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Livingston Manor. Population roughly 1,200. Charming hamlet on the southern edge of the Town of Rockland, bypassed by Route 17 and birthplace of local hospitality entrepreneur Sims Foster.
Also, the home-hamlet, as it turns out, of Foster’s newest head chef Vanessa Hadden, who used to frequent Hoos Bakery on Main Street—in a building owned by Sims’ dad Barry Foster. See how that all connects?
Hadden and her dad would make trips to the bakery, before it became the Lazy Beagle and later burned down, for Hadden’s favorite, jelly donuts. “I remember it very fondly,” the now-32-year-old said. “That’s what made me want to have a bakery when I was much younger… I wanted to bake for everyone.”
So she did. Hadden went on to get her culinary arts degree from Paul Smith’s School of Culinary Arts and Service M
anagement before spending eight months at the Prince Alyeska Resort in Alaska, which houses the AAA Four Diamond mountain-top restaurant Seven Glaciers. After that, she spent time in Charleston, S.C. working as a pastry chef at the seemingly massive Kiawah Island Resort, which operates 14 eateries and bars on its 10-mile-wide parameters of ocean-front beach.
Sounds like a lot of seafood, I said. Yes, she confirmed. A lot of seafood.
True to her donut-loving roots, Hadden got her pastry degree from Sullivan County Community College, before returning to the area to work, first as a sous chef, at The Arnold House on Shandelee Road in Livingston Manor.
“I always felt that the pasture would be greener somewhere else,” Hadden said, about returning to Sullivan County. “And every time I went there, it just was never quite right. So, I came back here and I’ve just kind of come to the conclusion this is where I need to be.”
Hadden’s parents are from Long Eddy and Roscoe. They met while they were working in the kitchen at old Tennanah Lake Hotel, where her dad was a pot washer and her mom was a dishwasher. (When I ask if they are also in the culinary industry, she laughs.)
The family used to own a house on Lake Muskoday, where Hadden remembers blueberry picking and having barbecues in the summer. “So, I always come back here, because those are the things that are important to me.”
We head into The Arnold House kitchen—empty, on a Wednesday afternoon. Hadden would normally be prepping, so I tell her to feel free. She moves around the stainless-steel-laden space, chatting, chopping onions, stopping to pose for a photo. She tells me she likes to garden and scrapbook. She used to make miniature dollhouses for fun.
“With, like, really tiny food,” she says. “That was an obsession for many, many years, and I had to give it up,” to make regular-sized food, for regular-sized people.
Accommodating seems to be the crux of what brings Hadden joy. “When I was a kid, I used to make very elaborate meals for my family,” she says. “They always used to say ‘You don’t have to go crazy and bring up the good china and the linens and stuff.’”
Hadden’s father, Clark—who, for the record, is partial to cinnamon buns—remembers those days. “We’d come in from work or whatever and there would be candles and all the fine settings and everything on the table and she’d have a fancy meal set out for us,” he said. “She just loves to make people happy. She always has.”
Setting out the fine China for her family, arranging mini platters in mini rooms (with mini fine China?) for pretend people, setting out a plate of fresh-baked cookies in The Arnold House’s immaculately designed hotel lobby, obliging picky customers. “For New Years, we had a lady come in and she was ‘sea-gan,’ which means she’s a vegan but she eats seafood,” Hadden says, genuinely excited at the prospect of making a single, special meal for one person on the busiest weekend of the season. “We accommodated her, and made a meal just for her, even though there was a set menu. She was just so happy and pleased and blown away that we were able [to do that] for such a huge weekend.”
“She just loves to make people happy. She always has.”
She enjoys the seasonality of working with local farmers. Of telling vacationers that the cheese they like so much is from Tonjes’ Farm right around the corner. Of seeing local ice fishers and hunters come in to warm up after a day out in the rough weather. I ask Hadden if she has the same positive attitude toward her staff. “The best way to do it, for me, is to be able to come in and be professional,” she says. “And, you know, be understanding with my team but be firm enough to say that ‘This is not acceptable. This is.’”
Hadden is unassuming, though her chosen career doesn’t exactly beg humility. Perhaps best exemplified by the unflinchingly cruel Lord and priest of the TV kitchen Gordon Ramsay, the position of chef has for some reason long been associated with a self-righteous, uber-machismo attitude that leads to good food and overworked employees. I mention this to Hadden, who just says, “The kitchen is a tough place.”
Fair. Here are the obligatory statistics about women in the kitchen: Nearly 80 percent of all chefs countrywide are male, according to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. For reference, this means that there is a smaller percentage of women in top-tier culinary positions than there are working in the tech industry, an infamously male-dominated workforce. It might be partially due to the pervasive stereotype that women who are good at cooking and accommodating are “motherly,” whereas men who exhibit those qualities are meant to be, well, head chefs.
"I can’t see myself having a nine-to-five desk job. I think that’s the biggest driver for me. I can’t do that. I grew up doing this for years.”
Whatever. Hadden’s wearing all black. She has neon green plugs in her ears that look like daggers and she wields a very sharp knife (to chop onions). She runs one of the top-rated eateries in the Catskills, plans on being a Michelin-Star chef, makes a stellar batch of locally sourced whiskey sausage fries, and she likes to scrapbook.
“There was a brief time that I thought that maybe this was not the career path for me,” Hadden said. “I had some experiences that didn’t exactly scream self confidence... [but] I don’t like to give up. I don’t like to give anyone that satisfaction. So, I just kept pushing and driving myself… to be better than what was expected of me.”
I can’t see myself having a nine-to-five desk job,” she continues. “I think that’s the biggest driver for me. I can’t do that. I grew up doing this for years.” From donuts in Livingston Manor to Alaska, and back to where she began. Which, it turns out, was in the exact same place we’re standing as she tells me this.
Hadden’s first job was washing dishes at Lanza’s Restaurant—which is now The Arnold House. See how that all connects?