For New Yorkers googling “Livingston Manor,” the bar in downtown Brooklyn pops up first, before the hamlet in upstate New York. It’s likely due to proximity but also maybe the search engine algorithm doubts interest in a town whose population clocked in around 1,000 in the last US census. Why visit there? It’s the same question you could pose to the owners of The DeBruce, a newly renovated 14-room inn, and they have the answer ready as you drive onto the gravel parkway.
The DeBruce is the fourth property from Foster Supply Hospitality, run by husband-and-wife duo, Sims and Kirsten Foster. Sims is a Livingston Manor native, and their son Max is now a fifth-generation Foster being raised in Sullivan County. Their other impeccably designed and managed inns (the Arnold House, North Branch Inn, and Nine River Road) are all within a 30-minute drive from the DeBruce. One property may be a pet project, but four provides strong evidence of the couple’s determination to bring business (and new faces) to the quiet area, and in return, show off what upstate NY holds beyond the same few towns everybody escapes to.
The DeBruce has its own formidable waterfront: Willowemoc Creek. Complete with creekside gazebo and a magical wooded meadow where we spied one guest doing solo yoga, the “backyards” of the DeBruce are big enough to explore, as they encompass about 600 acres. Enjoy the rare full-on engrossment of private wilderness and the winding paths that are still hesitant about where they’re committed to heading. The DeBruce plans to have 30+ miles of marked trails in the next few years.
Beyond the pool, hammocks, lower-level bar, and even a shuffleboard table, the DeBruce’s pièce de résistance is the glass-walled dining room—whose windows slide open—where a view of the mountains, and the open kitchen, complement the menu. Saturday dinner is a serious affair at the DeBruce, with two seatings, either 6:30 or 9PM. The nine-course tasting menu (which is a tiny bit misleading, as the last two “courses” took place outside the dining room, a selection of cheeses and sweets on display for self-serve) is the only option. The moments etched in memory: the course made entirely from ingredients foraged from the “backyard” mountains, including edible daisies and pickled fiddleheads; double jewel strain shiitake mushroom over timothy hay and fragrant blueberry wood that arrives smoldering. But it’s the story behind the dishes that compels a return.
Executive chef Aksel Theilkuhl lives on the property—a change for someone who’s been working in NYC for so long. “We’re in chefs’ dreamland—all the best of all the product I can imagine, at my doorstep,” he tells CH. “It’s two and a half hours from Manhattan and I never even knew the possibilities. It’s insane when we moved up here because we started quickly figuring out that the amount of things that grow wild, and never did I understand, as much as I do now, the farm possibilities here. The number of farmers up here, just in this small area—realistically, I would say 80% of the product comes from 20 miles from here; the other 20 is still within the New York State boundary.”
And that’s why you won’t find orange juice on offer during breakfast (but we did have an incredible duck hash). “We won’t touch anything that’s not from New York State. So everything in this building is strictly New York state products,” says Theilkuhl. “The goal and the concept behind the restaurant is to discover this region.” Instead of big-name sodas, there’s Manhattan-made Boylan’s. Instead of olive oil, the kitchen exclusively cooks with locally produced sunflower oil.
Though it’s easy to plan a nine-course menu when everything as far as your eye can see is green—winter (the DeBruce’s first, in fact) is coming. Many eateries around the area close for the winter, or run limited hours just on weekends. “I moved up here in September of last year,” says Theilkuhl. “I spent my first winter up here, not running this restaurant, just kind of being here. And winters are brutal. Weeks, the sun doesn’t come out, it’s five degrees, the whole place is frozen over—nothing grows. Nothing. The farms here shut down, a lot of them go down south for the winter. It’s hard to be seasonal in a place—it’s hard to be farm to table in a place where nothing grows for five months out of the year. Basically from November through end of April, you have nothing.”
Rather than concede to nature, however, the chef is taking up the challenge—by taking cues from centuries past. “We’re going to stick within our parameters, no matter what,” he says. “People in this particular area, 100 years ago, before any of this was an option—you go back to methods of dry salting, curing, preserving, jarring, pickling. So we’re stocking a pantry now. We started basically from the day we walked in here and were able to start bringing food into this kitchen. Half of the product that we bring in, we use fresh for our menus—the other half starts getting preserved. Fermented, pickled. We’re building a root cellar which will be done at the end of September. And at the end of September, we’ll stock the root cellar. And then we live off the root cellar in the winter.”
“I think it’s a good challenge as a chef,” sums up Theilkuhl. “Because we could revert back, we could make it easy for ourselves. Pick up a phone, and I could order an avocado, and it could be here tomorrow, and I could serve you an avocado in January—or I could show you: The only goal in this restaurant is to show you a piece of this region and the heritage and the history of what it was a long time ago. In a sense, we’re revitalizing just by what we’re doing at the restaurant. The emotional side of it. I think it will be amazing. I think this restaurant will be defined in the winter. I think that’s when we really become what we are.”
Rooms start at $299 on weekdays and $399 on weekends—keep in mind that price includes dinner and breakfast for two guests. Reservations for The DeBruce can be made online.
Images by Nara Shin