THE THINGS WE HAD ON HAND
Inez Valk’s passive solar, earth-bermed house in Delaware County is two octagons joined by a kitchen in the center; its footprint looks like the diagram of a molecule. We sit down in the living room, under an asterisk of exposed ceiling beams in the main octagon. Around us are vintage school desk chairs, raw wood, and earth tones, perfectly arranged porcelain plates on display — each one different — and the strainer full of wild blueberries Valk picked just before I arrived, set next to an issue of Diner Journal.
I ask her about her sense of design. “That’s too much credit, to call it ‘design,’ Valk says. “It’s just what was on hand.”
She points out stark, simple bookshelves from a local sawmill; a sheepskin from the woman who supplied her restaurant with lamb; pillows made by “two guys who make pillows in Delhi.” When she arrived, the floors were done in terrible terra cotta tiles the color of vodka sauce. An artist who worked front-of-house at the restaurant, Laura Taylor, emulated the style of Phoenician plaster to redo them in a swirly, warm-gray finish that looks like the surface of a frozen pond at night.In Valk’s early 20s, her career as a model brought her from Amsterdam to New York. “But it was a job I found utterly boring,” she’s quick to say. “A great opportunity as a young kid to travel and see bits and pieces of the world, but other than that…” — the “model-turned restauranteur” angle of Table On Ten’s press doesn’t feel right to her at all.
Her bookshelves line two walls. My eye is drawn to all the bold one-word titles: BREAD. MEAT. SALTIE. GJELINA.
Valk circumnavigates the thought, searching for a graceful way to say it: A brilliant thing about living upstate is that you connect with people who are different from you. Older people, younger people, with different occupations, of different orientations — people you wouldn’t be likely to connect within the city. “There’s a much more diverse community,” Valk says, “and you need them.”
When she relocated from New York, she needed firewood, produce, techniques to manage the weather and the climate in a place where the seasons are extreme and where day-to-day life is a constant physical engagement. She began to find her community.
Early on, Valk bought a big, white building on Route 10 in Bloomville. It had offices for renting out, and extra rooms for hosting friends from the city. “At first, it was simply a community gathering place,” Valk says. “I thought of it as kind of a beehive. A physical space to come together, especially when everything is digital. It filled a need. But I knew it could not be this exclusive clubhouse for people from the city. I needed to do something that would bring all kinds of people in.”
What — for all these different kinds of people — could be the common denominator that would bring her upstate world together? Well, she thought, everyone loves food.
Valk had no background in restaurants — unless you count having helped make pies and lay the floor for her friends at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus, Brooklyn while waiting for her work permit years ago. But eight summers ago, on the bottom floor of her big white building in Bloomville, she threw open the doors to her own restaurant. This was Table on Ten.
“We started out with two sandwiches and a really good espresso machine,” she says. “A couple of months later, we added a brick pizza oven.” Pizza was something Valk felt confident she could do well. Plus, she thought of pizzas like canvases — the perfect way to showcase local ingredients. “We kept it simple,” she says, “and when I say ‘we,’ I mean a team.” There was someone manning the oven, someone stretching the dough, someone propping the toppings, someone washing the dishes, someone keeping the books, local suppliers for every item they served.
Diners came to Table on Ten from hours down the river, and from just up the road. Thursday to Sunday, it’s full of first-time visitors and familiar faces from all walks, who feast on what Valk calls honest, down-to-earth, delicious food. “The community of young people is bigger than it looks when you drive through Delaware County. I don’t want to use the word homesteading, but, we were all figuring out the same things at the same time,” Valk says. When she first arrived, everyone wanted to learn how to grow their own food, to garden, to build, to use what was on hand.
On hand, Valk realized she had an amazing bounty, from maple syrup to raw milk to cows, chickens, and sheep. The Table On Ten team began to build a network of local producers. When she saw the breadth of what was available, she became obsessed with sourcing ingredients as locally as possible. “We had this map of ingredients within a certain radius,” she recalls. “At one point, we realized we could even get salt from Seneca Lake. It was going too far!” And in the spirit of her not-quite-design knack for using what’s on hand, the space is a reflection of the work of local craftsmen and local artists, offering up what they can.
We’re on the stone patio in front of the octagons, and it’s threatening rain. For all eight years of its life, Valk has been “in the trenches” at Table On Ten, involved in its every phase of operation. If she’s honest, she says the restaurant was always just a five-year plan, meant to propel her on to some other phase of her life. “Five turned into eight,” she tells me. “Now, it’s a profitable business.” And, it has Airbnb rentals and a beloved brand with praise from Vogue. But that’s no reason to hang around. “I want to change things up,” Valk says, hinting at other opportunities. Some of them she can’t discuss just yet. “I can say I’m definitely not opening another restaurant.” (She can’t stress this enough.)
There is one project she is ready to talk about: As Table On Ten grew more popular, and as Valk sought to find her footing in the restaurant world, she found a mentor in Elizabeth Schula of Williamsburg’s Saltie sandwich shop, who has since also become a confidant, friend, and collaborator. Now, they’re working on a cookbook — to Valk, the perfect last chapter in the Table On Ten adventure.
It must be hard to imagine letting go of something you created from scratch, I say. The restaurant is like an extension of herself — the people she wanted around her, the food she wanted to eat, the paintings on the wall she wanted to look at every day — and that’s a strange thing to leave in someone else’s care. But now it waits on the market, ready for a new owner. “It’s scary,” Valk says, as raindrops start to land on the stone around us. “But I’m ready for something different.” Whatever she finds next, we suspect she’ll make the most of it.