Meet the New Hazelnuts
We were thrilled earlier this year when our readers awarded Jonah and Christina McKeough and Hazelnut Kitchen with the majority of votes for a Local Hero Award for favorite Chef/Restaurant. Since opening their doors five years ago, Jonah and Christina served the most amazing dishes sourced from local ingredients in a lovely setting on Main Street Trumansburg. Hazelnut was THE place for locavores across the region who wanted to see what a talented chef did with our local produce. As we went to press with our spring issue we were saddened to hear that they had sold the business, but after spending an hour with the new owners we were quickly relieved to know one of our favorite restaurants would be as good as ever and that those farmer-chef relationships Jonah and Christina built up over the years would be in good hands. The new owners took over in May and from the looks and tastes of it, Hazelnut Kitchen will remain a Local Hero for years to come. We thought we’d give you a little introduction to the new owners and how they got here.
The New Hazelnuts
By Michael Welch
The Finger Lakes is a hard place to fall in love with in January, when even the most die-hard local is planning a temporary escape for a sunnier, warmer climate. But this past winter two out-of-towners fell hard for the Finger Lakes and made a pact to call it home, for personal and professional reasons.
Justin Paterson and Lisa Jonckheere were living and working in Chicago at the time. Justin was a chef at Province, a 3-star restaurant with South American and Spanish influences and Lisa was an assistant to a CEO in a private equity firm. But the couple dreamed of having a restaurant all to themselves in a nice little town where the local foods scene was thriving.
So that winter they packed up their car and went shopping. They knew they wanted to be in the Northeast, close enough to both their families (Lisa’s in Ottawa, Justin’s in Oswego). With a real estate listing of restaurants up for sale, they started in Burlington and drove their way south, stopping in all the little hippy, crunchy granola towns you would expect there to be a strong local foods culture.
But like all searches, the last place you look is usually where you find what you were looking for. Once Lisa and Justin set foot in Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg, they knew their trip was over.
“It was amazing to walk in here and see exactly what we had been dreaming about all those years,” says Lisa. “From the checker floor to the chalkboard menu to the open kitchen in the back. It was our exact vision for the kind of place we wanted.”
“And the menu matched the kind of food we wanted to do,” says Justin. “A real farm to table place with that perfect mix of fresh, local, seasonal with a blend of simple comfort and interesting flavors. We went home right away and put in an offer.”
Lots of paperwork and five months later they were the new owners of Hazelnut and, except for some nervous nights waiting for the liquor license transfer, it’s been a smooth transition.
In talking with Lisa and Justin about the local ingredients available and their plans to be part of the local foods scene, they were like kids in a candy shop. In fact they were visibly eager to get the interview over with so they could get to the six Finger Lakes wineries they planned to visit that afternoon.
“Wine is a real passion for me,” says Lisa. “I’ve spent years educating myself and working in the beverage industry. So I’m really excited to live in a wine region and to familiarize myself with what’s being produced here.”
Justin is as eager when it comes to the raw ingredients he’ll handle in the kitchen.
“You know, in Chicago the local foods we get are still from farms a couple of hours away. Yesterday we met with the folks from Blue Heron farms and their fields are about 12 miles from the kitchen. It’s hard to beat that kind of freshness.”
“They have the most amazing farm I’ve ever seen,” he continues. “I’m really looking forward to working with them.”
No stranger to local ingredients and local farmers, having worked with the people from Outstanding in the Field, the chef was equally impressed with Six Circles Farms garlic and the horse-driven farm at Good Life in Interlaken.
Regular diners will hardly notice the recent handoff. The majority of the staff stayed on with the new ownership, so in addition to familiar dishes, there will be familiar faces in the dining room.
“Obviously, Hazelnut Kitchen had a great formula going and we plan to stick with what’s been working,” says Justin. “We’ll keep the local focus, the prices will stay about the same and the menu will change monthly with plenty of daily specials to reflect what’s fresh and available from the farms.”
“But Matt and I (Matt Kelly, a trained chef and friend of Justin’s who moved to Trumansburg to work in the kitchen) are very DIY kind of chefs, so we plan to play around some. We want to make our own charcuterie and sausages, our own butter and crème fraiche, maybe ice cream too. We’ve got the best ingredients coming right to our doorstep and we want to make the most of them.”
“And we’re really excited about the town. We love living above the restaurant and not having to do the city commute,” says Lisa. “Trumansburg already feels like home and everyone has been so welcoming.”
With newly acquired addictions to Gimme! coffee and New York Pizzeria, the couple is fitting in well and behaving just like the locals. Serving their new neighbors good food and wine that comes from nearby is a point of inspiration for Lisa and Justin.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than creating a space where people can come and have a great meal,” Justin says.