Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer have decades in the food industry between them, but you won’t find trendy hashtags or “celebrity chef” status on their online accounts. In fact, the single Instagram account they share is more likely to showcase really good bread and butter than a buzzworthy culinary trend. And that’s because Hamilton and Hirsheimer have dedicated themselves to the art—they say the forgotten art—of sublime home cooking. Both self-taught cooks and food magazine industry veterans (they met in the offices of Saveur, where Hamilton was test kitchen director and Hirsheimer was founding editor), the duo founded the Canal House in Lambertville in 2006. A sort of multi-media DIY culinary studio, Canal House was where they developed recipes, did food photography, and ultimately began exalting the sanctity of home cooking and living well with a series of exquisite-yet-unassuming (and in one case, James Beard Award-winning) cookbooks.
Never slowing down—except maybe for lunch—this year the duo not only came out with another cookbook, Canal House: Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On, they opened the Canal House Station restaurant in Milford, bringing the vision and philosophy of their cookbooks to life. We caught up with the duo last Tuesday, when the restaurant was closed, to ask about this latest cookbook, what diners can expect of the brick-and-mortar restaurant, and whether they’re looking forward to anything in particular this fall. (Hint: pork fat.)
Table Hopping: Canal House Station opened in July. Considering your many cookbooks and industry connections, would it be correct to guess it was a busy opening?
Christopher Hirsheimer: We opened so quietly! And we did that intentionally. We needed to get all our moves down and we sort of wanted a chance to operate behind the scenes for a bit.
Melissa Hamilton: I’m laughing because as we’re saying this, I realize our friends say they’re coming and still ask “Will you be there?” We just crack up, because we do everything! We’re here at 7am and we leave at 7pm. [The restaurant] is very much an extension of Canal House and what we were doing before, how we would design, photograph, illustrate, cook, write the recipes. We were doing all of that there, so of course, now we’re doing everything here!
TH: Speaking of “doing everything,” you two built a mini culinary empire. When did you decide it was time to open an actual restaurant?
CH: We ended up coming up the river [from Lambertville], taking a small studio in Frenchtown where we were concentrating on writing Cook Something. At some point we realized the studio wasn’t conducive to being open to the public—and we wanted to open things to the public. When we were down in Lambertville, we would host events; we’d have dinners and breakfasts in our studio. People loved to come in and feel like they were dining with us behind the scenes. We realized we missed that aspect in [our space in] Frenchtown, so we began looking for something bigger. And then we stumbled on this old stone train station for sale. It’s 150 years old next year and we could tell—it just wanted us to have it.
TH: Once you knew you would open a restaurant, what was the concept?
MH: It’s very much “Canal House comes to life” here. We’re seasonally-driven with our food. We’re cooking what we want to eat. What we crave, with products from local producers.
TH: And considering how you cook, I’d assume your producer relationships are extremely important to you. Any current favorites?
MH: We love the Bent Spoon ice cream. Everything they make is just genius in the flavor department. Gabby Carbone is amazing. Over the years we’ve been working with the Manoff Market Gardens. Oh, and oh my gosh, we have a private avocado connection! We’ve had a relationship via text [with this producer] for seven or eight years; we’d never met him. He also sends us kumquats, unexpectedly, quince, things like that. That’s a very special relationship, totally private. And we use different farm markets depending on what they have going: Comeback Farm in Asbury has beautiful organic produce, Phillip’s Farm.
TH: You must also have some beneficial industry connections, too, no?
CH: We do because we’ve been in the food world for so many years. Just this week we used Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam cheese. They’re our very good friends. But it’s not about the connections, really! It’s about the connecting. That’s what’s makes food special.
TH: What’s the philosophy of your latest cookbook, Canal House: Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On?
MH: We’re trying to teach you fundamentals, taking everything apart and teaching you how to construct it. If you know how to do this basic thing, we’ll give you suggestions and more recipes for you to create versions of that, instead of trying to be like chefs doing things only a professional should be doing. We’ve lost that a little bit—nobody’s home cooking anymore.
CH: Everybody’s working. Or it could be that a young person hasn’t seen their mother or grandma in the kitchen cooking. With Cook Something, we’re saying “Yes, you can come home and cook [a] delicious dinner.” It isn’t just something to check off the to do list. It’s a ritual, where you find out what’s happening to the rest of your family and to your friends.
MH: We even feel that way about the restaurant. Our Sunday Dinner isn’t brunch. It’s really a recreation of the Sunday dinners people used to have; families would get together and it was the way people connected and found out what was going on with each other. It bonded people. We do that. We have a four- or five-course dinner on Sunday from noon to four. People seem to really like it.
CH: I remember [food writer] Marion Cunningham used to say everyone’s living a “motel life,” meaning they just run in and grab something to eat standing up, go to their bedroom. But people used to cook. My grandmother probably had seven recipes she cycles through all year, and I loved her food! You looked forward to people. Everyone’s a little bit short on attention span right now. We have to remember to treasure the familiar.
TH: How do you feel about things like Blue Apron and similar meal-kits to encourage home cooking?
MH: The thing with Blue Apron and what have you is it’s incredibly convenient, but it’s a lot of packaging—and that kind of freaks me out—and there’s also this sort of discombobulated aspect of it. The way it might come with three peeled garlic gloves; ingredients are disembodied. Everything is separated. I mean, we’re thrilled people want to cook again. It’s just not as inspiring as going to a market and saying “Huh, wow, what am I going to do with this thing?” Or “Look at these gorgeous heads of kale,” letting that inspire you.
CH: Or the smell of the melons right now, that sweet perfume, that’s such a turn on. We do want people to cook, we just feel that they might lose out that way. So much of cooking is sensuality. When you get a whole beautiful head of garlic and pop out one clove, your hand gets a little garlicky. You smash it to get the papery skin off—all those things actually connect you to cooking.
TH: What about for you two at the restaurant? The high produce season’s basically over. What are you looking forward to cooking now?
CH: To paraphrase Julia Child, “We’ve been slicing, not cooking.” Summer is just glorious with produce. But now we’ll begin to cook. That’s what we’re coming into. We just love that part. Plus with all the holidays coming up, it’s the time of year you make the food splurge, buy a couple of bottles of delicious Champagne, and the shops have duck and goose and nice fat pork roasts.
MH: And greens and legumes.
CH: And pumpkins and cabbage. And you do all that long, slow cooking that tastes so good that we haven’t been hungry for and now we are.
MH: And now we are.
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