Front of House



Saveur’s found­ing food ed­i­tor and for­mer test kitchen di­rec­tor are the main at­trac­tion at their new restau­rant, Canal House Station.

It was two years ago that Christo­pher Hir­sheimer first no­ticed a FOR SALE sign on the va­cant old train station in Mil­ford, New Jersey. She im­me­di­ately asked Melissa Hamil­ton, her busi­ness part­ner, to come see the place. “This build­ing—this build­ing—told us it wanted to be a restau­rant,” Hir­sheimer re­calls. “We said, ‘No, no…,’ and the build­ing said, ‘Yes. I want to be a restau­rant.’” Hamil­ton nods in agree­ment. “We have a thing,” she ex­plains. “We go on say­ing ‘no’ un­til some­thing makes us say ‘yes.’”

Both women live nearby, in the Delaware River Val­ley, where they met shortly be­fore Hir­sheimer co-founded Saveur in 1994. Twenty-five years into their friend­ship, the two com­mu­ni­cate in­tu­itively, con­serv­ing words and fin­ish­ing each other’s sen­tences as they talk about how food should be cooked, seen, writ­ten about, and en­joyed. Their dis­tinct vi­sion of culi­nary au­then­tic­ity has won them many ad­mir­ers: Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton have tested recipes and styled and pho­tographed food for cook­books by Jac­ques Pépin, Danny Meyer, Alice Waters, and the late Ju­lia Child.

For more than a decade, that work has been done largely in pri­vate, in rented stu­dios along the Delaware River. Ev­ery day, as Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton cooked and pho­tographed food at the be­hest of oth­ers, they made meals for them­selves, too, and wrote about what they were eat­ing on a blog called “Canal House Cooks Lunch.” Recipes from that blog grad­u­ally evolved into the quar­terly jour­nal Canal House Cook­ing, as well as the 2012 cook­book

Canal House Cooks Ev­ery Day. In Septem­ber, they pub­lished a sec­ond cook­book, Cook Some­thing: Recipes to Rely

On, which fea­tures a gor­geous jumble of green onions on the cover.

As straight-up and un­adorned as such artistry may ap­pear, it’s not easy to achieve. Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton’s grace lies in their knack for con­ceal­ing the dif­fi­culty of what they do—or per­haps, of not ac­knowl­edg­ing the dif­fi­culty at all, even to them­selves. Hir­sheimer’s pho­tos ap­pear “un­staged,” as Alice Waters puts it. “But they care about beauty. It shows in the way they de­sign a book, the way they put food on a plate, the way a ta­ble is set, and the way all of it re­flects that mo­ment in time.” The end re­sults, Waters says, feel “just-picked.”

Although the Canal House brand con­veys an af­firm­ing, un­fussy ap­proach to food, un­til re­cently you pretty much

needed to be a chef your­self to taste any­thing Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton cooked. There was no restau­rant to visit, only the recipes and im­ages to tan­talize hun­gry read­ers. Fi­nally, this past July, the pair at last put them­selves front and cen­ter, open­ing a restau­rant, Canal House Station, in the old Mil­ford train de­pot that hailed them. “We kind of missed peo­ple,” Hir­sheimer says, in her un­der­stated way.

TO GET TO CANAL HOUSE STATION, YOU drive on coun­try roads through rolling hills thick with tall-trunked trees; the Delaware River glints in the dis­tance. You pass vine-cov­ered si­los, red barns, and, in late sum­mer, farm­stands loaded with glossy egg­plants, golden cau­li­flower, pep­pers, ap­ples, and enor­mous black­ber­ries—a veg­etable spin on Willy Wonka’s candy fac­tory. What you see at these stands, you will likely en­counter at the restau­rant. “Ev­ery sin­gle thing we have is ephemeral—little squash blos­soms, figs, even the flow­ers,” Hir­sheimer says. “We do what is at the mar­ket. We don’t have a set menu.”

Their ren­o­va­tion of the stone-and-wood train station pre­served the 1874 build­ing’s orig­i­nal floor plan. An open kitchen now in­hab­its the cav­ernous for­mer freight room. To the left, a cor­ri­dor leads to two din­ing rooms, their walls painted a shade of gray that echoes the station’s ex­te­rior. To the right, there’s a ca­sual café with two long wooden ta­bles, a mar­ble bar, and a wood-burn­ing stove flanked with stacks of fire­wood. The over­all im­pres­sion is that of a large fam­ily home. Wild­flow­ers and trays full of mounded fruits and veg­eta­bles are scat­tered about ca­su­ally, almost as if by chance. It’s lovely, it’s unassuming—but it’s by no means ac­ci­den­tal. The ap­pear­ance of ef­fort­less­ness is part of the plan.

