Gaskins lands in Germantown
Owners Nick and Sarah Suarez standing before their labor of love, Gaskins
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTINE ASHBURN
Promptly upon completion of an MBA at New York University, Nick Suarez enrolled in night classes at the French Culinary Institute. Nick’s love of food was inspired by family vacations and by his father, a 1980s commercial tabletop film director (those who provided images of milk bouncing off of bowls of cereal on TV commercials). He followed this love of all things epicurean and took a job in the tasting department at Wine Spectator. Not only fun, this job was also handy for charming his new sweetheart, Sarah Gaskins, with nice bottles of bubbly. When the two met in 2009, Sarah’s résumé was formidable, stacked with hefty management experience in Brooklyn’s top restaurants—Beer Table, Franny’s, Marlow & Sons and Diner. Her sights, set on becoming second- in-command in restaurateur Andrew Tarlow’s dynasty, changed when she met Nick. With few to no overlapping nights off, dating life as two people in the restaurant industry became impractical, and the now married couple soon realized that the only way to have a sustainable life together was to start something together—out of the city.
Seeing that even big names in the industry could barely afford New York City rents, the couple realized that opening the mom-and-pop joint they envisioned for themselves would mean owning their own building.
“I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16, it’s the only kind of job I’ve ever really had. Was I sure I had it all down?!” Sarah laughs, and looks over at her now husband and business partner. “But,” Nick chimes in, leaning over the table, “nobody trains you in where to put the stove so the kitchen flows. And nothing prepared us for Day One.” Opening night as head chef in his own restaurant was Nick’s first night as chef anywhere. “Scariest day of my life! Sheer fear.”
It seems people reach a certain point in the lives
when they want to figure out what they need
to do in order to make themselves happy—
the creative, craft-based surge we are witnessing
here is the result of that moment across
a particular generation
Before they even laid eyes on what would become Gaskins, their commanding blue-painted restaurant in the center of Germantown, the couple spent a year of Tuesdays and Wednesdays (their weekend) searching for a place. They peered into closed midweek windows of many upstate eateries, ate at many others and schemed and dreamed about a satisfying post-Brooklyn chapter of their lives. They cast a wide net; after considering Portland, Maine, the Berkshires, the Catskills and Western New York, they zeroed in on the Hudson Valley. The corner building they bought met all of their criteria: on Main Street, with accommodations (they now live above the restaurant), in a town with at least one peer business (which they found in Germantown’s beloved food market Otto’s), close to the Amtrak station and in an untapped zone between already restaurant-rich Tivoli and Hudson, Germantown really needed and wanted a restaurant: a perfect match. “Ironically, now we are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays!” says Sarah. “I see people peering in through our windows, and I think of where we were just a couple of years ago.”
The hardest decision? Naming the place. After hearing many a suggestion shot down, one of the designers proposed they go with the title of the contractor’s job ticket—Gaskins. At first hesitant, Sarah then agreed that using her maiden surname, Gaskins (which she changed to Suarez after marriage) would act as a sweet homage to her father, a gourmet himself who passed away when Sarah was young. “I was a picky eater, and I wanted to work. So my father got me my first job at a little French restaurant, saying he would only let me work there if I ate anything they cooked for me. I did.”
Nick and Sarah’s story may not sound unique these days, for those of us familiar with the perceived culinary exodus from NYC—a young, entrepreneurial couple in food moves to the Hudson Valley in hopes to make their own way, and to have a life on their own terms. Undeniably, the valley abounds with signs of the movement. Nick and Sarah Suarez are of it, and they are successful examples of it—but their success should not be seen as inevitable. Rather, it is the result of two hardworking individuals who, through their desire to be in service to farmers and to hospitality, have created a formula whereby their restaurant coaxes and promotes the good out of the human and natural environment around them.
The two are motivated by the challenge of how to continue to open themselves up to their customers, by how they can truly become part of a community. The couple began their Hudson Valley lives by operating an events company called Backyard Catering, which allowed them, during the yearlong design-build process of Gaskins, to share their name and vision through neighborhood and civic events. They cooked for the fire department fund-raiser and sponsored and entered the Hudson Valley Bounty Chili Contest (they came in second). They invited friends to come help scrape floors of their yet-to-be-opened restaurant. This considered approach to outreach and promotion made Gaskins a hub before it even opened, and, they believe, established a more inclusive dynamic than the practice of keeping the windows papered until opening night.
