Words Sara Elbert
Photos Ali Francis

Gone Bush: Starting a Fine-Dining Restaurant in a 600 Person Town

Jun 13, 2016

This morning as I was breaking into my own rental apartment, I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was, bent in half over a sharp sash, legs dangling out in the pouring rain, with only a squat aluminum trash can to break my four-foot fall. “The neighbors are loving this,” I thought. The key that inspired this mission hung from the interior lock, just out of reach. You’d never believe the folly of it all. With a few rocking motions, I hurled a leg onto the stove, followed by the other, plopping myself down onto the front two burners. Why did I leave the only key with guests? Where is the dog? Is it noon already?! I just had to laugh.

When the chaos of it all gets overwhelming, I sit on a rock wall outside, fill a flower bucket with warm rose water, and stick my feet in.

‘Breaking and entering’ as I know it is hardly a criminal charge, but a noteworthy item on my ever-expanding résumé. The ability to shimmy a window open after eyeing the mounds of laundry being held hostage inside feels like a form of search and rescue. “The shower is tricky, I know. It’s not you, everyone asks—just pull the ring here at the faucet and…water!” must leave my lips as many times in a week as “would you like tap or sparkling?” I’m no convict, nor a hero. I’m an innkeeper and restaurant operator, always armed with a plunger, but rarely the foresight to warn of self-locking doors.

However honestly I came by these roles, having inherited every hospitality gene from my late mother, I’m certainly learning with every new guest. When my fiancé, Sohail, purchased a commercial building in Bovina, a sparsely inhabited hamlet in the northwestern corridor of the Catskills, it felt like the perfect way to quit the city cold turkey and grow into a new shell. Shedding the skin I’d become a little too comfy in as a server at a beloved Italian joint in Carroll Gardens, I gladly piled on the myriad hats worn by the ‘mom’ of a ‘mom and pop’ shop. One gave me the ability to neatly turn fitted sheets into manageable squares, another afforded me the power of seeing into the future—“this twelve-top will certainly grow to sixteen before they arrive. Pull in two more tables”—but none advised me on how to juggle all of it in a 24-hour day, or even a seven day week. Thankfully, these spring afternoons are so unseasonably warm and sunny that when the chaos of it all gets overwhelming, I sit on a rock wall outside, fill a flower bucket with warm rose water, and stick my feet in.

Flowers, or really any cluster of green beyond the confines of Central Park, were a huge perk of selling our shares of towering cement. Feelings of doubt about relocating or opening a business in a town of 611, were shoved to the side by a yearning for a better life: studying the night sky and plucking wild apples from our wooded lot. Although no amount of intuition or good vibes, both of which we relied on for this new chapter, can ward off nightmares of an empty restaurant or disoriented renters. Lying awake in the middle of the night, I’d picture them discovering our TV-less accommodations, which would lead to crying into an empty tub they couldn’t figure out how to fill. While we have been fortunate enough to seat our tables, even if it’s just a third of them, every night since we’ve been open, I have encountered the latter—those poor souls who followed a bungled GPS route and were spit out on our doorstep hoping to watch the new episode of Bones. I am the bearer of such news: “No, there’s no cable, but there is this AM radio!” This is why I always come armed with a bottle of sparkling rosé.

Minimal in a way I couldn’t experience living in Red Hook or the West Village, nor Brooklyn Heights or Chinatown. Minimal meaning simple, not scarce.

Once settled, those very same guests will want to know why. “Why Bovina, why now?” they ask. I explain that life had become heavy from the general weightiness of an around-the-clock grind and the sadness that Hurricane Sandy flooded our neighborhood with. The countryside felt like it had all the right pieces and none of the superfluous stuff. It was our stint on Martha’s Vineyard in the time between relocating upstate that turned us onto the idea of shrugging that burden and living minimally. Minimal in a way I couldn’t experience living in Red Hook or the West Village, nor Brooklyn Heights or Chinatown. Minimal meaning simple, not scarce. Bovina proved abundant in the things that mattered to us—pastoral hills to roam with the dogs, friendly neighbors who had time to pull up a chair and share a beer, washer and dryer units in the house. It was everything I used to daydream of, curled up on an astroturf remnant five stories above Van Brunt Street. This story almost always elicits a slow, knowing nod.

In none of those visions though, did I encounter the mind-boggling generosity that our now-regulars would extend. The tight hugs on our one year anniversary; bottles of Bordeaux from prized wine collections; a commitment to ordering pork schnitzel as a first and second course because it’s “that good”; the knowledge that on a moody, grey Sunday morning last fall, a couple got engaged in one of the apartment kitchens over tea. They left a note on the counter: “your place made us feel the most comfortable we’ve ever been, and I can’t imagine saying ‘yes’ anywhere else now.” I must say, I didn’t envision investing in tile-scrubbing knee pads either, but all these things—sappy, sweet, or shitty—come with the new territory.

It’s now nearly dark as I throw the last load of towels in, preparing for new guests in the morning. I tip the laundry soap over the detergent drawer, but only two paltry drops leave the spout. I dash out into the chilly evening, clutching a now eight-hour-old coffee, bound for the basement and our bounty of cleaning supplies, when I hear the door swoosh shut behind me. Obviously, I don't have the key.