John Crabtree of Crabtree's Kittle House


John Crabtree of Crabtree's Kittle House

TUCKED IN AMONG RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORS, down the road from Reader's Digest in Chappaqua, sits the Kittle House—a sprawling building that had uninspiring beginnings as a barn/carriage house. Transformed into a house and then into an inn and restaurant, it now serves some of the best cuisine in the area and holds one of the best wine cellars in the world. But John Crabtree entered the restaurant business reluctantly—he swore he would never let his father pull him into the family business, never let it disrupt his family's life as it did his parents' home. But he took it on from his father, built the wine list (to Wine Spectator Grand Award status), elevated the cuisine, refined the service, added a tasting room and finally made it his own, with his wife and family intact.

John Crabtree: I love wine. I love drinking it, tasting it, talking about it. I always have, all through college. I had my sights set on a 250-wine collection—and that was big in '86, '87. That's when I really started taking this business seriously. Up to that point, I still was going to go into my writing career. But by then I had two children, had established myself here, I was really enjoying the business and I said, let's just take it seriously.

We weren't haute cuisine—we were still doing pub food, but we tried to elevate it in a more elegant atmosphere. People would come here just to get out for a bite to eat as well as for special occasions.

I decided on something that would make us distinctive immediately—to build a great wine list. I figured with 200 to 250 of the best wines we could possibly find, that would immediately create a destination. Wine tastings were not as big as they are now. There was no place to go to taste wines.

I found the list of wines previous to the one we started—typical, everyday wines that every restaurant within 200 miles was carrying on their list. One of the distributors put it together for everybody. I had a young waiter at that time who was also interested in wine. I told this waiter, you come in on your own time, you call every wine distributor in this area to come in and show you all the wines they have. All the wines. Bring them to the Kittle House, taste the thousand wines they are going to bring you, pick the top 20 percent, and you and I will go through those and then I'll pick the wines. Turns out he has an amazing palate—one of the best palates in the metropolitan area. I recently hired him back as my wine director here—Don Castaldo—he was the sommelier at some great restaurants.

That's how we started. It wasn't easy: We had to break the mold. We got recognition for that. Once we got that hook, we had to change everything else.

There were people like Peter Kelly making noises across the river, making great food. It wasn't just that Peter is a great personality, but the draw was the food and the ambiance. He brought something to the valley that had not previously been here. There were fancy French restaurants, which were basically pretentious. Peter wasn't pretentious—he was fresh, alive. I saw what he was doing and I made it part of my goal to create that kind of atmosphere.

The better restaurants are now focusing more on the plate. There's more talent in the kitchen available. It's easier, for one thing, to shop well. The markets are there. So if you have a good palate and a good eye, you can easily pick things out.

This is our twentieth year. They always say, and I agree, that it's a lot easier getting there then it is staying there. People come here with very high expectations—this is The Kittle House—even if they've never been here before, they've heard about it from other people. We may be charging the exact same price for a dish as another restaurant in town, but if the haricot verts aren't all lined up right—if one's on the side of the plate—they'll say, "You call this Kittle House cuisine? How dare you." It's amazing.

We've filled every nook and cranny with wine. We either have to create more storage space or start digging holes. It's a really bad habit; you just can't quit.

A lot of times people don't appreciate what we're giving them until they go to another restaurant. People come here for, like, three or four months, then all of a sudden they stop coming. You get tired after a while of the same old routine. They'll come back six months later and they'll sit down and say, "My goodness, now I realize why I liked this place. That was eating; this is dining."

As luck and necessity would have it, the old carriage stalls made an ideal wine cellar; gradually all seven stalls were filled with wine. Last fall, a tasting room was added—a private dining room that seats 13 and opens to the wine cellar. CEOs like impressing their clients in it, families celebrate special occasions in it and friends who enjoy wine come to dine in it. And the wine flows. It's not just the selection, which now tops 5,000—it's the care and attention to service—bottles chilled just right, decanted when they should be, served in the appropriate glass—all without an ounce of pretension.

JC: We built a wall to here and just started to bring cases of wine in, until it started to get out of control—it was up to the roof, the rafters, so we knocked the wall down. We've filled every nook and cranny with wine. We either have to create more storage space or start digging holes.

It's a really bad habit; you just can't quit. There is so much great wine out there. Every bottle we have has a story to it. And it's all hand picked, all incredible wine. There's not a bad bottle in this place. It's one of the best wine cellars in the world. Some people have told us it is the best within certain parameters. We have the best wines from every region from every wine country in the world. Some restaurants will have the best Bordeaux selection, some will have the best California selection, some the best Italian, some the best German. Our German or our Italian sections alone can compete with the best German or Italian restaurants in the world. We've had winemakers from Italy who have never been on an airplane before come straight here—the first time they've ever been outside their town. They didn't speak a word of English, but we had a great time together because we have the wines.

Most of our captains have been through a sommelier course, so they have a certain level of expertise, probably like anyone else in a normal restaurant. I know a lot of the wines. I like talking about them. Wine is part of our culture. It's sort of like saying what's your favorite color. It's not something that's difficult or unusual for us to talk about; it's really easy for us, actually, because we have the resources.

But resources without good people—to greet, to prepare, to serve—might just as well be in a museum. The third jewel in the Kittle House's crown is its staff.