The morn­ing of my visit, Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton are in the kitchen, along with a pinch-hit­ter as­sis­tant, Li­lah Dougherty, who at­tended grade school with Hamil­ton’s daugh­ters. Hir­sheimer, the com­man­der, al­ter­nates be­tween toast­ing al­monds on one burner and mind­ing a pot of chicken stock on an-

other, while also slic­ing Manchego cheese and quince paste. Hamil­ton, the ad­ju­tant, chops ap­ples, rolls out dough, and snaps green beans. Dougherty peels parsnips, washes pots and pans, and awaits or­ders. All three wear the univer­sal chef’s uni­form of a boxy coat (a “man­darin-col­lared tu­nic,” in Canal House speak), dark pants, and clogs, their hair tied back. Forty-eight guests are ex­pected to­day, a full house. One group ar­rives early, and a server—hir­sheimer’s grand­son, Nash An­der­son—wel­comes them and leads them un­hur­riedly down the sunny cor­ri­dor to the din­ing room.

“We’ve got to keep our heads,” Hir­sheimer says off­hand, the only in­di­ca­tion of the ten­sion that un­der­lies the oper­a­tion. Hamil­ton nods and keeps chop­ping.

IN THE EARLY 1990S, HAMIL­TON WAS the mother of a tod­dler, with an­other baby on the way, and help­ing her fa­ther run the Hamil­ton Grill in Lam­bertville, New Jersey. She wanted to branch out and be­come a food stylist. Af­ter a pro

spec­tive em­ployer told her she’d need seven years of in­tern ex­pe­ri­ence first, Hamil­ton called Hir­sheimer at a friend’s sug­ges­tion. “You don’t need to go in­tern with any­one,” Hir­sheimer said. “I’ve gone to your restau­rant, and I’ve seen how you put food on the plate. You are a food stylist.” She in­vited Hamil­ton to drop by a Saveur shoot at a nearby gar­den.

“I ar­rived a little bit early,” Hamil­ton re­calls, and Hir­sheimer pulled up in a Volvo packed with gro­ceries. Hamil­ton of­fered to help her un­load. Hir­sheimer de­clined. Hamil­ton helped any­way, es­tab­lish­ing a backand-forth dance that hasn’t stopped since.

“Oh my god, I’m to­tally in love with this woman,” Hamil­ton re­mem­bers think­ing. Hir­sheimer asked her to her prep onions for the lapin à la moutarde that would fea­ture in the story. “I started to peel the beau­ti­ful onions, and I took off the tops and the stumps, and she said, ‘Maybe leave the root part, it’s maybe pret­tier like that?’” To Hamil­ton, this came as a rev­e­la­tion. “I saw there was per­mis­sion to make things more nat­u­ral and beau­ti­ful.” she says. “In­trin­si­cally, a thing is beau­ti­ful in it­self, so you may al­low it to be its nat­u­ral self.”

She con­tin­ued to as­sist Hir­sheimer on sets, in a free­lance ca­pac­ity, un­til 1999. Then, with Hamil­ton’s younger daugh­ter start­ing nurs­ery school, she went to work at

Saveur full time, as the test kitchen di­rec­tor. For the next few years, both women com­muted more than 60 miles to the mag­a­zine’s Man­hat­tan of­fice, while their homes, and hus­bands, re­mained in the Delaware River Val­ley. EV­ERY WEEK­END, CANAL HOUSE STATION SERVES “Sun­day din­ner” from noon to four. On the day I was there, the women were pre­par­ing a Span­ish feast, in­spired by a re­cent guest on their lo­cal ra­dio show, “The Canal House Kitchen Hour.” The sliv­ers of Man

chego and quince paste Hir­sheimer cut in the morn­ing joined the toasted al­monds in a tapas spread that also in­cluded fried squash blos­soms and red pep­pers stuffed with olives and saf­fron rice. Hamil­ton’s green beans were even­tu­ally scat­tered atop the main course, a chicken-and-chick­pea stew called co­cido. The chopped ap­ples were tossed with sugar and minced ginger, strewn over the dough, and baked into rus­tic tarts for dessert.

As the restau­rant’s guests—all four dozen of them—be­gan to ar­rive in a steady, leisurely flow, they be­haved more like com­pany than pa­trons. Some­times, when a group am­bled into the open kitchen, the cooks set down their knives and dis­pensed hugs be­fore re­turn­ing to work. Hir­sheimer and Hamil­ton are now hosts as well as cooks, and they stead­fastly refuse to let their ef­fort show.

“The truth is,” Hir­sheimer says later, while pour­ing glasses of rosé for her­self and Hamil­ton, “we just make it and put it on the plate. When we do it, if other peo­ple are there, it doesn’t look com­pli­cated. It almost looks like we’re not do­ing any­thing.”

Melissa Hamil­ton (left) and Christo­pher Hir­sheimer si­t­u­ated their new restau­rant in an old, 1874 train station (op­po­site).

Be­low: “When guests walk through the gar­den, they en­ter into our world,” Hir­sheimer says.

From top: Cloud-like pa­per pen­dants, from the Ja­panese com­pany Molo, strike a mod­ern note in one din­ing room. Hir­sheimer’s hus­band, Jim, made the restau­rant’s ta­ble lamps, with stamped tags spout­ing phrases like “Gotta Eat.”

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