The Creators:
Gabe McMackin's ingredients for success

The team at the restaurant at the Pink House in West Cornwall, Connecticut. Manager Michael Regan, left, Chef Gabe McMackin, center, and Chef Cedric Durand, right.

Jennifer Almquist

The Creators: Gabe McMackin's ingredients for success

The Creators series is about people with vision who have done the hard work to bring their dreams to life.

Michelin-award winning chef Gabe McMackin grew up in Woodbury, Connecticut next to a nature preserve and a sheep farm. Educated at the Washington Montessori School, Taft ‘94, and Skidmore College, McMackin notes that it was washing dishes as a teenager at local Hopkins Inn that galvanized his passion for food and hospitality into a career.

Working at Sperry’s in Saratoga, The Mayflower, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Thomas Moran’s Petite Syrah, Roberta’s in Brooklyn, Gramercy Tavern, then becoming corporate chef for merchandising at Martha Stewart, McMackin learned the ropes from some of America’s greatest chefs. His own culinary jewel, The Finch, so named for the birds that Darwin believed illustrated natural selection through their diversity, opened in Brooklyn in 2014. Ten months later McMackin was awarded his first Michelin star. In March of 2017, The New Yorker reviewed The Finch favorably saying, “. . . it’s the intrepid eater who will be most rewarded.” After closing The Finch, due in part to the pressures of Covid, McMackin became Executive Chef at Troutbeck in Amenia.

This June, McMackin is coming home. He and his team are opening the Restaurant at The Pink House on Lower River Road in historic West Cornwall, just south of the covered bridge. Their opening date is to be announced. Their new space has a stone terrace filled with the sound of the nearby Housatonic River. Michael Regan from Sharon is the Manager. Chef Cedric Durand, a native of southern France will be the in charge of the kitchen. Most recently he was Executive Chef [EC] of Le Gratin, one of Daniel Bouloud’s restaurants in Manhattan. McMackin described his new endeavor:

Our style and techniques are informed by cuisines from around the world, but the lens is very much focused on West Cornwall. The food that will be served is seasonal American food. It’s what makes sense here and now, it’s what we’re able to get our hands on from people close by. It’s casual first and foremost, but it can also be a little dressed up. We want people to feel excited to be with us! The Pink House will be a place for everyone in the community to celebrate, a place to meet friends, a place to feel well taken care of and well fed. The food and drink will be delicious and magical without being precious. It’s a place to go for great food that’s about so much more than the food.

Gabe McMackin said cooking is like poetry: "It’s the best ingredients with the least amount done to them."Jennifer Almquist

The Creators Interview:

Jennifer Almquist: Tell us more about you as a young person, as a child. What were some of the inspirations that began this passion for cooking food?

Gabe McMackin: So much about this time of year takes me to my origins. Springtime, to listen to new life happen around here, seeing different colors change. I loved seeing things come out of ground. As a little kid seeing what was happening in the garden, getting excited for those first things that I could eat like asparagus, or things that were wild. To make a salad out of wood sorrel and garlic chives, things that were not going to be super tasty, but I could make, was an exciting thing as a little person. Recognizing what different things tasted like felt natural. I liked this thing, I didn’t like that thing as much; this one was bitter, and I didn’t like it at all. I was not manipulating things as much as just tasting them, touching them, feeling them. Appreciating what a raspberry tasted like as opposed to a blueberry, or a wild grape.

As I got older, I seemed to appreciate things less, I stopped paying close attention. I was still sensitive to things and food, but I stopped as excited about it. There were things that came back to me in waves, allowing me to see things in a fresh light. I might think about that in terms of food or in terms of hospitality, and it would affect my perspective.

I got a job in a restaurant washing dishes at the Hopkins Inn in New Preston when I was 17 and learned about how to wash dishes well. That’s the foundation that every restaurant is built on. If you don’t have a happy dish washer, if you don’t take care of your plates well, you can’t really serve your guests well. The rhythm being in that place was infectious.

