We sat down with Henning Nordanger and Karen Flood, the founders of Henning’s Local at their new restaurant location in Cochecton, NY to learn more about their creative process and pioneering work.
Henning: We met in NYC. It must have been 13 years ago.
Karen: I had a vintage store in the East Village and we met across the street at a bar called DBA. It was the local bar that I would go to. I was part of a pool team and I was bringing the score sheet back to the bar. I had my Labrador with me and I had clipped him at the door but he ran straight to Henning. I was like, “I like you. You’re really tall.”
Henning: Probably because I smelled like food.
Karen: [Laughs] So I went back and asked my friend, “Who was that? That’s my man.” She later had a party where we met-met a couple months later.
Henning, where are you from?
Henning: I’m from Bergen, Norway. It’s the west coast of Norway. I moved to NYC in 1997. But I grew up and trained in Norway.
What kind of culinary training were you doing there and how long was your training?
Henning: It’s mostly based on French cuisine. Escoffier, traditional classic French cuisine. It was a three-year program in my case. It was one year in school and two years apprenticeship.
Karen, where are you from?
Karen: I’m from Hastings-on-the-Hudson. I moved to the city in 1978 to go to SVA and study fine arts. I had an apartment on St. Marks and I would walk to school.
St. Marks, wow.
Karen: Yeah, two 17-year olds on St. Marks Place. We were… it was a very special time [laughs].
Henning, when you came to New York, what were you doing?
Henning: Well, I came to travel. I took a six-month road trip in a beat up used car all across the country. And then I came to NYC and took a job working for a friend of a friend who opened up a new restaurant called 85 Down on Avenue A. I was the Executive Chef at Lansky’s Lounge after that, on Norfolk and Delancey. It was kosher when I started. I converted that restaurant into more of a grill steak type of place.
Karen: That’s where he brought back the Steak Diane.
Henning: This is true. I started making that there.
Have you both always worked together?
Henning: We have been working close together in the restaurant environment for about four years now. Prior to that, we really didn’t work much together.
Karen: We realized we had similar visions. I would say something and he would execute it. It was just really easy.
Henning: Yeah, we work well together. I remember when we were discussing opening up a restaurant. I had the professional, culinary background but was void of any front of house activity. I like it in the kitchen, that’s my force. I needed eyes and ears in the front, so it was natural for me to ask Karen. She helps me bring a lot of sensitivity into what I do because I went to a pretty rough school, training as a chef.
Karen: He can be tough.
Henning: The balance that comes out of it is a benefit for both of us.
Let’s back up a little bit. Karen, tell us a little more about your background.
Karen: When I got out of art school, I was too scared to make paintings and show them. So I stopped painting and started making clothes. It was easier for me to make clothes because if someone didn’t want it, I would be okay because I would wear it. I ended up with some people that gave me their vintage store (this is back in the day when things like this happened) and I sold my stuff out of there. Then I started costume designing out of the store and that was where my costume career took off working in downtown theater and film. I’m still costuming.
What was so scary about painting back then?
Karen: The process of painting and drawing to me is always about birth, life and death. That comes up every time; and every time I do it, I face that. And then showing all of that to somebody is just nerve wracking to me [laughs], but I’m getting better at it. I knew that when I got old, I would draw and paint again, and I’m doing it.
Karen, what was the first meal Henning has ever cooked for you?
Karen: Steak Diane, that’s how I fell in love with him. I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ If someone can make this and make it taste like love [laughs].
So you both are from NYC. When did you start coming up here?
Karen: We actually lived in Brooklyn and wanted a country house. We started looking over on the other side and then we ended up going through the Catskills and then here. We didn’t really know that we would meet so many people that were so amazing and like-minded.
Henning: We bought our house in 2006. We didn’t look too long but it felt right when we found our place. We didn’t think too hard over it. It just happened.
Karen: And then once we started coming up here, he decided he didn’t want to live in the city anymore. He wanted to wake up to bird song everyday so he started living up here and I would go back to the city and work and stay in the apartment and go back up.
When did you start Henning’s Local?
Henning’s: In June 2012. We opened Henning’s Local in Eldred, NY at the old, honorable Eldred Preserve, which has a lot of history. We landed on it a little bit by chance on a good lease and brought that building back to life. We started out small; we had no money. We felt like we had no money doing what we were doing (I even did some carpentry to get by). Then this restaurant came to us. Karen and I discussed it briefly and then it happened pretty quickly.
Karen: We had $600 to buy food once we were done renovating. We bought the food and sold it all in the first few days and we realized, ‘Oh, we have to buy more food.’
Is the name Henning’s Local a reference to your desire to serve locals local food?
Henning: That’s one aspect of it. The space that I took over at the Eldred Preserve was completely abandoned by locals. That was a very important part of it that I don’t talk about much. It was abandoned because of some local, home grown politics. I inherited a lot of stigma from an old place that had a lot of history. Of course, the local food and the environment were also very important to me. But it’s by locals for locals. I’d like to look at myself as a local. I’d like to hope and think that I can fill a niche or make an alternative in the market for things available to folks around here.
Henning: Since then, we have moved. The lease expired and we landed here and it’s been great. But the core idea of what we’re doing still lives, just in a new place.
For more information on Henning’s Local, visit www.henningslocal.com.