Words Julian Richards
As Told To Anya Tchoupakov
Photos Thomas Peisel

In the Catskills, 'Bad' Ideas Beget Good Restaurants

Nov 23, 2016

The first weekend of October felt like the first autumn in the world. The temperature was mild but crisp, and the famed upstate leaves were in full fire. Bloomville, in the Catskills, is as picturesque as they come. Strong-cheekboned Brooklynites flock to places like this in search of fresh air and small-batch condiments.

But underneath this utopic beauty lies a reality without which the artisanal dream might not be quite as sweet as that first bite of Upstate apple pie. The hamlet consists almost entirely of farmers and second home owners. And yet, Inez Valk opened a restaurant, Table on Ten, that people actively seek out. It’s a place for the community to come together and spend time, an opportunity for the local flavors to find a home. Still, it’s important to remember that Table on Ten is not just the result of a pastoral fantasy—for Inez, it was a way to make a living (and a tough one at that).

The diversity shared between Bloomville locals and transients, against all odds, forms the most unorthodox friendships. As Inez explains, in the city you make friends with people that have the same taste in theater, music, and subway stops. But in the country, a reliance on each other forces you to look beyond mere common denominators. We spoke to Inez and Julian Richards, a long-time resident of Bovina who is closely connected to the restaurant, about crazy ideas and, frankly, the meaning of life. When Inez decided to open a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, people said it would never last. But as Julian pointed out, the best ideas usually sound like the worst ideas at first: “All you have to do is burn really brightly.”

The ‘threw it all in and headed North’ fantasy is very 2016. Marry that with a nose-to-tail, eat your own grass-fed cat thing and it all starts to look like the soft-focus Arcadian dream with tattoos.

On existential crises:

They rarely happen. There’s so much salvaged barnwood bobbing about on the surface, we’re never short of something to cling to in a storm. But really; those Raft of the Medusa moments—you just realized the island is a hallucination and now somebody’s gnawing on your foot—I mean, they’re endemic to being functionally human, but maybe more acute when you undertake a project like this in the middle of nowhere. It makes sense; there’s less white noise to blunt the existential edges. But self-indulgently poring over the spectrum of options doesn’t get you anywhere. We wake up early with the narrative already stamping its feet in the barn, udders full, snorting in the mist. There’s a certain austere pragmatism woven into the landscape here and somehow, without really acknowledging it, you fall into line. Makes sense, because who wants to spend their time freaking out about what they're missing, how misunderstood they are? This is a very honest environment. It doesn’t tolerate dilettantism easily. Which maybe points to a common misconception about Table on Ten; that a little group of dreamers bowled into town five summers ago with a preconceived set of notions and proceeded to make them all come true in some kind of ambrosial fog of curated loveliness.

And it’s understandable that it might look that way. The ‘threw it all in and headed North’ fantasy is very 2016. Marry that with a nose-to-tail, eat your own grass-fed cat thing and it can all start to look like the soft-focus Arcadian dream with tattoos. Lots of magazines have written that story and the team here has been complicit in dressing up like the hipster Waltons and running with it. It’s great. Great to be popular, great that people are inspired and having a nice time. Especially remembering that back in summer 2012, with no heating, oven, guest rooms or confidence that anybody would show up, most observers didn't expect the idea to survive the first winter. Had Inez really wandered up with the dream in her pocket, the idea would have lasted a few months before reality and fatigue gobbled it up. Table on Ten has been groined out of practical necessity rather than caprice. Which is why it’s still here.

On fitting in with the community:

It’s not like Bloomville was existing in some suspended state of needing Table on Ten but was too busy being hardscrabble to know it. It would take a particularly callow form of narcissism to believe our presence to be that fundamental. The community was doing its own thing; and it’d keep on doing it if the café vanished this afternoon. Inez birthed the idea of Table on Ten for her own reasons, which were pretty prosaic: basically the need to make a living. Again, there’s that misconception - perhaps sprung from onlookers superimposing their own romantic fantasy upon the narrative - that this was some grandiloquent gift of farm-to-table loveliness she unwrapped like a hemp candle on the corner of River and Main. Which thereafter filled the community with light, hope, and an unexpected appreciation for turmeric.

The protagonists were already here, getting by. For all sorts of reasons, most of which were not steeped in pragmatism. Once you’ve woken up to the realization that living in the woods, cracking open another PBR and strumming a ukulele isn’t going to do it; that if you’re going to stay, you’re going to have to earn a living…well, you’re faced with a dilemma. Move on or find work. And since places like this are seldom blessed with a broad array of job opportunities, you might be looking at having to do stuff you find less than fulfilling. Unless you forge a third option: make your own work. Build something that doesn’t already exist.

