Few professions are as demanding as chef. It entails impossibly long hours in a hot kitchen, managing a diverse and unwieldly staff, satisfying ever-changing demands of diners and, unless self-employed, those of owners and managers as well. All while turning a profit. So I am always amazed when I encounter chefs who also manage to not only have a satisfying personal life, but also find time and energy to devote to outside pursuits. Even more so when they are so adept at these passions that people pay for their output.
Below, three area chefs discuss their passions: how they developed, how they fit into their current lives, what about them they find so satisfying, and how they compare to or contrast with their work as chefs.
Max Hansen: Working in wood
Hansen, a Bucks County native and celebrated chef, caterer, and best-selling cookbook author, took over the reins of the venerable Carversville General Store in nearby Pennsylvania in 2013. Earlier this year he announced plans to transform a 25,000-square-foot farmhouse on Carter Road in Hopewell into a catering venue for events of up to 300 guests. It is projected to open in spring or summer, 2017.
Hansen also hand-crafts a line of wooden spoons, spatulas, and serving knives from a woodshop on his private property. The Firewood line, as it is called, is available at the general store and can be viewed at maxhansenfirewood.com.
“I started making all kinds of first plastic and then wooden boat and plane models with my father who was a pediatrician and loved making wooden toys for children,” Hansen says. “We made models my entire young life. When I was in high school at Solebury School in New Hope I had a wonderful shop teacher, Phoebe Chorley, who was a complete inspiration. She taught me the basics of woodworking, I learned how to make some simple tables, turn bowls, and make basic cutting boards etc. We were very fortunate that George Nakashima, the famous local woodworker, would give the school some of his rejected wood as his son and daughter were students there.
“Over the last years I continued to make some models, a 1/8th scale Chris Craft Barrelback Boat. It was an exact replica and took me probably 100 plus hours to make. After that I returned to a woodshop that was built with equipment from friends and neighbors and some new pieces that I had bought. In my mind, I had this desire to make beautiful cheese knives. That got me back into the wood shop. I have a lot of friends who are professional woodworkers and they had given me some cool, funky pieces of wood.
“I started with a very simple wooden knife, sort of like a letter opener. Then I found a cheese knife shape that I really liked and started to reproduce it in different woods. Knives led to spatulas — more interesting ergonomic shapes. Then I started to envision more three-dimensional shapes and spoons became my obsession.
“Fall and winter is my time to immerse myself in the woodshop. I spend anywhere from four to sixteen hours a week in the off season. As the holidays approach, I find myself spending a lot more time in the shop between making gifts for friends and then pieces to sell.
“Woodworking is the complete opposite end of the spectrum from my other work. It is extremely calming and quiet (other than the power tools). Unlike most of my work, which involves interacting with people in many mediums — managing staff, selling catering jobs, going to meetings, working at the Carversville Grocery, working events in the kitchen — woodworking is a solitary pursuit. I find that I have a lot of time to think about the work that I am doing and find solutions to problems that have arisen. Sometimes I actually get lost in the simple work of making something — it is very relaxing compared to my normal line of work.
“When I go into my shop I do not necessarily have an idea of what I am going to make. I look around at my various pieces of wood — some from our Firewood pile, or a beautiful piece that a friend gave me, or something that I have bought over the years — and decide what to make. Sometimes I am looking at a piece that I am struggling with and I just have to keep going until it turns into something beautiful.
“Woodworking is a huge part of who I am. I feel that it is in my bones and DNA. My father’s parents were Danish and I think that somewhere in my being there is that Danish sensibility when it comes to design. My mother’s family were incredible artists. I was very fortunate to grow up surrounded by many beautiful things. It definitely rubbed off on me somehow.”
Crawford Koeniger: Firing up the engine
Koeniger, 36, was recently named to the new post of director of operations for the Mushroom Products Division of Shibumi Farm, the Princeton-based grower of exotic mushrooms. Before that, he had been executive chef at Agricola Eatery and got his start in area restaurants at Eno Terra in Kingston, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.
“My father was always into cars. We had hundreds of copies of Road & Track magazine around the house and he always owned one sports car or another,” says Koeniger. “The passion came on strong mostly from having been in fast cars with my father. I tended toward video games with cars and started driving at a young age (on a parent’s lap on rural roads).
“When I was old enough, I purchased my first car with $3,000 I had saved from working as a dishwasher and server at a local pizza place. It was a 1984 VW Scirocco. It was fun, moderately fast, and fell apart constantly! With limited funds I was forced to figure out how to repair the car as cheaply as possible. That usually entailed research, trial, and error.
