Diasporic Cuisine: Finding a Sense of Place at Serevan
What prompts enduring culinary creativity in a chef, harmony or conflict?
Obviously there is no stock answer for such a query as it is highly dependent on whom you ask, but if you were to ask Serge Madikians, the vital and passionate chef and owner of Serevan in Amenia, he might even advocate for harmony, but one could argue that conflict remains more of a key ingredient in his culinary perspective. This is not to say that Madikians is a thorny or even confrontational character. On the contrary, his abiding warmth and bonhomie posit him as a singular character on the valley’s culinary scene. But in gathering a perspective on Madikians and getting a window into his creative process, where he draws deeply from the best of local ingredients as well as a wealth of his own experiences and cultural history, one is left with a resonating flavor of a beautiful and expressive sturm und drang.
Serevan sits demurely and solely atop a steep hill, about a half-mile outside the main crossroads in Amenia. It is a converted farmhouse dating back to the 1880s that had seen numerous years of neglect before Madikians purchased it and opened the restaurant in 2005. The two dining rooms, abutted by an open kitchen, are attired in a shabby chic manner, but not without a sense of composition and relative elegance. Along the walls and above the mantle of the fireplace in the main dining room are a vast collection of family photos and appendages from Madikians’ upbringing as an Armenian in a cosmopolitan, prerevolutionary Tehran. There are aged family photos, including images of Madikians’ father, who played violin in the Philharmonic in Tehran, as well as photographs of his extended family on holiday at the Caspian Sea. Madikians is hardly shy about his reverential longing for these times of family and prosperity. He holds dear memories of boat rides with his mother, where watermelons were tied to the sides of the boat and thrown overboard to keep cool and later enjoyed picnic style with fresh feta cheese. Madikians also recalls what might be the defining moment in his formative years where he, then a budding young piano player, laid on his stomach in his parents’ garden to watch a rainstorm sweep over a bed of pansies. What he witnessed was not the simple watering of a flowerbed but a level of disturbance and inherent musicality that was to be found in seemingly everything the world had to offer. As Madikians explains it, “I was composing a note of music to every drop as they rained on the flower petals…and I knew I had to identify a voice within me in which I could express myself.”
Madikians assuredly found that voice in cooking, and more specifically in his ownership and creation of Serevan, named after a bird discovered by French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat. As chef, Madikians feels composing flavors and finding culinary balance is the most genuine and sincere medium of expression, and in many respects, his most deliberate efforts are not simply to create an enjoyable dining experience but to find his own gratification. Such gratification for him comes from a sense of discipline, or a sort of taming of the chaos, whether it is manifest in the kitchen, his business dealings or deep from within. Much of this he learned later in life in his 30s, when Madikians retreated from a career in public policy in Manhattan and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, where he received his initial culinary training. But he would argue that the true discipline, as well as inspiration, came from his years of working under the famed chef David Bouley in New York City. “Really, the value of working with David Bouley was about what I extracted from that entire experience, which was to follow my inspiration,” Madikians asserts.
This inspiration has shifted over the years but arguably only intensified over time and with more varied experience. One of the more momentous shifts was when Madikians left Manhattan behind and took a position as chef at a fledgling eatery, located in the small Catskills town of Bovina, that stressed local food from local ingredients. He remembers it as a time of “intense spiritual and psychological” transformation.
“My experience in Bovina taught me how very little I knew about the connection between nature and cooking—it scared me into a new level of awareness.” He was immediately removed from the sometimes clinical reality of New York City kitchens and plunged into an existence that required him to butcher a lamb and source ingredients in a hyper-local fashion. This awareness only became more amplified over the years once he found his independence, as well as his voice, in the initial opening and continued evolution of Serevan.
In this age of farm-to-fork eateries throughout the Hudson Valley, it is hardly a challenge to find a restaurant using choice local ingredients and elevating local fare to new culinary levels. But there remains an expressed elegance, artistry and singularity to the food at Serevan, which Madikians defines as “Hudson Valley food cooked through the prism of an Armenian and Iranian perspective.” On any given day, Madikians can be found behind the wheel, sometimes even before sunrise, trekking out to local farms like Montgomery Place Orchards in Red Hook to gather up stone fruits or cherries for his house-made clafoutis. Or he may be simply gathering Persian cucumbers, edible flowers and herbs from his own garden adjacent to the restaurant that he will employ in his Armenian yogurt soup or his Pigasso Farms chicken with cucumbers, preserved lemons and house-marinated olives. On select days, when the weather is agreeable, Madikians embarks on his ultimate sourcing errand by taking to the skies. He recently earned his pilot’s license, which affords him the playful luxury of flying a small, rented plane out of neighboring Great Barrington Airport directly to Provincetown in Cape Cod, where he stocks up on all manner of fresh shellfish and seafood to augment all of the other local ingredients on the Serevan menu. A recent early morning Facebook status update from Madikians simply read:
"I F L Y 4
C L A M S
O Y S T E R S
M U S S E L S
S C A L L O P S"
While Madikians will talk a blue streak about the musicality of his creative process and all of the sensual energy that goes into his culinary expression, he will demure and say he is ultimately “just a cook” and that this journey he is on is less about perfection of the sanctity of culinary expression, but it is about a form of constant “rediscovery.” And in that respect, with the restaurant being, not a fixed entity, but an evolving culinary life force accessing darkness and light, musicality and dissonance, local cuisine and cultural memories, Madikians finds his particular kitchen, as well as his role as chef, plenty interesting and satisfying.