Downsizing is a dream come true
Story by Sarah Barden, photo by Michael Welch
Chef Orlando Rodriguez realized his lifelong dream of owning a restaurant in 2019 when he and his wife, Natacia, purchased GRAFT Wine + Cider Bar on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. In the months since, Rodriguez has embraced the changes from cooking in a large hotel restaurant to what might be the tiniest kitchen in the Finger Lakes.
After 12 years as executive chef at Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars, where he fed breakfast, lunch and dinner to over 1,000 people weekly from a corporate-size kitchen, Rodriguez’s solo venture has seating for about 20 with a kitchen roughly the size of a walk-in closet. The new space requires him to keep a tight menu, and dinner only for now. There are about eight offerings nightly; entrees rotate every couple of weeks and a handful of specials round out the offerings. Undeterred, Rodriguez sees the small space and his focused menu as serving two purposes: They keep things interesting for customers and he can easily adapt his menu for all the changing seasonal produce. While many perceive sourcing locally as more restrictive, Rodriguez holds that it presents exciting opportunities.
“I still have relationships with all the farmers that I used to work with [at Veraisons],” Rodriguez enthused. “I actually just finished a conversation with Ever Green Farm! We were talking about what we’re going to do for this upcoming season; he farmer Joely Zerby] grows some specific vegetables for me.”
Ever Green Farm in Rock Stream has, in fact, customized their crops for Rodriguez for the past 12 years, including growing specialty produce such as baby carrots and baby corn. Just as Rodriguez’s commitment to local foods is reflected in the menu, so is his Latin American heritage and the menu is a clear merging the two. He delights in finding local ingredients for his family recipes from the Dominican Republic.
“Right now I have Pollo Guisado, which is a braised chicken with pinto beans and jasmine rice. That’s a traditional Dominican dish,” he said. “Pinto beans already grow in the area. You can still get onions if you’re storing them. Chicken you can always get here; it’s not hard to do. You still have tomatoes that people are growing in hothouses and we’re still getting greens.”
As one would expect, the wine, cider and beer lists emphasize the Finger Lakes offerings as well, with area wines alone numbering around three dozen and a growing selection of artisan ciders.
“GRAFT to me is bringing everything together that is locally sourced from New York in one,” Rodriguez said. “We’re focused on fresh ingredients and fresh products.” With a kitchen that doesn’t even have space for a freezer, Rodriguez’s new digs force him to keep that focus on freshness. Which suits him just fine.
204 N. Franklin St.