Chef Serge Madikians, who made the harvest-inspired menu for the Fishkill Farms Open Kitchen dinner, didn’t think about cooking professionally until he was nearly forty. Now, he owns Serevan, one of the most beloved restaurants in New York’s Hudson Valley. The cozy restaurant is housed in a converted farmhouse, but it doesn’t serve the typical farm-to-table fare. Instead, Madikians combines the abundance of the Hudson Valley farms with the Middle Eastern and eastern Mediterranean flavors he knows from his childhood in Tehran, Iran, to create a menu with a unique sense of place and personality.
We caught up with the creative chef between Serevan’s popular dinner service and solo flights (he pilots a small Piper Archer plane to source seafood across the East Coast) and talked about his story, his life in the Hudson Valley, and his new take on “farm to table.”
Tell us about your background. How’d you get into cooking?
I’m an Armenian from Iran. I was born in Tehran. I have an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy and I have a masters degree in public policy and economics. I didn’t even think about cooking until I was nearly forty years old. In fact, I never really thought about cooking professionally. I come from a family that enjoys cooking, and I’ve learned about cooking more from eating than from anything else…Just the joy of eating.
I went to graduate school in New York City and was lucky enough to live in a one bedroom in the West Village. Because I liked to cook, my house became the hub where we had a lot of dinner parties, and where everyone gathered to have a good time and a good meal.
But, when I was living and working in New York City I had an opportunity to go to culinary school as a gift. I thought to myself “I have nothing to lose; if anything I’ll just be a better cook,” and I enrolled in culinary school after work three nights a week.
I had been there for maybe three weeks when I had this moment or realization: I was in the kitchen, reaching for a plate, and everything was really loud and exciting and chaotic and I thought, “This is what I want to do.” A week later I was lucky to get an externship with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his four-star restaurant, Jean-Georges and that’s how I began my culinary career.
How did you make the transition from home cook to professional cook?
When I made the decision to become a professional cook, I knew one thing: There was a lot to learn. At school, the main thing that I gained was technique. I worked with Jean-Georges, who was a fabulous chef, but his creative process didn’t resonate with me.
In order to develop a deeper, personal understanding of food, cooking and eating, I found myself attracted to writers such Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.F.K. Fisher and began eating in all the three and four star restaurants in NYC, which lead me to David Bouley. Once I ate his food at Bouley Bakery, I knew that this was the guy. I thought, “I have to work for this guy.”
It was with David Bouley that I really learned the difference between being a home cook and being a chef. I found that, as a professional cook, it was absolutely necessary to identify my own voice and recognize my own creative process. That was why working from four in the morning to twelve at night and sleeping at the restaurant so I could do it again the next day actually made sense to me. As a home cook I was interested in creating an environment where everyone could eat and enjoy themselves and be nourished, but it was in the process of becoming a professional chef that I learned the importance of finding my voice.
How did you move from the kitchens of Manhattan to the Hudson Valley?
Eventually I became a sous-chef and after that I got a job in as a chef at a restaurant in the city, and that was when I realized this is not what I wanted to do. I was 39, just about to be 40, and I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll just go back to my day job and I’ll be a really good home cook, no regrets.” But I realized I owed myself one more chance, and thought I should try to cook in the country and see if that lifestyle appealed to me. That was in 2002, and it opened up a whole new world of possibilities. On May 5, 2005 I opened Serevan.
What do you like about working and cooking in the Hudson Valley?
I’m an extrovert, so I’m very inspired by my environment. Ideas begin to percolate in my head when I go to the market or when I visit the farm. I’m not a personality type that can sit down and write a list. I would go to the market with a list and then come back with twice as much as I had on my list, just because I was so inspired by new ideas and flavors.
Here in Hudson Valley I go to the farmer’s market, the farm, the orchard. I make time to go an hour-and-a-half away to pick up black sour cherries. All of that activity makes me a more thoughtful, careful and humble cook. Humble because I’m not in control.
Sometimes I think we over-emphasize the chef when, in actuality, the less the chef has a presence, the better the ingredients taste. My job in the kitchen is to pay attention to the ingredients. If the ingredients could talk or walk or move they would find the other ingredients the want to play with on the plate. But they can’t, so that’s where I come in. My job is not to impose myself on them, it’s to rearrange them in a natural way. That’s the approach that leaves me grateful at the end of the day.
When you live out in the country and you are aware of all the intricacies of nature and how they impact the ingredients you have. So maybe the reason the vegetables I got last week are so good is because of the heat wave we had and the rain before that. Is it really my job to manipulate that? I don’t think so.
How did you get to know the local farms and farmers you work with in the Hudson Valley?
I’m an urban boy—I’ve lived in urban centers up until four years ago when I moved to the Hudson Valley full time. I got to know my farmers because of my desire to be a member of the community. That is the driving force for me. It’s not about local produce—even though I think that’s important and I feel really lucky that Hudson Valley has such beautiful produce. But for me working with farmers is about wanting to be a member of the community and wanting to run a restaurant that reflects the abundance of the place it is in.
I also have a selfish motive: Farmers have made me a smarter cook. I have learned so much from my farmer friends. For example, when I first opened Serevan I would get so angry when the arugula I had ordered arrived and I found it was much larger than I liked. I’d think to myself, “This farmer doesn’t know what he’s doing, I have to find a different source!” One day I was driving by the farm with some doughnuts and coffee so I stopped in and sat down and really talked to the farmer. He told me, “It’s been so hot that these things are shooting up like crazy!” Arugula grows so fast in a heat wave, and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that rain damages the tomatoes or that if cucumbers are left just a half-day longer on the vine on a hot day they will grow exponentially.
You are a pilot and share such inspiring photos from your travels on Instagram with the hashtag #flyingchef. Did you ever think that cooking and flying would combine?
If someone had told me three years ago that I would be a pilot I’d say “I don’t know about that.” But now it’s one of the most exciting things that I do, it’s one of the most challenging things that I have learned in the middle of my life. I love the fact that I’m able to combine my life as a cook and my life as a pilot. One of the most rewarding weekly errands that I have is flying to Cape Cod and bringing back beautiful oysters, steamers, scallops and halibut that were harvested that morning. To be able to go out on a boat in the morning, learn what it is the fishermen do, and then come back and cook their seafood in the Hudson Valley is just incredible.
Catch more behind-the-scenes details in our video below.