Where to Find the Hudson Valley's Secret Chef

Feature

Where to Find the Hudson Valley's Secret Chef

Photos courtesy of The Dutchess

Mark Margiotta never planned to be a chef at a secret hotel restaurant.

Then again, who does?

He did plan to be a chef, however. After spending much of his childhood slurping soup at Paradise, his grandparents’ still-standing restaurant in Verplanck, which opened in 1947, he graduated to washing dishes in the restaurant’s kitchen (where Chef David DiBari of The Cookery, The Parlor, and Eugene’s Diner & Bar also began kneading pizza dough).

He apprenticed under the watchful eyes of his uncles, who instructed him in behind-the-scenes restaurant operation when his grandmother wasn’t plying him with cookies and cream puffs. By the time high school rolled around, cooking was so ingrained in him that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. 

“It chose me,” the Poughquag native says of his career. “I don’t think I chose it. It was something I always did, so it was something that was natural.”

His drive and intrinsic talent earned him early entry to Poughkeepsie’s Brasserie 292 in 2011, a year before he graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. When Brasserie chef Daniel Crocco left for Mill House Brewing Company shortly thereafter, Margiotta stepped up as executive chef until 2014 when the itch to do something more struck. Knowing he had much to learn beyond what he could teach himself, he sojourned in Italy for four months to practice the cuisine of his heritage. Although his visa application to work at Modena’s Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana fell through mere days before he departed for la madrepatria, he hopped on the plane anyway.

“I learned Italian and tried to get into any kitchen I could,” he recalls. “It was very difficult, but it was amazing.”

Margiotta’s plans abroad didn’t work out the way he envisioned, but they proved integral to the next phase of his career. Upon returning to New York, he landed a job as a cook at Eleven Madison Park, one of the best restaurants in the world.

“It was the most rewarding job I ever had in my life,” he admits. “It’s very rare you work somewhere and you’re learning something new every day.”

Incredible as the experience was, it was also stressful beyond belief. Every day for more than three years, Margiotta dreaded when it came time for a pre-service tasting. Although he was confident in his culinary ability, he couldn’t prevent doubt from dampening his self-assurance.

And then he had a realization.

“I think as a chef you lose it when you lose your mind. You have to learn to take a step back, breathe, and accept that [there are] some things you just can’t control. It was like a switch that flipped in my head,” he says. “I think the mindset I learned at [Eleven Madison Park was one] of being limitless and not putting limitations on yourself. Anything is possible with that mindset.”

That mentality was a saving grace when he left Eleven Madison Park in 2018 to be nearer to his family in the Hudson Valley. While volunteering with Dutchess Outreach as he figured out his next move, he heard from a friend who recommended that he apply for the job she was turning down. It wasn’t the right fit for her, but she thought it would be perfect for him.

The gig? Director of food and beverage at The Dutchess, a secret hotel in northern Dutchess County with a hush-hush aura and romantic isolation that might lure think tank retreats or under-the-radar celebrities on any given week. (Largely a word-of-mouth establishment, The Dutchess does offer a limited number of programmed stays to the public; use the contact form on its website to sign up for notifications.) 

Although Margiotta was convinced he didn’t want to work for anyone, he went to the interview anyway. Ten minutes into a conversation with Rameet Chawla, The Dutchess’s owner, and Zach Wolf, a one-time farmer at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, he was sold.

“It was like a switch flipped in my head...I learned of being limitless and not putting limitations on yourself. Anything is possible with that mindset.”

That was two years ago. Today, he still loves every moment inside The Dutchess’s kitchen — and out of it. Because the hotel sits on 252 rolling acres, Margiotta has the freedom to cook wherever his creativity takes him. As long as he remains true to the venue’s emphasis on healthy, gluten-free, and mostly vegan meals, he can serve his cuisine in the moody glow of the dining room or bring guests into the forest for open-fire, culinary entertainment. While setting the scene in ever-changing environments, he also considers the interplay between flavor and presentation to craft dishes that are just as striking to behold as they are to sample.

