It’s a little after 9 in the morning and Kevin Lahey has already put in six hours of hands-on, labor intensive work in his Cold Spring kitchen.
Someone has to make the scones that he boasts are the best in Cold Spring, if not beyond. (He’s not kidding: These handfuls of delight need no butter, cream cheese or other flavor-muting slather.) Grab a coffee — also the best in town per Lahey, the newly opened double-D be damned — and you’re “good to go.”
That phrase has been his mission statement since he and then-partner Joan Turner opened The Main Course Etc. Inc. on Chestnut Street, aka Route 9D, in 1995. The two first wanted to sell food sous-vide style, a method in which it’s prepared and then vacuum-sealed in plastic bags.
But alas, faced with onerous and endless federal bureaucratese laced with food codes containing innumerable pages and annexes worthy of the cetological chapters of “Moby Dick,” the two novices to the food trade came to the quick consensus that “we didn’t want to go down that road.”
The partners were new to preparing food for retail. Turner was an anthropologist and Lahey was a horticulturist by trade, having served as head gardener for 25 years at the 3,000-acre Glynwood Estate outside the village. The estate was owned by George W. Perkins Jr., a diplomat and executive, and his wife, Linn, the daughter of George Merck of the pharmaceutical company of the same name. After Mrs. Perkins’ death in 1993, the property became a nonprofit and Lahey shifted gears. The one constant, he says with a smile, was “We like to eat good food and party.”
Lahey is wearing a light blue Oxford with sleeves rolled and khaki shorts as he pulls up a steel stool in his kitchen-cum-office, unknowing he is about to tell the tale of how a homegrown Cold Spring boy with family roots dating back 130 years — born at The Julia L. Butterfield Memorial Hospital (the launching zone for all nine brothers and sisters), watched “The Galloping Gourmet” on TV as a kid, went to Haldane High School, spent winters operating the snow guns on Mount Beacon’s ski slopes and earned his degree at the School of Professional Horticulture at The New York Botanical Garden — ended up running a successful eatery.
Lahey seasons his sentences with a measure of salty language and a pinch of profanity. YFY is code for great food: Yum; F as in yes, that F-word; and Yum.
He truly is a man of the earth, and a proud one at that, as exhibited in his extolling of his “killer quinoa salad” (very tasty) or “great tuna fish sandwich” (yes) or “best bran muffin in the world” (I cannot attest since he was sold out!)
It was Lahey who spied the open space in the building that once housed a motorcycle shop up front and a lawnmower repair service in the back. It was partner Turner who reached out to Susan Baker, who ran Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods, the successful catering business in Chappaqua. She consulted for the two and set them on the right track, Lahey says.
Initially all the pots and pans came out of Lahey’s and Turner’s respective home kitchens.
So without any training in cooking between the two of them, they were off. Well, for the first day, anyway. The second day they did the unheard of and closed their doors to reconnoiter. Now, the business was off and running. Unlike a restaurant, Lahey says, there is no bar bill, no tipping: “Customers come in and bring it home.”
Lahey says the shop has had the same recipes since the beginning. “You have to stay consistent. There are no shortcuts. We don’t skimp on anything.” The only thing that has changed is the retirement of his partner Turner with whom he still keeps in close contact.
The business model remains true. “We’ve never advertised once in 20 years,” Lahey says. And for 15 of those years, The Main Course has provided picnic staples for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel.
And he knows which days of the week customers are looking for turkey burgers or salmon burgers. Lahey points out proudly that there is no greasy smell in the air. Why? “We don’t do any frying.” Burgers are first seared and then finished cooking in the oven. And for sautéing, it’s only olive oil or canola.
The shop now has 12 workers with five cooks in the two kitchens. One family member, sister Eileen, has been a longtime helper. Lahey refers to her as “a godsend.”
So, for a guy who has gone from flower to flour, he voices no qualms about getting to work at 3 a.m. He seems genuinely happy with his second career. I mention Mark Twain’s quote: “The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.” And Lahey is quick to point out that the great writer once lived at Wave Hill in the Bronx, which was owned by the Perkins family, the same ones who owned Glynwood.
For Lahey, it’s all kismet.