In response to last year’s Covid lockdown my wanderlust kicked in hard this February so I decided to commit to getting on the road inside the quarantine zone. Starting in early March I initiated a personal challenge to ride my bicycle north from Manhattan to Canada on the Empire State Trail with my friends from New York. The plan included inviting as many chefs as I could to join me. I sent an early note to Cesare Casella whom I’d met 15 years ago at his 22nd street restaurant, Beppe.
Although Chef Casella couldn’t join me on the trail he was quick to respond and invited me to visit him in Hurleyville, while he didn’t provide more details than a dinner invitation, I didn’t care. My goal is to spend time connecting with like minded people in New York State this spring so Cesare’s invitation was like gold. He suggested I touch base when the trail ride reached New Paltz. That time has come and contact was made last week and a dinner plan in Catskills was scheduled.
This Tuesday’s 34 mile ride from New Paltz through Kingston and on to Annondale on Hudson ended just after 4pm which left me an hour behind for the planned arrival in Hurleyville at 6pm but that didn’t stop me. The drive through Catskill mountain foothills into a bright afternoon sun was scenic and relaxing after my bike ride.
Upon arrival Cesare surprised me with a friend at the table, Patrick Dolan. Patrick’s a bright, intuitive fellow who’s been busy on the mountain in Hurleyville building a facility to serve society’s most unique individuals, citizens on the spectrum, people who American Indians celebrated and saw as uniquely gifted. Few in our modern world have made an effort to build communities for people with special needs, Patrick has broken that glass ceiling with his work at The Center for Discovery and he celebrates his close friend Chef Casella (the man he calls “Chessy”) as the hammer that broke the ceiling with him by building menus that replace some medicines. Cesare has created a food system that involves the center’s students in a way that puts them into motion. They are involved in the process, building confidence in themselves and their commitment to others.
At dinner I learned about both men’s passion for sustainable, organic agriculture. Then I heard about the scope of the operation and it blew my mind. Bullet points like a 1500 acre farm with housing for 1200 special needs patients. A chicken operation that yields not only chicken protein for the students but a bone broth program that promotes gut health and the byproduct of up to 2000 fresh eggs a week. The farm hosts a herd of cattle over 100 head in all and 75-100 pigs, all contributing to a balanced bio-dynamic loam in the fields. The soil at the Center for Discovery is so fertile you can see it’s unique, fertile composition at first glance, it holds firm in the hand and smells sweet. Those fields are abundant enough to keep over 300 acres a season in production while another 600 rest fallo for seasons to come. They grow enough vegetables for the table that could keep an urban farmers market humming all summer long.
In the fall, students harvest apples and make balsamic and cider vinegars in the center’s state of the art vinegar facility. The bakery has a magnificent wood burning oven that serves students and a CSA run by the center for locals in the surrounding area.
I’m honored to have had the full tour. Cesare has been involved with this dynamic operation for over 15 years and his quiet, confident influence shines. As we toured the main kitchen, entertainment center, housing facilities, barnes and conference center, everyone I met smiled and shared their enthusiasm not only for chef Casella but for the enterprise that they support.
As Patrick left the kitchen after dinner he mentioned the world class trout streams surrounding the farm and suggested I return.
As much as I’d like to fish that water, it’s the smiles on those special faces that make the Center For Discovery one of the most dynamic, unique places I’ve ever visited and I look forward to returning someday soon.