And that’s Table on Ten. There were people doing cool things, producing cool stuff all over the area, but very few places were doing anything with it. Compound that with a remote landscape—friends at the end of dirt roads craving an element of communion—and all-of-a-sudden, a café where everybody can gather, shake off the vagaries of isolation and eat food grown just round the corner seems like a decent idea. So less a dream, more common sense.

That Inez was unconsciously surfing the zeitgeist only became evident once people started arriving from further afield with that glazed, foragy look in their eye. And yeah, Table on Ten makes good Instagram porn. Which is great; who doesn’t like a bit of attention? But it’s all verifiably after-the-fact.

Turns out giddiness in the face of futility has a kind of magnetism.

On doing this forever:

Its colloquial roots makes the place resistant to the kind of fabulism that says it’ll never end. It wasn’t birthed as a dream, so it doesn’t labor under some ‘dream must never die’ imperative. Which is actually liberating; if you’re confident the sustaining force of doing something is that you still want to do it—that it’s not habit or paying for proctology school that keeps you diddling asses—then you’re freed up from the neurosis of always wondering whether you should be doing something else. Which is the curse of the millennial and goes hand-in-glove with dilettantism. Certainly everybody at Table will do other stuff; hopefully informed by what they’ve done here. And there’s always the possibility of being blown sideways by an existential IED, of course. But because nobody’s ever sure if that’s a terrible thing or devoutly to be wished, it doesn’t constitute a reason to be afraid.

On experience and dilettantism:

There was no real restaurant experience to start with. But being unschooled doesn’t make you a dilettante. Dabbling does. Or absence of real commitment. I don’t think anybody who witnesses an average week here could accuse Inez of that. And shit, she’s accrued a whole mess of experience now.

On what keeps you going:

The capacity for love, beauty, poetry, and transcendence. Cigarettes. Pokémon GO.

On unwinding:

The international travel and macramé question. Sitting on beaches, reading books about restaurants with umlauts. No, I mean, probably the same kind of stuff as anybody else, facing away for a bit of relief whilst staying attentive to what can be garnered from the outside world and fed back into the narrative. It’s seasonal up here, which affords an opportunity to wander off the tundra for a couple of winter months.

On fitting the bill:

Oh, it’d be delusional not to acknowledge that Table ticks plenty of standard hipster boxes. Nobody’s pretending to be something they’re not; dyed-in-the-wool insiders, dressing up in Carhartt’s merely for effect. But again, the abiding premise is honesty. Inez realized early on—when no attention whatsoever was being paid to Delaware County—that if she hung a shingle, stood there and made pizza, her reward would be a monumental shrug of indifference followed by financial delinquency. She understood the need to project a voice if she expected to survive. But the theme was easy: “Why the fuck would somebody do this?” Which may sound disingenuous now the hills are alive with the sound of pomaded men with nail-guns. But five years ago she was staring at a worn-out house in a tiny village with only one other store-front business and no foot traffic. And it’s still true that Delaware County has one of the lowest median incomes in the state. Bloomville was an unlikely candidate for the kind of project she was proposing. The idea that Condé Nast Traveler or Martha Stewart would be turning up within a year to lionize Table on Ten was about as likely as the Dalai Lama being found go-go dancing on the bar of the Oneonta Novelty Lounge. But it turns out giddiness in the face of futility has a kind of magnetism. When you take a rusty Soviet satellite manned by an alcoholic monkey smoking Woodbines listening to old Grateful Dead bootlegs, shoot it into deep-space, and signals keep coming back of him still being up there belting out Scarlet Begonias…well, people start to pay attention.

On giving advice:

Maybe don’t expect epiphanies. If the answer to the question ‘why change’ is just ‘because I’m not happy,’ then pause. Because maybe the universe is indifferent to your happiness. It might turn out not to actually give a shit. And the kind of entitlement that perceives one’s own personal happiness as a cosmic birthright could feasibly just be just infantilism, a blurry aspirational blancmange whipped up by parents, teachers, that guy in yoga class, and a coterie of simpering Instagram followers; it may not have the muscle to sustain a prolonged crossing of the Alps in winter with elephants. We were chatting with an old friend the other day; born here, left, came back to run a dairy farm and is now a cheese-maker supplying places all over the North East. He was saying that it’s difficult to maintain a relationship with all the artisanal food places that have sprung up because the changeover in ownership is so fast he can’t keep up with who’s paying the bills. Which may be indicative of the shadow that falls between dream and reality. That it’s one thing to run fast enough to get your feet off the ground; quite another to master sustained flight. The dream—whatever it is or only appears to be—probably can’t just be wished into existence. And it almost certainly can’t be bought.