AT 5:30am, THE MOST horrible alarm sounds. I grab a cup of coffee and ever-so-quietly sneak out of the house at 6, head north straight up Rt.9 through a thick fog (mirroring the one in my head) and pull up to the Montgomery Place Orchards farm stand. I’m greeted by the very-much-awake Talea Fincke (the warm, smart farmer/mother/wife of Montgomery Place) and her daughter Caroline (a blond, blue-eyed young woman). Talea and her husband, Doug, grow everything that is Montgomery Place Orchards.
Then arrives chef Serge Madikians, of Serevan, in Amenia. A dark, deep-voiced Armenian/Iranian intellectual provocateur, Madikians starts fast and stays at that speed all morning. The four of us walk the orchard while Doug narrates the history of the farm. “Janet Livingston Montgomery bought the property in 1802, or something like that, from a Dutch apple farmer,” he begins. “So, actually, there were orchards here before 1804—so it’s really super old. The property was passed down through different members of the Livingston family all the way up until 1985, when the last Livingston descendent inherited the property.”
Honey Crisps are our Britney Spears—they take a lot of work to look good.
Like many of the old estates on the Hudson, the property declined as the wealth dripped away. “The house was in disrepair; the orchards were struggling. Sometimes it did well, and then it didn’t do so well—it depended on who owned the mansion at the time and how much money they wanted to put into the farm,” Fincke continues. “We were working in Virginia and we felt like we were ready to run our own place, so we answered an ad for orchard managers and they hired us. We had to do a lot of work. About three years later, they ran out of money because of [the expense of] restoring the mansion. We shifted to leasing the land and built our own business.”
The land (152 acres with 40 acres under cultivation) belongs to Montgomery Place, part of Historic Hudson Valley. The Finckes decided to cultivate apples (including Ashmead’s Kernel, Honeycrisp, Sweet 16, Karmijn De Sonaville, Gala, McIntosh, Swiss Gourmet, Jonalicious, Pink Pearl, Chestnut Crab, Hewe’s Virginia Crab, Macoun, El Star, Cortland, Jonathan, Kidd’s orange red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Lamb Abby Permain, and Crimson Topaz) along with a variety of other produce, including peaches, nectarines, strawberries, string beans, pears, tomatoes, quince, garlic and table grapes.
With a wry sense of humor that Tina Fey would appreciate, Talea tells us how, and why, they’ve renamed the apples. “My dad always said that a Rome was like a Las Vegas showgirl—all good looks on the outside and nothing on the inside,” she smiles. “The Golden Russet is Ben Franklin—one of the antique varieties. The Cortland is Grandpa Walton—it’s got a little bit of sass in it but it’s very steadfast and good. And what’s life without a little fluff? Galas are like Paris Hilton—eye-catching—and Honey Crisps are our Britney Spears—they take a lot of work to look good.”
Raised in Tehran by Armenian parents (Iran is home to Armenians, Turks, Balochis Kurds and other cultures), Madikians was Assistant Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Buildings in New York before stepping, at age 37, into The French Culinary Institute, which led to a year-long externship at Jean-Georges. From there it was on to La Caravelle, The Monkey Bar and then to his most transformative experience—at David Bouley’s Danube. “I didn’t even know how to hold a spoon, or how ‘to be’ in a kitchen,” he says. “The artistry, craftsmanship and cooking at Danube really helped me formulate a sensibility of my own.”
An unhappy stint as chef in the East Village led Madikians to the idea that many of the great chefs of Europe achieved success outside the big cities. He took a year to work outside of New York City and built relationships with the farms and farmers he works with now. “Serevan for me is a reflection of my aesthetics and my sensibility. It is an environment in which I can materialize my sensibility and my sense of passion and my sense of excitement and enlightenment and inspiration,” he says.
Montgomery Place Orchard products show up in a variety of dishes and cocktails at Serevan. The gorgeous sweet/tart flesh of a Pink Pearl apple goes into lamb stew and as a complement to pork and fish; a cooked-down version—with a hint of cinnamon, cardamom and star anise—goes into a fall cocktail called a Pink Zoya, Madikians’ version of an appletini—the name is homage to a lost, beloved dog. “I’ve learned to let go of a lot and I’ve learned to be a lot truer to myself,” Madikians says. That his Middle Eastern heritage subtly shines in combination with Hudson Valley terroir is a little inner contradiction that keeps things interesting, he adds. “My cuisine evolved over the years—you can’t call it ‘Mediterranean’ and it’s not really ‘Hudson Valley’—it’s a combination. It has strokes of Middle Eastern flavors, Armenian flavors, but it grows—it comes out of the Hudson Valley.”
Without the mutual respect that drives their relationship, Madikians acknowledges he wouldn’t have the tomatoes, the apples, or for that matter anything else from the Finckes and Montgomery Place. “It takes a lot of work and discipline for us to do what we do, but above all [it takes] respect,” he admits. “I am one of the luckiest guys in the world because I get to do this with all the pleasures, with all the discomfort and with all the failures. And trust me—I’ve had plenty of failures. That’s what life is.”