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The First Local Tastemaker Nominations

November 3, 2014

What does it take to be a tastemaker?

It takes a vision. It takes knowing what you think is good and sticking by your guns to bring that goodness to the people. It takes dedication, because it can take time to bring consumers over to your side of the fence. It takes guts to work towards a goal that’s out of the mainstream mindset. It takes integrity. It takes chutzpah.

Tastemakers are important to a community. They push it to strive to be a better place to live. They challenge the status quo. They inspire others to take up the cause. They improve the quality of life.

These people don’t do it for fame or fortune. They do it because they are compelled to do it. They do it the hard way, because that’s the only way that it can be done. And in the end, there is often little reward.

That’s why I wanted to start trying to recognize these individuals in our midst. The first post every month will be open for nominations. Then I’ll highlight the tastemaker of the month prominently on every page of the blog, until its time for the next person to claim the spotlight.

Today it begins. The first round of nominations. So I’ll kick it off with some thought starters.

Ric Orlando – His was the first grassfed burger that I could find in the Capital Region when New World Bistro Bar opened up in 2009. Take a commitment to clean, locally sourced ingredients, add a global perspective and a familiarity with an upstate mindset, and you’ve got what is arguably the embodiment of the Capital Region’s improving food scene. His food is good without being too fussy. He has dishes for the adventurous, but keeps enough on the menu to stay within the comfort zone of most.

Eric Paul – The man who brought great cheese and charcuterie to Albany. Maybe some of these existed at Cowan and Lobel, which closed before my time. But I long argued that there was no reason that Albany couldn’t have a world class cheese counter. Now we’ve got access to some amazing specimens from around the globe…cut to order by The Cheese Traveler.

Vic Christopher & Heather LaVine – I decided I had to meet Vic when I saw him restoring that antique Faema espresso machine. That’s when I knew he was crazy, but probably the right kind of crazy. I mean, he was opening up a wine bar in Troy? And he was naming it the Charles F. Lucas Confectionery? Troy isn’t exactly a wine kind of town. Except it turns out that now it kinda is. And this warm, cinematic space provides a big city experience in a small upstate city.

Lanny Lau – The talent in the kitchen at Ala Shanghai is poached from New York City. And as a result, up in Latham we can get some of the best soup dumplings I’ve ever had. In a region where Chinese restaurant menus regularly include chicken teriyaki, pad thai, and sushi, Lanny brings us the classic regional dishes of Shanghai. Not only that, but the menu changes seasonally to adjust for available produce and changes cooking styles to fit the weather conditions. Wow.

Robert Mack – In a town full of serious drinkers, Albany is not particularly known for its cocktail culture. Robert Mack was making some great drinks at DP’s before making the jump to the Speakeasy, where he blossomed. Now he’s making his own bitters and doing things with spirits that can excite the jaded. As far as I’m concerned, this town has one serious bartender, and he is it.

But the tastemaker of the month doesn’t have to be one of the culinary giants of the region. Not at all. We’ve got twelve months in a year. And as long as I stay away from donuts, ice cream, hot dogs and pizza, we’ll have many many more years together. There is plenty of room on this list for the upstarts, and maybe that’s a good place to launch this feature.

Ron Grieco – He’s now co-owner of Stacks Espresso in Albany. It used to be Caffe Vero. So now he has the brewing equipment to match his passion and knowledge of great coffee.

Dimitrios Menagias – The daily menu at City Beer Hall uses quality ingredients, to elevate tavern classics. But Dimitrios and his creative flair take these dishes to entirely new places. And that’s him being restrained. To see Dimitrios open up the throttle to culinary creativity, check out one of the periodic beer and game dinners. They are wild.

Claudia Crisan – She is the artist behind Albany’s best bakery. Yes, artist. And during the summer, she brings in massive amounts of local seasonal fruit to convert into jams and confiture to last the bakery through the long winter months. When spring arrives, so does Crisan’s housemade gelato.

Aneesa WaheedTara Kitchen is now a well loved Moroccan restaurant out in Schenectady. Before Aneesa opened hers, another Moroccan place opened and closed on a busy stretch of Central Avenue in Albany. Thankfully, she was undaunted and now has one of the best restaurants in the electric city.

Josh ColettoThe Low Beat is never going to be chef Josh’s full time gig. But we’re lucky that while he’s spending most of his time down in Philmont at Local 111, he’s still coming back into town to cook us brunch once a month. I’m serious. Local grassfed steak, chicken fried and served with gravy, home fries, a biscuit, and an egg? This is Josh’s cooking. I love this guy.