I liked making pancakes with my father. Making maple syrup was an incredible opportunity to manipulate something from the natural world in an authentic way. Growing something, harvesting something, felt immediate. Later I figured out what it meant to manipulate those things. What it meant to present them to other people. To have people say this is delicious was really satisfying. I felt there a special tool in my toolkit. Sometimes it is a joy, sometimes it’s a compulsion. I must tune this thing. I haven’t been able to make this thing as great as it could be. Does it taste right?

JA: From your elemental experience of a raspberry, do you still seek pure essence in your cooking?

GM: If it doesn’t taste like the raspberry you’re missing that spirit, you’re missing that essence of raspberry. If it’s not there, why is it on the plate? If you are not using something well, you show the ingredient disrespect, plus you’re not using all the magical things available. I love the idea of sticking to what is from here. The food that’s going to make the most impact is going to be the one most full of life.

JA: Is cooking like poetry to you?

GM: Yes, the best words and the best order; it’s the best ingredients with the least amount done to them.

JA: Did you have traditional training in a culinary school? Have you been able to remain yourself, not too influenced by another style or chef?

GM: I’ve been able to work for very talented people. My apprenticeships working with people informed my understanding of technique. Some chefs have palates that have amazed me. The way they think creatively about building flavors and dishes, telling stories in food has been very powerful. The education that I’ve gotten in food, or in hospitality, has not only been from restaurants, but it has also come from the world. I haven’t done culinary school, but I know how to learn. I can turn that magnifying lens on a peach for the essence of that peach. I want to study animal butchery, I want to learn how to fix problems, or build a vinaigrette tolerant of high temperatures.

JA: Tell us about your experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

GM: Stone Barns does things the right way. They have a beautiful system, the practice of making food and caring for ingredients. They look deeply. They’ve created a formula that I don’t think could work anywhere else in the world. To achieve something that is satisfying on so many different levels, intellectually, practically, functionally - it’s something that you would struggle to replicate. The spirit of food being connected in every part of you, the ways that it was sourced, the ways that it was prepared, the ways that it’s been stored, the way that it’s been cooked. I learned to do things on a deep level as a form of respect.

JA: What was it like working for Thomas Moran at Le Petite Syrah in New Preston?

GM: I learned a lot from him about how to cook, how to think, how to move, how to work, both in his system and how to do my own thing. He gave me a lot of positive encouragement and some creative freedom to develop ideas.

JA: What do you find challenging working in a professional kitchen?

GM: There is a switch in my brain that lets me change my pattern when I’m in the restaurant mindset, especially in the kitchen as a cook mindset. I will go to the ends of the earth to make something happen, while in a different environment I have a hard time following instruction. The challenge of being a product of the Montessori education, a deeply ADD person, and somebody who has a problem with authority, it’s hard to have somebody say do it this way and just say yes. I can do that in a restaurant because of brute force. You need to be so clear about what you want, what you need, when you need it, as everything is happening at once. There is different language being used. The sense of urgency is vital and the navigating the forms of communication is intensely challenging.

JA: How do you handle tension in the kitchen?

GM: It is a pitfall that people working in restaurants, over many generations, have fallen into - they’re horrible to each other. We create this pressure for ourselves. Sometimes there is an imbalance between the guest and the host. There must be mutual respect for this type of environment to thrive, for me to do what I love.

JA: It has been said of you that you remain an oasis of calm. How do you maintain that in a busy kitchen?

GM: I ‘ve had good mentors that helped me see the dance for what it is. To know each table has its own rhythm. If you are choreographing the whole dance, each table can be perfectly in sync with the other tables, with the kitchen, with the bar.

JA: Has there been a downside, a dark moment when you were against the wall?

GM: All the time. Closing The Finch was a difficult decision. Covid forced me to make that choice. We did not want to pivot into being a different kind of a space, like a grocery store. Others chose that path to keep the lights on. I did not have the money to put into retooling, and didn’t have the appetite to fight with the landlord I was always in conflict with. Getting a restaurant open is tremendous success, telling the story is tremendous success, yet we hold ourselves to the standard of existing forever and making tons of money. I worked so hard to make that restaurant profitable, that when we shut down it was in some ways a relief. The opportunity to be there was magic.