“I’m a very visual person,” he explains. “I’m constantly thinking about how [ingredients] are going to look on a dish, how we’re going to deliver an experience.”

After all, experiences are his specialty. From his helm in the kitchen, he builds plates that leave guests in awe. For one, which he dubs “the vegetable garden,” he arranges rainbow-hued baby produce atop a pavilion table that overlooks the exact field from which the spread was sourced. For another, he hollows out beets and fills them with soup before salt-casting and cooking them on a wood-fired grill. During the presentation, he instructs guests to crack the beets on the table to uncover the ambrosia hidden inside.

Yet just as Margiotta revels in each opportunity to challenge himself as an artist, so too does he value the chance to show visitors what farm-to-table at The Dutchess truly means. Each weekend, he gets to know guests through the dishes he creates. As he takes them to Wolf’s farm or explains the origins of their meals, he bonds with them over a shared desire to understand food as a life-giving force. If ingredients aren’t local, sustainable, or grown in a thoughtful way, he doesn’t want them in his kitchen. He enjoys showcasing vegetables in their pure form, but he also doesn’t mind working with “ugly” produce, such as torn turnip leaves or blemished beets, as long as it’s pesticide-free and grown according to Wolf’s biodynamic standards.

“I believe in simplicity,” he says, adding that if he unboxes a delivery of crisp, sweet carrots, he prefers to play with them as minimally as possible. On the other hand, if he receives a bunch of turnips that have been in the ground just a touch too long, he makes the most of them by braising them, turning them into soup, or even fermenting them. For him, cooking sustainably is not just about working with what he has, but adapting to make the most of the raw materials before him. That’s why he’s on a first-name basis with his farmers.

In addition to Wolf, he cites Kyle Nisonger at Maple View Farm in Poughquag as one of his main suppliers and best friends. Not only does Nisonger grow for The Dutchess, but he also challenges Margiotta to come up with new ways to utilize unconventional ingredients like kale stems and immature strawberries and, in the process, minimize waste at the farm.

Beyond Maple View, Margiotta loves Hepworth Farms in Milton and Red Barn Produce, which delivers throughout the Hudson Valley. For his occasional meat dishes, such as his fall-apart-tender beef, he recently began sourcing from Underground Farms in New Jersey, which he commends for its transparent livestock practices.

“I feel so privileged to work so closely with the farmers,” he enthuses. “It’s mind-blowing to me that there’s this disconnect where chefs don’t know what farmers are growing and farmers don’t know what chefs are buying. By just going out into the field with the farmers, you can learn so much on both ends.”

To his credit, he regularly ventures into the field with Wolf to discuss everything from which types of greens to grow to how to use Brussels sprouts stalks. At Maple View Farm, he’s helped Nisonger construct hoop houses and has seen what’s growing firsthand. For him, the visceral experience isn’t just a means of understanding his ingredients; it’s critical for his imagination. Margiotta craves a constant atmosphere of learning, since it deters any feeling of stagnation and, by extension, the need to seek opportunity elsewhere.

“When I became a young chef, I wasn’t really happy teaching myself [because] I wanted to get out there and work for a great chef,” he recalls. Now 30, he admits that while he misses the chance to work under a mentor, he’s reached a point where he’s comfortable teaching himself — he’s a self-proclaimed cookbook fiend — and absorbing techniques and tidbits from the chefs and farmers of the Hudson Valley. When farmers introduce him to new crops or bring to his attention underutilized plant parts, for instance, he challenges himself to turn the scraps into light-as-air frisée salad or polenta so creamy that diners find it impossible to believe it’s enriched with vegetable purée and not copious amounts of butter and cheese. After all, it’s during this process that he manifests unforgettable food moments for others and, in doing so, lets his creativity run free.

“The ability to do whatever I want, wherever my imagination takes me, is really special,” he says. “If we want to go into the woods one night and do a pop-up fire pit dinner, who’s going to say no to that?” 

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