Susan Dunckel – She’s the Sue of Sweet Sue’s. But she’s so much more than sweets. Her focused daily menu is sourced from great ingredients, including her Saturday Troy Farmer’s Market breakfasts.

Rory MoranComfort Kitchen proves that good food doesn’t need to be expensive. Lots of love goes into his tater tots. He’s not relying simply on a gimmick, he’s bringing in great ingredients from local and regional farms, and doing well by them without pretense.

Peter Kenyon and Dora Swan – This couple is fighting the good fight of sustainable seafood and more importantly, bringing great super-fresh fish to the people of the Capital Region. Plus they are making it easy to eat with take-home meals, frozen conveniences, and hot food served in fin – your fishmonger.

Chef PaulTC Bakery Paris doesn’t cut corners. Some of his items may be expensive, but that’s because those things take time to make and require expensive ingredients. Did I mention that Chef Paul doesn’t cut corners? He is relentless in his pursuit of improving everything he does. Bravo.

And I could go on and on. There are a lot more very important people I’ve left off this list. It’s not a slight. These posts can only go on for so long. And the names above are only provided as thought starters for your nominations. We’ll get to everybody in time. The question now is who should be first?

I’ll be accepting nominations below until November 14. The first monthly winner will appear in December. Now don’t be shy. Let’s hear your pick (and please provide a few reasons as to why they have your support).

22 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2014 11:26 am

    As the sometimes author of an obscure regional blog that sort of includes this area… I nominate myself. I have been singlehandedly taste-making for several children and animals for years now in my exclusive, invite only kitchen. In addition, there are literally 10s of people who read my rambling recipes/musings on the internets.

    • November 3, 2014 2:14 pm

      I agree – for once! – with Mr. Dave. Kind of. I have lots of people association this moniker with me. But I can’t nominate myself. That wouldn’t be right.

      I don’t know if I necessarily consider a lot of these people “tastemakers.” Sure, they are promoting something in the area, but it’s for their own best interest (ie – their business). There’s a difference between highlighting great things in the area and pushing your own agenda.

      With that said, I nominate Daniel Berman.

      • November 3, 2014 3:46 pm

        I was completely tongue in cheek with nominating myself, haha! Just so that is clear…

  2. Townie permalink
    November 3, 2014 11:30 am

    Robert Mack and Jason Baker.

  3. Ellie permalink
    November 3, 2014 11:33 am

    You’ve got to put the Brewer at Browns on the list. Once upon a time Troy was not a revitalized, hip place to go. Browns started to change that. It was the first, or at least the most popular, Albany micro brewery. And this was done at least 10 years ago. It was kinda a big deal.

  4. buffsoulja permalink
    November 3, 2014 4:53 pm

    Good call for the Tara Kitchen nomination. Just went back last week – it was beyond phenomenal. Compound the fact that they were down a server that night and she was doing the cooking while managing a full house.

  5. November 3, 2014 5:03 pm

    Good list of local residents who have passion and discernment, qualities that the Capital Region could use more of.

  6. November 3, 2014 6:26 pm

    I am completely blown away that I even made the initial nomination. What we do is out of pure passion. Our passion is still in the process of growing into a business – as we are new and strugling to make ourselves known in Saratoga. But every member of our team is driven by the same passion I had several years ago, when I began in a shared kitchen doing the things I love to do: Find the most amazing ingredients from around the world and make the most amazing desserts from them. Sometimes we nail it the first time. Sometimes it takes months of trying before we approve it to come out of ‘test kitchen status’ Every product is carefully created out of the depths of this passion to create great things. I am completely honored to be listed as a nominee, among living legends like Rick Orlando.

    Townie mentioned “Jason Baker”, whom I had a chance to meet briefly during his time at 15 Church. What a truly humble and amazingly artistic Chef. Although rumors have him no longer in the area – he will be an asset wherever he lands.

    Eric (from Cheese Traveler) has a true gift. I have asked for his assistance in creating after dinner plates, that compliment our evenings food and drink to prefection. He is spot on.

    Claudia Crisan, whom I have not met in person – but hope to in the near future. Albany has a true gem of its own: Crisan. Crisan is at the top of my list for Albany desserts.

    All that were mentioned by Daneil are all truly worthy nominations, and again I am honored to be listed amongst them. Thank you Daniel. . . The nomination alone, is worth more to us than you can imagine.