JC: We have, I think, the best-trained staff. That's a big plus. If someone does question, the captain will have the proper response and take care of it and be able to fix it. I tell the staff, if you're not into the food, if you're not into the whole experience, then you really don't belong at the Kittle House. That's what gives us the edge. We know exactly what we're doing and why we're doing it. The customers feel relaxed and know they are here with experienced, professional people.

We have people who have been working here for 20 years, 16 years, 15 years, 14 years. A lot of these guys are Hispanics. People sort of frowned on that, especially in this area. But if you look back on it, all the waves of immigration—the Italians, the French, the Irish—the first jobs they had were in the service industry. They worked in restaurants, they worked hard, they worked their way up and they became owners. The same sort of thing is happening here now.

Maybe half of our permanent staff is Hispanic. They're great guys, great families. It's almost in that European tradition of making it your profession, raising a family and making it your home. If they're here for a year, they're here for five years. It's a good feeling.

Our pastry chef, actually our sous chef now, came as a part-time dishwasher. He was raised by his mother on a small farm in Guatemala. His mother, when making dinner, went out and killed it or picked it and put it together. So he grew up with a real feel for food. I just saw something in him—that flash, that interest and artistic ability. We moved him over to garde manger and he got really good at it. He went from dishwasher to garde manger to line cook to everything—he knows every aspect of the kitchen now.

That's one advantage we have over other restaurants: continuity. We have a great base staff. They're a team, which is what maintains the consistency. [At other restaurants] some people ask, "What day is the chef off?" It doesn't really matter here—we have four guys in there now who could be chef at any restaurant in this county.

Greg [Gilbert] brought something to the Kittle House that we really needed. We had good cuisine and we were progressing; we had great chefs, great people, but we never had great organization. That's what Greg has brought here. He brought a lot of the elements together—they were all there, but he bought them into a fine-meshed machine.

There's a constant battle in every restaurant of front versus back. You know, "We're not appreciated." But here, there's a flow. There's a great rapport between the front of the house and the back of the house—it's almost seamless. Nobody feels the least bit of compunction about going back there and saying, "Chef, I missed the meeting, what are the mushrooms in this dish?" or, "I don't understand what this customer asked for." It's just a conversation, rather than, "How dare you not know what's in my cuisine! Get out of here and figure it out yourself." I've seen that. Chefs have big egos. It's a great place to work. That is part of what keeps the staff here.

The reluctant restaurateur succeeded, blending the ambiance of a neighborhood restaurant—a place where locals come to gather—with the allure of a destination—where people come for a complete dining experience. When an ex-president and a senator moved into the neighborhood, John Crabtree extended his hand to a whole new roster of guests (dignitaries—love them or hate them, most people still like to see them and to shake their hands). Everyone feels at home.

JC: We have people who have come here every year for the last 20 years for their anniversaries; we have people who just come in because they love our pecan pie—they'll have a piece of chicken, a glass of wine and the pecan pie once a month. We are a lot of things, on a lot of different levels, to a lot of different people.

And the Clintons come in—they love it because it's convenient. I wasn't comfortable with it at first; it was kind of nerve wracking. (I've gotten to know the Secret Service very well.) Now, he's just another neighbor. Bill and Hillary came in for dinner half an hour early—they wanted to stop by the bar and have a drink. We brought them in there, gave them a table by the fireplace. He said, "Sit down." We sat and talked for a half hour. I'm a Republican. We didn't talk about politics—we talked about kids, history, the presidency. It was like chatting with a neighbor. They were like an old married couple—she took the peanuts away from him because he was eating too many. They feel comfortable coming in here, having a drink by the fireplace. We play it low key and they appreciate it.

The restaurant business is part theater. You're always looking for the right show. Sometimes you can't predict it, but you have to go with the flow.

After September 11, a few things changed. Mainly attitudes.

JC: We didn't have any business for maybe two or three days in a row and then, I think it was that Friday, it was just like a parade coming down the driveway. Everybody came in and said, "We had to get away from the TV, had to just come out and be with people."

It was very different for the first month or so. Basically uncertainty about what was going to happen in the future. Business certainly has evened out—it came in peaks and valleys after that, but at the end of the year it turned out to be the same as the year before.

This is like writing a novel. Every day the story unfolds. Each day's a new chapter in the book.

But now, people have a different perception of what to expect about life. I think rather than looking at the things they don't have they look at the things they do have. When they come out for dinner they're a little bit more forgiving maybe, more relaxed, not sooo picky about so many things. There seems to be generally a slightly different, "count your blessings" attitude—I see people realizing that.

I just started to do some more writing. After September 11, I felt I had to write some things. I've always known I needed to write and that just set it off. But I have a restaurant to run and three teenage girls and another little one. Writing, as you know, takes a lot of time—you don't just sit down and say, "Oh, I'll write that out," and there you go. It takes a lot of thought, putting pieces together, thinking about it. It's a process.

I always pictured myself writing. My mentors, my teachers used to tell me you really can't write anything worthwhile before you're 30 anyway. That's when I was 21. Now I'm 45.

I never could have been a nine-to-five person. I always joke with my writer friends when they say it's too bad that I didn't get to that book. Well, this is my book here. This is like writing a novel. Every day the story unfolds. Each day's a new chapter in the book. Sometimes its a good chapter, sometimes it's not, but it's never ending.

From The Editor
Anniversaries are a sort of pit stop, ideal for taking a deep breath and a long look at history and progress, success and failure, trials and tributes.

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