A Chef Journeys from California to Springs

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For Kristi Hood, the proprietor of the Springs General Store for the last 11 years, everything started to change when she began thinking about raising a family.

Ms. Hood, the latest in a family line of strong and independent women, all of them cooks, had built an impressive resume by then. She had worked as a caterer and a cook at restaurants in California and on the East Coast, including Le Pavillon in Washington, D.C., and the Quilted Giraffe in New York. She left the latter job in the early 1990s after rising from line cook to chef in six years, a time during which her marriage ended and she first felt the urge to take a break and reflect.

When Ms. Hood makes a decision, she makes things happen. Six months after meeting a man through a personals ad in New York Magazine, falling in love and coming to live with him in East Hampton—a town the peripatetic California native had never seen before meeting him—she was pregnant with her first daughter, Molly, now 12.

Daughter Hunter arrived three years later. Both are students at the Springs School. Ms. Hood chose not to marry the man, Kevin Reynolds, now a massage therapist in East Hampton. “I wasn’t going to do that again,” she said of marriage.

It wasn’t just love and impulse that drew her east. She came to the country by design. She did not want to raise children in the city, she said. She also wanted them to grow up in one place, rooted in a community, as she had never been.

“For me, it’s such a treat they have friends they’ve known since they were born,” said Ms. Hood, “and to be a part of the community instead of having to fit in … being able to really set down roots.”

Ms. Hood was born in Riverside, California, in 1960. She had two younger brothers, one of whom died young and one who is now a computer programmer in Georgia. Her father worked for his father, a successful inventor who founded Hunter Industries (now Hunter Douglas), which developed a “continuous casting device for venetian blinds,” she said. Her mother was a housewife who divorced Ms. Hood’s father when Kristi was 6.

Ms. Hood had a “very typical California lifestyle,” she said, living “all over” California, depending on whom her stepfather was, and even London, where her mother went to live to attend the Cordon Bleu school of cooking. As her fifth marriage was breaking up, she brought Kristi and her surviving son with her to England and sent them off to separate boarding schools there.

“My mom came from the Elizabeth Taylor school of marriage,” Ms. Hood said. “You meet someone, you get married. Then when you get tired of them, you get divorced. Mom was a wild woman. She still is, but she’s mellowed.” She now lives on a boat in St. Thomas with her sixth husband and has visited Kristi a few times in Springs. Her dad is doing well, too, with a business in California, but they are not in close touch.

After boarding school, Kristi went on to a junior college in California “and basically didn’t have any money,” she said, so she started working on the side as a dishwasher and prep cook in a local restaurant. She eventually quit school, “disappointed with the level of education available to me … I was an English lit major,” she added, “and there’s not much you can do with that.”

She loved the work. “I’d grown up cooking,” she said. “It was no big deal for my mom to have 120 people over for dinner … Cooking was a big part of the family.”

There were often visitors from her grandfather’s company offices around the world. He believed that his guests should be treated to a grand dinner, but a home-cooked one as well. Preparation for big events began in the garden. “I remember going with my grandmother and picking asparagus and raw turnips,” Ms. Hood said. “She grew everything.”

Dining and entertaining were always important for Kristi’s mother, especially after she married a surgeon. “Entertaining was a big part of the medical community,” Ms. Hood said, “so we’d have 120 people over for Mexican food. We’d do cocktail parties. I was peeling shrimp and injecting fruit with Grand Marnier at age 12.”

Hers was a tempestuous family always at a boil, but food and cooking brought things to a gentle simmer. “We argued a lot. There was always a lot of stuff going on,” she recalled. “The one place everyone would be comfortable would be in the kitchen.”

“For me, when I was going to school and I got this restaurant job” at a “little vegetarian restaurant and art gallery in Monterey,” she said, “it was like, ‘You mean, people will actually pay me to do something I’ve grown up doing my whole life?’ I was washing dishes, and by the end of six months I was running the kitchen.”

She moved next to a restaurant in Carmel, where she met a music teacher who sold stereos. She was 21 when they got married.

It was the beginning of a career that culminated about 15 years later with her time as the chef at the Quilted Giraffe, which she left after its sale to Sony to begin teaching and freelancing as a caterer.

By then, she’d learned a key lesson, picked up while traveling in Europe. Taken along on a wine-buying trip in Burgundy by one of her bosses, she dined at restaurants grand and small. “What struck me the most was a little one-star called Le Petit Truc, run by a woman and grandmother. It was wonderful: potatoes in butter, homemade sausages, a beautiful salad, a perfect dessert.” Her boss said, “Oh, this is just woman’s food,” Ms. Hood recalled. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’

“The intellectual food in the four-stars is fun, but it doesn’t sustain you,” Ms. Hood added, “and you can only eat it once or twice a year. It’s all about stimulation, and excitement, and the next big challenge, and you get burned out. You get burned out cooking it and you get burned out eating it. For me, I wanted to do something that had more substance, more base to it.”

But first, as an alternative to all the hustle and bustle of working in commercial kitchens, she taught at the New School and catered on the side. That’s when thoughts of a more rooted life began to cook in her head.

Living in East Hampton is “great for my girls,” Ms. Hood said. She loves the fact that her kids, in their local history course, learn all about the Springs General Store, built in the 1840s as a house and store that doubled as the community’s first post office. She’s proud to know that, in school, her girls see their mother’s name listed as the last on the list of proprietors dating back more than a century. “I take that responsibility pretty seriously,” said Ms. Hood of her proprietorship and her work in the community. Among other volunteer work, she’s on the board of directors of the Springs Village Improvement Society.

The store, which dominates Old Stone Highway at the center of Springs, was known as Miller’s Store until recent years. It’s still owned by a member of the Miller family; Kristi is a tenant, both upstairs, where she and her girls live, and downstairs, where she runs the bustling deli.

The place bears little resemblance to its charming, but rustically shabby predecessors. All the food is homecooked by Kristi and her crew, from muffins and French toast to soups, salads and overstuffed sandwiches.

Maybe serving up good, simple, home-cooked food was in the back of her mind all along after she left the Quilted Giraffe, but she had no intention of taking on the kind of workload that running a store requires. That was all Kevin’s idea. She was reluctant to go along with him, she recalled, after the last proprietor told him she was selling and he leaped at the chance to take over. After a pleasant life of freelance catering, here in the summer and in St. John in the winter before the girls went to school, she knew what kind of dedication and commitment the store would take.

But they forged ahead and found the funding to buy the business and make some major changes and improvements. They worked together for several years. Things got a little rocky for the couple—but not for Kristi and the store. “The funny thing is, I ended up loving it,” she said. In 1997, she bought out Kevin.

For all the work, does she make a good living? “No,” she said flatly, because she’s “still paying everything off. But I live pretty comfortably. I’m a simple person. So I feel lucky. I can pick up the kids, I can create my own work environment …

“I’m the bookkeeper. I do a great percentage of cooking and ordering; Ida and Blanca help me … The thing I love is, I really am a jack of all trades. I’m a decent plumber and can do minor electrical work. I like to work with my hands. In a place like this, I really feel like I use everything that I know every day.

“And I’m lucky, because I love the people who work with me. We have a wonderful time. I love my customers, we have a fantastic time, and that’s the real pleasure. I would be hard-pressed to find a job where I enjoy coming to work every day.”

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