on the weekends and our small vegetable business during the week. Miraculously, we’ve been sold out every night since.
Old Tioga Farm has been a gift, certainly a gift to us who are blessed to make a living dedicated to such a special vocation. But I hope it is also a gift to the community, an opportunity for fellowship, hospitality, and cooking that comes from the heart, that has soul. Our business has been made possible only by the support of so many customers, customers who believe in our vision and who value it enough to spend precious time and resources dining with us. Some customers we see only once. Others have become friends. Still others have helped us weed vegetables and skin a plastic greenhouse. We’re grateful for all of them.
If you’d asked us ten years ago if we’d be doing what we’re doing now, we’d have thought you crazy. Life is always full of surprises. I can only imagine what the next ten years will bring!