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Finding Creativity in the Catskills

"Back to School" for Naturally, Danny Seo

Story by Rebecca Miller Ffrench | Photographs by Rikki Snyder

Without fail, as I drive toward home down Route 28, an east-west corridor that cuts through New York State’s Catskill Park, I feel a surge of happiness when I spot the panoramic silhouette of mountains on the horizon. A born and raised Midwesterner, I am continually awestruck by East Coast geography. To be able to drive from the sea to the mountains in a matter of hours and see all the variegated landscapes affects me on a primal level. Sometimes, it’s what helps me get through the day. Perhaps it’s because of what that expansive, sometimes moody, always inspiring landscape represents to me—home, family, community, and nature.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I decided to plant our roots a couple of hours north of New York City in the tiny hamlet of Phoenicia. We sought a connection that we weren’t finding in the hectic bustle of the Big Apple. And what a community we found! It was almost too good to be true—neighbors dropping off roast duck and potatoes after the arrival of our new baby; another coming to install a bear alarm at 11 p.m. after one of the furry fellows tried climbing in our

window, and so it went.

Of course, country living has its challenges, too, including power outages, broken septic lines, and yes, social issues. With the recent influx of people and money to the Catskills and surrounding areas, the concerns about gentrification, displacement, and how we can create more inclusive communities must be addressed. Fortunately, there are efforts on both public and private levels. Around our dinner table, conversations about topics such as these have sparked positive actions amongst my family and friends.

Always ripe to throw a dinner party at any given time, I have witnessed firsthand the connections that can be made over a meal. The fare need not be fancy, or the table pristinely set. To my mind, gatherings are about what we can learn and what we can share. And so, my recent venture, The Upstate Table, evolved from these tableside interactions.

I have an undying love for feeding those around me. A cookbook author, recipe developer, and cake-maker, my profession fits well with that passion and provides me ample opportunities to do it. For years I’d been searching out a property in our area to open some type of farm-to-table

spot—perhaps take-out, maybe cooking classes, I wasn’t really sure. In our rural area, I couldn’t figure out how I’d drive people there, or get the numbers to work. Instead, I started hosting pop-up dinners in various locales. I became familiar with Kingston, New York, a decent-size town about a 45-minute drive from our house, but it had always seemed a bit too far and unknown—until my friend put me in touch with local architect Scott Dutton. He said I needed to meet him before I signed a contract anywhere—and was he right.

When Scott showed me one of his projects—the beginning renovations of a former shirt factory called the Fuller Building—I was immediately smitten with its fourteen-foot ceilings, exposed brick, and rough-hewn beams. In contrast to the barns and beaten-down properties I’d seen, this space seemed like a dream: a 750-square-foot, ground-level expanse lined with six-and-a-half-foot-tall paned-glass windows. Granted, the floor was gravel and no walls were in place, but my imagination soared. Scott shared his plans for building a creative community here, along with his openness to designing a space to fit my needs—I was sold.

The gratification was not immediate, however. The building renovations took almost a year and a half. Then COVID hit, and things were delayed even further. However, I was so far in there was no backing out, not to mention I had been dreaming of this for years—a place where I could continually welcome people and share my love for Upstate living with a focus on food and community. I now understand fully when I hear entrepreneurs say they have an undying passion for an idea. My drive to build a culinary lifestyle studio was resolute. Pandemic restrictions and tighter budgets be damned.

I learned to install cabinet doors by myself, hang chalkboard laminate with my daughter, and repurpose items whose fate was otherwise trash-bound. I found ways to make it work, especially with the boundless support of my family and friends. My husband is my rock, always the voice of reason. My sister meets with me weekly to evaluate goals. My two daughters are excellent food critics, and my youngest, Camilla, a recent high school graduate, has become my creative director. She assisted me on my first cookbook tour at the age of eight and has not stopped since. We have taught classes side by side, she built our website, designed our logo, and the list goes on.

Now that our doors are open, the pandemic means we have to limit our offerings, which include cooking and craft workshops, plus dinners highlighting local makers and vendors. In the meantime, I’m finding ways to nurture a love for cooking and entertaining virtually through online content and virtual baking sessions. We’re also renting our studio for photo shoots and content development. With The Upstate Table, my goal is to share the spirit, passion, and creativity that surrounds us daily in the Catskills, from a farmer’s love for his diversified crops to a woodworker’s desire to make beautiful, functional items. I want people to be able to learn and create in an inspiring environment—to feel comfortable in the kitchen—and most importantly, have fun along the way.

I echo the words of my Fuller Building neighbor, “I almost feel I have to pinch myself” about being surrounded by likeminded entrepreneurs and business owners every day. Even with COVID shutdowns, I feel extremely hopeful for what’s to come—I know even the virus can’t squash the energy and spirit of our community.


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