Love Letter to Chef Theilkuhl



I have a pet peeve. I don't want to know about a book or a movie or a theatre piece before I experience it for myself. Someone else's review, no matter how innocuous, distracts me and muddies my perception. If you are one of those people too, I give you one piece of advice before I urge you not to read any further: make a reservation at The DeBruce in Livingston Manor, NY on a Saturday night so that you can experience the nine course tasting menu for yourself. Stay over. Drink it in.


If you like reviews and care to read further, I offer this love letter to the DeBruce's executive chef Aksel Theilkuhl, as well as to the staff and the owners of The DeBruce. Now, I warn you, because nothing I could say about it could really do any part of our experience justice and you might just want to try for yourself without reading this anyway. Enough about quitting.


After second guessing ourselves on how far down DeBruce Road The DeBruce is, turning around and then coming back, we ascended the DeBruce's front steps into their Main Room, appointed tastefully with a mix of modern and traditional furnishings, tinkling jazz music and a just right plaid wallpaper. Something about entering that room harkens a faint memory of what you think the Catskills used to be like with just enough polish and fluffing to make it feel new and exciting. The first seating wasn't finished yet -- they probably refused to leave -- so we went downstairs for a cocktail before dinner. 


Downstairs at The DeBruce is a cozy bar with casual seating and a separate menu that nearly made us want to skip dinner upstairs. Nearly. Instead, my husband plotted how to get there from too many hills away during an afternoon bike ride with friends. You know who you are. Anyone else can join me on a drive over to meet them... if you can stand all the bike ride stats and the GPS review. I actually think it might be worth it.

Finally, we were summoned to our two top in the glass enclosed dining room. We ordered a Three Monkeys Pinot Noir, sat back and watched as the twinkly dining room came to life with smoke and fire and one after the other of experiments, moments of worship, and acts of love and kindness on plates or stones or pieces of wood.


The kitchen is open. I peeked in when passing, but felt like I shouldn't. The chef, with his dark hair, beard and tattooed sleeves was dancing. This side and that, leaning. Preparing for his performance. Outside the window, a blonde sergeant at arms moved dishes out, like the choreographer's assistant who makes sure the dancers don't miss their cues. The wait staff -- all young, 20-somethings, maybe younger -- were perfect. All night. Presenting. Moving. Warm. Never too much, never too little. Trained. Appreciated.


Then the food began to come. Foraged items -- cow parsley and fiddleheads with dandelions -- served on stones with an onion confit dirt look alike. If you comply with the encouragement to eat it with your hands, you feel like you are foraging. It is an important and dramatic way to start. Release your inhibitions and dive in. Chef Aksel could have held this until the end, which would have been cliche for a restaurant that features foraging, but instead it sets the pace. It urges you to keep up. But good luck.

A tiny smoked and cured piece of trout follows. The skin a separate and crisp connection to the Catskill waters the trout enjoys. Last year's pickles, a reminder of our relationship with the land and its seasons. The magic of foisting one part of an ingredient upon another part of that same ingredient is sheer sorcery.


When we were married ten years, my husband and I stole away to Paris for a few days. Fighting jet lag, we spent our first night at Guy Savoy, a restaurant with a tasting menu beyond comparison, until now. I can still, despite my falling eyelids, taste some of the dishes from that night more than a decade ago. Fresh peas on pea puree with pea infused oil. And an egg. Too much.


The next dish, a Beetroot with variations and textures, was perhaps the best of the night. Beets on beets on beets. A crisp, a puree, a diced firmness. Guy Savoy dreams of this. The night continued with Peconic escargot, staged in a can, a Forest Floor that I wanted to eat again and again, but could barely identify. And mushrooms with burning hay. The light smell from the smoke worked to bring all of your senses together to realize the trueness of the food. And duck breast. Oh, the duck breast. I figured I had already tasted the best before. But the duck and the plum. I am literally at a loss for words. Such honor to the meat rules out any passing fancy I have had at being a vegetarian. 


Seven courses down. The smoke in the room, the night made softer by the wine and the music, a lull balanced by the passion coming from the kitchen, the energy. On a glance back, I see Askel standing up tall, stretching, pushing up his sleeves and bending over, his face close to his creation, nearly talking to it, telling it to trust him. He has done with it what should be done. He has loved it and he is sharing it with love. 

The last two courses -- cheese and dessert -- are buffet style in the Main Room (with the nice seating and the plaid and the jazz) and you can try it all or none of it. We dabbled and continued to be dazzled.


The menu at The DeBruce changes with the seasons, giving me an unnecessary excuse to go back often. Or not at all. Our night at The DeBruce was almost too good to repeat, although my sense is that Aksel likes a challenge. I have heard the DeBruce's owner, Sims Foster, say that he would bring a Michelin Star to the Catskills. I think Michelin might be a step behind. A star is already here.


With love, xoxo farmgirl

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