JA: Were you sad that last moment closing the door to The Finch?

GM: I was one of many people doing that during Covid. Yeah, it’s still very hard.

JA: They say you made something great from nothing.

GM: I took a tattoo parlor and turned it into a restaurant.

JA: As your life moved from city to country, your personal life expanded with your wife FonLin Nyeu and your two sons, Jasper Fox Nyeu-McMackin and Blaise Tyger Nyeu-McMackin. Is it just a different set of pressures living in the country, or can you return to that original boy with the raspberry in his palm?

GM: I get to focus on different aspects of my life. Being in Litchfield County feels like home again. I’m with my family. My father is here, my mother is here, my sisters live nearby. I am renewing old relationships with people who had a big impact on my life. It is different type of kinetic energy I feed off here. I’m happy to have the knowledge and experience of spending 20 years of my life living in New York, but I am thrilled to have my kids go run around in the yard, thrilled to have a stream to wander along, or to just be with people at this pace now.

JA: Your clientele here in Litchfield County will be sophisticated group, but also a different mixture of people. How will your style adjust to not being in the city?

GM: Returning to this place is an incredible feeling and connecting deeply with this audience feels natural. Much of what I am inspired by is from this part of the world.

JA: For the average person, there has been a food renaissance which includes nutrition, the origins of your food, our microbiome, eating local foods, organic farming, composting food scraps, etc. Has your role as chef changed as well?

GM: I think a lot of what I do is teach. Not just how to follow a recipe, or how to build this dish. People come into the kitchen to learn as a part of their journey.

JA: Is it hard to create a team in the kitchen?

GM: You know that person you are training is not going to be with you forever. I would prefer to build a team, provide incentives for people to grow with the company, and commit to staying. It is hard to find cooks, servers, bartenders that want to stay together. I learned that valuable lesson at my first job at Hopkins Inn. To sit with everybody, no matter how deep in the weeds you are, to take the time to really be together as a team.

JA: What was it like to work for Martha Stewart?

As the Corporate Chef for merchandising, I built a line of retail food that we sold through Costco and did projects for the magazine. Martha is one of the magic creatures in the world of making food and lifestyle.

JA: How do you find balance with your personal and professional life?

GM: I took a period of family leave when my newest child Blaise was born. He is going to be two in in August, and Jasper will be 9. I had put a lower priority on making time to be with the kids, and be with my wife, and needed to change that.

JA: Tell us about creating The Finch. You said at the time, “The reason I made this place is not for the recognition. It’s to be a part of a conversation with our guests, with our staff, with all the cooks, with all the people who make or grow or produce the food we use.” Did you achieve those goals?

GM: The Finch was all my own doing, and it was magical. We opened in 2014 and it was everything all at once. Our success required me to apply brute force to what was going on. 8 1/2 months after The Finch opened, we had a baby. Just before that we found out we were getting a Michelin Star, then questioning what it means to get a Michelin Star? I see consistency as a part of why we were given the award. I don’t see it as the origins of our award. I see it as a vote of confidence and as an award for driving an exciting process. I was not trying to be fancy or formal, but because people are gravitating toward us, how do we make this thing make money? Is it impossible? OK, we can try and change these 17 things. It was all wonderful, it was all pressure, which that takes its toll over time.

JA: How did you balance working at The Finch and Troutbeck?

GM: I was doing both things seven days a week. That was hard on me, very hard on my wife and our baby. After closing The Finch, I joined Troutbeck fully. It was wonderful to work in that beautiful space, to be able to tell those kinds of stories, to practice the craft of doing things on a large scale.

JA: Please share with us your farewell to The Finch.

GM: I am overwhelmingly grateful. We have gone beyond what we thought was possible in making this restaurant live. It has been an honor, and we are full of the memories you helped us create. But it is time to close The Finch and find a new path.

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