    Chef Paul & The TC Paris Crew

    • November 3, 2014 9:03 pm

      Zoinks! Misread . . . we have not been nominated . . . but suggested. Still thrilled to be thought of and mentioned. Especially being such an underdog :) Thank you Daniel.

  7. November 3, 2014 9:06 pm

    My personal nomination goes for Claudia Crisan. They do fantastic stuff. After a long day of baking at our own bakery, the last thing I want to do is make my own Birthday cake. Crisan is where I have gone to get my desserts when in Albany. You can taste the pureness and goodness in every quality product. Not many bakeries these days are willing to go all the way. And Crisan is a big time winner.

    My nomination is for Claudia Crisan

  8. November 3, 2014 10:22 pm

    I vote Rory from Comfort Kitchen — locally-sourced, fresh, homemade, awesome food, at an affordable price? Yes, please! We need more of this.

  9. John permalink
    November 3, 2014 11:22 pm

    Sweet Sues is an interesting choice. I think they have done a nice job of highlighting products from vendors at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market. The event she produced in Troy for the benefit of all the businesses on that block was a great not only for the businesses there, but for a few non for profits that were looking for a larger audience. The cup cakes are good too.

  10. albanylandlord permalink
    November 4, 2014 1:23 am

    These are some great names. Really great names. And what a great idea Profussor.

    If I may be so bold as to comment on the names suggested so far – the highest end of the tastemaker scale would seem to be someone who changes the idea of what is possible in the community and Ric Orlando reaches that ideal better than anyone else. While many of these people have done groundbreaking work, NWB has reset expectations & possibilities on a broader scale and at a higher level than anyone else in the capital district food scene and done so earlier than most.

  11. Jody Agnew permalink
    November 4, 2014 11:21 am

    i vote for RON GRIECO!!!

  12. November 4, 2014 11:21 am

    Ron Greico!

  13. Ken permalink
    November 4, 2014 12:18 pm

    The fabulous Peter Kenyon and Dora Swan

  14. Miss Melissa permalink
    November 4, 2014 3:46 pm

    I think of Ron Greic0 as a true tastemaker but because he takes the time to educate me to enjoy coffee more thoughtfully, independent of his bottom line. He is willing to share every coffee secret he knows to develop my tastes, even if it means piquing my interest (gasp) in beans he doesn’t carry. He is accessible to the public many hours a week in the shop, and will discuss beans and brewing methods with anyone, completely without snobbery. To me, that enthusiasm for contact with the consumer, is epitome of taste-making.

  15. John Corbin permalink
    November 4, 2014 7:09 pm

    This is a great list. I would add Ginny O’Neill, owner of the dreamPuff Sweet Shop in Brunswick (Troy). Ginny uses really great local and unique ingredients and she has a great imagination for flavor combinations. She is best known for making gourmet marshmallows, but she does a lot more than that. She puts her own twist on everything she makes, from her chocolate truffles and special desserts to savory pies and tarts. She even takes the chocolate chip cookie to a whole new level.

  16. Sarah permalink
    November 5, 2014 10:38 am

    This is a really great list. My personal vote is for the Confectionery folk, but really . . . I’d agree with pretty much any of these as a first pick. Personal runners up are Crisan, Grieco, Mack, and Lau.

  17. Jessica R W permalink
    November 5, 2014 1:59 pm

    I would love to vote for all of these. However, I consider Ric Orlando to be the first Tastemaker in the area, and therefore should receive the recognition first. You also forgot to mention his involvement with so many charities, the Chef’s Consortium, and that he publishes many of this iconic recipes on his own blog, for people around the world to expand their food horizons.

  18. November 6, 2014 6:31 pm

    It’s an honor to be in the mix if such company. It’s amazing that our community has such great options and that there is a large population that appreciates what we do. Having said that, there is a tastemaker that was overlooked. He was pushing the envelope long before any. He had wild game like kangaroo on his menu in the 80’s, and melded influences before “fusion” was ever a term. I vote for Yono Purnomo.

  19. Maeve permalink
    November 7, 2014 12:04 pm

    Has anyone considered The Ginger Man wine bar and restaurant? They have so much going on there! I saw the chef was nominated again for a rising start chef and has one a couple events this year. His food is honestly fantastic! As for the family that ownes it, wasn’t the Ginger Man the first wine bar in the area? Talk about tastemaker! Wine bar on lark, wine bar in Saratoga, confectionary in troy…..these places wouldnt exist if (I think the ginger man has been opened for 30 years) hadn’t opened and paved the way for wine lovers everywhere. That place is a true Albany GEM

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