In 2015, mere months after its quiet opening, The Finch landed an unexpected Michelin star for owner and chef Gabe McMackin. It was unexpected in that the Clinton Hill, Brooklyn restaurant seemed, from afar, more like a cozy neighborhood bistro. In fact, visitors to the establishment (which has sustained its star and drummed up many other accolades along the way) find an experience that’s nothing short of extraordinary. From the warm, rustic interior to the ambitious and evolving but never overwrought menu, McMackin and his staff refresh and satisfy their guests. And now he will adopt a second role, that of executive chef at Amenia, New York’s stately Design Hotel Troutbeck. Already an exemplary upstate adventure, Troutbeck’s partnership with McMackin will redefine their culinary program.
To understand the chef’s intentions for the hotel’s program requires digging into his initial vision for The Finch. “I honestly thought it would be a small, fun, casual neighborhood restaurant,” he shares with us. “I wanted it to be easy to operate with a small crew who have fun but also have a healthy work-life balance. We were going to have a small menu with a few things that stayed the same and a few that changed around.”
He describes his process for assembling his menus—and his dishes—as organic. “I think an idea comes out of the ether,” he says, “It visits and sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes I even get to follow it. But that idea usually starts with an ingredient and a need. We have a few elements and one of them is new, so it shifts a bunch of others around and we make space for it.” Whether it’s new early corn or nutty chanterelles, McMackin and his team taste and talk about what they’ve got and what it can become. “As we sit with it,” he adds, “it’ll change too. The more we cook it and plate it, the more we get responses from guests, the better it gets.”
“Food and hospitality and the making of a restaurant are all practices, they’re all meditative processes,” he continues. “You have to enjoy the regular doing of the thing, you have to enjoy making a salad, pouring a beer, welcoming someone in a genuine way when they walk through the door. There is joy in that when it’s right, and even when it’s… less right.” McMackin cites the importance of this with success. He finds joy in the “miserable crumby parts of it” all, too. This equips his continued creativity. As do the contributions of his staff.
This is also emphasized by The Finch’s startlingly creative beverage program. “It’s an incredible dialogue,” he notes. Food and drink, “they work together, they play off one another, we collaborate. The creative origins are very similar, we tie to the same source of inspiration. [Beverage director] Liz picks magical wines that tell a fantastic story on their own, but also work so well in the room. As we develop a cocktail or pick a beer, we ask ourselves if they work in that context.” From an Amaro by Brooklyn’s Forthave Spirits to the delectable new Pinhook bourbon, The Finch delivers on their liquid experiences.
As much as he feels pressured by the critical success of The Finch, McMackin’s greatest concern is “connecting to our guests, meeting them, being present with them. That is what got us to where we are.” It was this narrative of hospitality that led to the opportunity with Troutbeck. “The willingness we have to reach out through what we do is powerful,” he says. “And I think it resonated with [Troutbeck owner] Anthony enough that we got to talking several years ago now.”
His vision for Troutbeck’s menu is poetic. “I want the food and the service to magnify the experience of being a guest at Troutbeck,” he begins. “The food itself should be simple, elegant and inviting. It should be welcoming, and exciting without being showy. You should never get dish envy. But as you eat, you should have surprises as you go.”
“The food should celebrate a moment,” he continues. “The food should fill but not fatten. It should make you feel lighter and brighter for having eaten it. It should energize you physically.”
This first just-announced contemporary American menu relies heavily on vegetables and McMackin says they’re also proud of the meat and fish they’re serving. They’ve tasted some and plan to source more incredible local products—already drawing from Miele Farm, Maitri Farm, Rock Steady and Sprout Creek Farm. Most importantly, Troutbeck’s land is “head-spinning with possibilities” for produce growth.
McMackin has a perspective uniquely positioned for this role—he was raised in nearby Litchfield County, Connecticut and also spent time employed at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. All of this informs his ability to develop a seasonal menu that’s true to the region and to the estate itself. “It’s everything,” McMackin concludes. “Being present and enjoying the process is why I’m at Troutbeck. The spirit of the property, like the spirit of The Finch, is to explore our space and time. Every decision must tie back to that. It just has to feel right here.”
Hero image by Sarah Elliott