These days there will be times when I will spend every waking moment on a project for months, sacrificing sleep and time with friends or family to accomplish my goals. Other times I will only do a few hours a week. The greatest thing is making the passion heed to me: my time, my care. The projects never need to be finished to pay for something else, or put food on my table.
“There are so many factors that I find rewarding and satisfying. The intricacies of an engine are immense and detailed. I can physically work to exhaustion while challenging my mind to its own point of exhaustion. I have had moments of immense failure that can be incredibly humbling, and accomplishments that fill me with immense joy. It becomes a great escape. The projects let my mind disappear from daily thought, not only in the execution, but the drive as well.
‘If a plate in a kitchen is not up to your par, there are a series of people who could have made a mistake. With cars, anything that is wrong or right is my entire ownership.’
“My work as a chef is another relentless passion. It demands so much of the self to accomplish properly. You have to understand the question ‘why’ on every level for things to become what you envision. The only difference with cars is that the control is yours alone. There are no real outside influences controlling the outcome. If a plate in a kitchen is not up to your par, there are a series of people who could have made a mistake. With cars, anything that is wrong or right is my entire ownership.
“Working on cars is something I do for myself. I don’t expect everyone to understand or ‘get’ it, and I would agree that plenty of times it can seem absurd from the outside looking in, but I am lucky to have a loving wife who does understand what it means to me. Without her support many of these passionate projects would never have condensed into reality.”
From Koeniger’s wife of six years, Suzie: “Being a chef and loving cars are where the profession and the hobby collide and allow Crawford the opportunity to express his innate talent, creativity, and artistry. He expedites a busy Saturday night with the same concentration and intensity he uses when he is rebuilding an engine. He describes a new menu with the same excitement and passion as driving in a road rally. And, while I may not understand the components of a new flavor profile or the complex intricacies of an engine, I will always want to be along for the ride.”
Dennis Foy: From palate to palette
Since 2013 Foy has been ensconced in his popular Lambertville restaurant, D’floret. Before that he had taken over the Lawrenceville Inn (now home to WildFlour Bakery & Café). But Foy has been in the restaurant business for almost 40 years, and his 1970s restaurant, Tarragon Tree, broke new ground in modern fine-dining — and put New Jersey on the map. (It was also the training ground for generations of our state’s most accomplished chefs, including Craig Shelton.) Since at least the 1990s, Foy as also achieved commercial success as a fine artist. His paintings have decorated the walls of his own restaurants, of course, but sell briskly. To view his past work visit dennisfoyfineart.com.
“From an early age I exhibited artistic interest, both musically and visually. I distinctly remember travelling to a relative’s house to play their piano. I would sit for hours and just play by ear, creating melodies that just floated above me,” says Foy. “The sad part is no one noticed this innate ability, or because of our family’s socioeconomic condition, choose to ignore it, rather than disappoint.
“With regard to painting, my visual acuity was always razor sharp. The sense of line, balance, and color, portraiture and landscape realism deeply affected me. At a very young age, I remember being conscious of patterns, or discerning harmony along the horizontal, which clearly points to my interest in coastal and western landscape. I was profoundly influenced by Andrew Wyeth’s restrained use of color. His work, particularly his egg tempera portraiture’s “Maga’s Daughter,” slays me, as does his 1949 self-portrait in white, “The revenant.” Nogeeshik is also a crushing favorite of mine. Rothko is inescapable, and presents a constant battle for balance.
“My preferred medium is oil; it’s what I started to paint with and find myself most comfortable pushing around. Other favorite media are water-based acrylics, which I use solely for menu covers, and pastels, which I have a love-hate relationship with. Love the immediacy; hate the mess.
“For me, painting and cooking are complementary only in sensibility, as a form of expression. My plating reflects my minimalist attitude, and certainly, color is decidedly important, balance and composition on the plate is the key. I search for marriages and juxtaposition of ingredients, harmony, contradiction, surprise. I cook, I paint, and I’ll continue to do so. It is immensely rewarding actualizing abstractions and executing the inaudible.
“In the spring of 2017 I have a joint show scheduled with Joseph Romaninski, at Goldtinker in Red Bank. Joseph is a goldsmith by profession and also an incredible artist in his own right as a photographer. We are collaborating a collection of his photographs, which I will resource for inspiration and render as paintings. I am beyond excited about this project, as painting is not collaborative, like cooking, so the opportunity to interact with another artist is very exciting.”
For information about Dennis Foy paintings — and his collection of tote bags (all American-made) — e-mail email@example.com.