Savvy, yes, but most of their efforts, Sarah explains, arose out of their simple newfound pleasure of not working nights. “We actually had time to meet people! Before the community could have a reaction to the restaurant or food, people could react to us. The creation of community for ourselves and for the restaurant was simultaneous, and that was a true luxury.”
Having done their time in the competitive New York City restaurant industry, they were encouraged by the enthusiasm they met among the Hudson Valley business community. The two are dedicated to a vision of a rising tide lifting all boats. Beyond the necessity of running a business in the black, they aren’t interested in necessarily setting themselves apart from the wave; they understand the social phenomenon that they are part of, and, Sarah says, wholly embrace it. “It seems people reach a certain point in their lives when they want to figure out what they need to do in order to make themselves happy—the creative, craft-based surge we are witnessing here is the result of that moment across a particular generation. I don’t think it’s Hudson Valley specific. We wanted to have personal health and happiness—including (gasp!) vacations in Ecuador where Nick’s family is originally from—to count as part of our success. That is harder and harder to do that in all cities, not just New York City.”
A plate of golden tilefish from Montauk
with fennel and carrot puree
As they adapt to the valley’s pace, Nick and Sarah strive to retain key values and standards of their big city mentors, at a scale adjusted for a small restaurant. While some dreams, such as whole animal purchasing, aren’t yet possible due to space and processing capacity, what is attainable is a network of intimate relationships with farmers and suppliers.
“Main Street” is their location, as well as their menu concept— Gaskins serves casual plates made from local ingredients at accessible prices, food one could eat every night and not grow tired of. Although he draws from many gastronomic influences, Nick, running the kitchen, keeps the palette approachable. A grass-fed burger (complete with housemade fries) and “The Big Salad,” with greens, chicory and radishes, are staples on the menu, as are a housemade pasta, many vegetable sides and Nick’s lemon polenta cake. At Gaskins, local, ecological, direct purchasing is business as usual, not a glaring marketing ruse. “Farmers pick it that morning, and we serve it that night—often back to them—something I find very fulfilling,” Nick says. Emerging from Gaskins’ first winter, Nick is keen to work with select farmers to link next season’s crop production schedules with the menu, which changes weekly with availability.
Gaskins believes that any new restaurant opening in the Hudson Valley should be buying from Hudson Valley farms, and that while, as restaurant owners, they have a distinct opportunity to educate their customers, their vivid, seasonal food should speak for itself. If someone asks for the deeper story, staff is trained to tell it, though that is hardly a leap. If food is a new community currency, Gaskins is a hub of young bankers invested in multiple ventures—local businesses represented by the waitstaff include: Poor Devil Pepper Company, which collaborated with Gaskins on a taco night event that saw over 170 covers, or diners; the Herbal Acre, a medicinal and culinary plant grower in neighboring Milan, which supplies the restaurant with organic herbs and edible flowers; and Hudson River Exchange, which creates spaces that showcase the art, food and community in neighboring Hudson. Nearby Suarez Family Brewery is owned and run by Nick’s brother, Dan, and his wife, Taylor Cocalis-Suarez, who co-founded Good Food Jobs. This recruitment tool helped greatly in the hunt for staff, particularly back-of-the-house positions, which Gaskins found were much harder to fill than front of the house.
Indeed, the bustling new restaurant in Germantown experienced the national crisis-level shortage of line cooks and dishwashers at a local level—for the first three weeks Nick and Sarah washed dishes until 3 a.m. Community building had paid off a bit too well: The abundance of eager diners for the first two months were “a shock.” While Sarah’s inviting and stylish hospitality held down the crowds at the front door, Nick had a trial-by-fire initiation getting plates out the kitchen doors, which he did and did well. The couple cites the arrival of Alex Tronstad, sous chef, as a blessing, one that allowed them to fall into a steadier pace throughout the restaurant.
“We were exhausted, but secretly I loved the crazy busy opening nights. I love inviting people in and taking care of them while they eat and drink.” Sarah smiles, clearly in her element as she pours the coffee. A daughter of three generations of black dirt onion farmers in Orange County, New York, she is the first one in her family not to farm. Her mother finds it perpetually amusing that Sarah has worked at mostly farm-to-table restaurants but has never really had her hands in the dirt. “My grandmother always smelled like onions. Now that we have the restaurant, Nick’s beard always smells like onions. That makes me happy!”
2 Churchtown Avenue, Germantown
If food is a new community currency,
Gaskins is a hub of young bankers invested in multiple ventures.