Fearless and Imaginative, John Novi Borrows from All the World to Create His Own Cuisine
The pumpkin chunks in beer batter had just come out of the deep fryer when John Novi accidentally knocked them into the cream of cauliflower soup. Scratch one appetizer—pumpkin chunks served with tart cranberry sauce, cottage cheese and maple syrup. Novi watched the toasty cubes settle into the thick white soup. Contrasting colors, harmonizing textures, complementary flavors…Zounds! It went on the menu that night.
By serendipity or design, ideas befall Novi constantly. Most of them proceed directly to the astonishing, ever-evolving menu of his DePuy Canal House in High Falls, N.Y., a village in corn-and-apple country alongside the gentle Shawangunk Mountains, 100 miles north of Times Square.
Novi often says he cooks “without boundaries,” an idea embodied in dishes such as his hominy vichyssoise, his Szechuan sautéed breast of pheasant stuffed with sausage and pistachio nuts, or his sweetbreads and sauerkraut marinated in Russian vodka and wrapped in Greek filo dough.
He also shops without boundaries. At least once a month Novi tosses Styrofoam coolers into his VW station wagon and drives to Manhattan, taking on rice paper and Japanese somen noodles in Chinatown, tripe and pork liver from an Italian butcher on Ninth Avenue and pigs’ ears and tails in Spanish Harlem.
By any yardstick, Novi, 41, is one of America’s most exciting cooks. “He’s extraordinarily creative, ambitious and tenacious,” says food writer Gael Greene, author of the best-selling novel Blue Skies, No Candy. To Craig Claiborne, dean of American food writers, Novi is “incredibly innovative and inspired. I don’t think you could categorize his cooking. It’s really his own nouvelle cuisine. I think he began nouvelle cuisine before the term was ever introduced in Europe.”
Though not as well known as such chefs as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. and Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles, Novi is equally an exemplar of what has come to be known as the New American Cuisine. Yet Novi’s fearlessness and sense of play make many of the New American chefs, with their emphasis on native U.S. ingredients and regional recipes, seem almost conservative. “The freedom people have with food in this country,” Novi says, “is the same freedom we have in every area, and that’s what I consider American. Not using American ingredients, necessarily, but having the freedom to know, and experiment with, everything.”
Placing ingredients in unexpected contexts “liberates and redefines” them, Novi believes. Take Novi’s cold lime and garlic soup, which he serves with a dollop of guacamole. The warming garlic sets off the bracing lime, and vice versa, while the guacamole, in its novel surroundings, leaps forth as if newly invented. He also serves guacamole in a cottage cheese and lettuce soup. The island of muted green floats in a white sea flecked with bright green. “I’m really into colors,” Novi says, laughing, “and I never took LSD.”
Without being pushy, Novi engages in what might be called meal engineering. To keep people from spoiling their appetites before the Canal House’s prix fixe eight-course dinner (about $35 per person, plus tax and tip; there is also a three-course dinner), he withholds bread and salad until after the entree. Having noticed that “nine times out of 10 people never eat the heart of an artichoke,” which he thinks is the best part, he steams the artichoke in garlic, oil and white wine, purees the heart and centers it on a dish with the leaves fanned out flat around it. “That way the heart is the most prominent thing,” he says. He does take customer sensibilities into account. After some objected to looking at the heads of the whole fish he served, Novi began serving the creatures with dough masks over their kissers.
As a setting, the DePuy Canal House (open Thursday through Sunday) is worthy of its gustatory marvels. It’s a two-story stone tavern, built in 1797 by Simeon DePuy, a local businessman. It later served the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which ran through High Falls from 1828 to its demise in 1899. With 4,500 borrowed dollars, Novi bought the vacant building in 1964, when he was 22, renovated and decorated it himself and opened for business in 1969. The fireplaces work, the furniture and art is of the period, the placemats are refurbished roof slates and the menus are hand-printed on oak-framed, translucent glass panels, backlit at each table by a candle.
The kitchen is perfectly Novian—spacious, informal, bubbling with culinary oddments, collectibles, stereo music, fresh herb and flower bouquets, friends, neighbors. Overhead hangs a medley of old copper pots, some big enough to cook a missionary in.
If the kitchen resembles a junkman’s paradise, it’s in the blood. Novi’s father, Ralph, ran a “corrugated waste materials” business in Brooklyn before the family moved upstate in 1955. “My room was always filled with things bought at yard sales,” Novi says.
When John, who is the youngest of three children, was in high school, he delivered Italian frozen foods for the business his parents had opened in the house. But Novi chafed at working under a father who “would never turn anything over to me, never give me any confidence.” When Pop went into the hospital for a glaucoma operation, the kid made his move. Backing a truck up to the staid corner store the Novis had bought, John emptied the place and sold everything up the road for $250. With the proceeds, he created a bustling bakery and pizzeria. When Pop walked in three months later, his eyes bugged. “He accepted it and took it over,” John says, “but he never gave me any credit.”
John’s parents had grown up in a small town south of Naples called Angri, and John went there for eight months in 1968 to work in restaurants—the closest thing to a formal culinary education he ever had. “I couldn’t stop for gas without meeting a relative,” he says. Yet work was impossible to find until an aunt took him to see Don Pannuzzo, an influential local priest. The Don made one telephone call and Novi was on his way.
Upon his return, Novi opened the Canal House. Eight months later Claiborne happened by (Novi wasn’t even sure who Claiborne was at the time) and gave the place his highest rating, four stars, even though he had to make his own margaritas because no one on the tiny staff knew how.
As a kid, Novi hadn’t cared about food particularly, but he did, as now, have his idiosyncratic tastes. “I loved Jell-O made really hard,” he confesses. “When it sticks to the bottom of the bowl? I used to go crazy for that.”
He learned cooking at his mother’s side. Ralph died in 1971, but white-haired Marie Novi, 70, remains an important member of the Canal House cast, baking the daily bread and some desserts, including a to-die chocolate fudge cake. “He’s like me,” she says. “If he no like how it says in the book, then he change it.”
John, who is divorced, sees his children, Tavan, 10, and Danielle, 6, weekly. Tavan is now learning to flambé, though it’s more the spectacle than the taste that excites him. Novi is sometimes swamped by what excites him—painting, restaurant design, historic preservation, travel. He says wistfully, “I could be happy cooking for 10 people a night for the rest of my life.” The way he cooks, it’s unlikely he’ll get it down to that number any time soon.