Meet the Chef: Cheryl Paff of Black Eyed Suzie’s Upstate
Any local who considers themselves a serious foodie is already familiar with the mouth-watering fare that comes out of Black-Eyed Suzie’s Upstate. Having operated a wildly popular cafe in Saugerties NY for nearly a decade, Cheryl and her partner Chef Juan Tzitzimititila recently relocated their cheerful, laid-back vibe to bustling Uptown Kingston with new digs that boast a modern country chic. Cheryl and Juan will continue to serve their popular family-style take-away and provide lucky customers with their superior catering services. And you’ll love their new gourmet retail section which features an expertly curated selection of specialty grocery items and their best-selling prepared foods “grab ‘n’ go” dishes. You know their foodie fans will follow!
Take it from us – you have to make the trip for their signature Buttermilk Fried Chicken alone! So let’s Meet the Chef: Cheryl Paff…
INSIDE+OUT: Hi Cheryl, tell us a bit about yourself. Where were you born and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Cheryl Paff: I was born in Troy, NY and moved to NYC after college. My partner, Chef Juan Tzitzimititila, was born in Puebla, Mexico, and moved to NYC as a teenager. We met in New York at my first restaurant, Black-Eyed Suzie’s Organic Café. I moved back to the Hudson Valley to be closer to my family and nature. Juan followed several years later.
What inspired you to become a chef? What was your journey?
My father definitely inspired a love for food and cooking when I was very young. He always made a long-simmering soup, sauce or homemade bread and offered tastes and bites throughout the process. I remember experimenting with my parent’s 1970’s electric wok and making my first dinner for my family when I was just 9 years old.
You recently moved your catering business from Saugerties to Kingston. What prompted the move?
Well, moving wasn’t exactly our choice. Our landlord reneged on a pre-covid verbal agreement to renew our lease so that they could take advantage of the booming real estate market by putting the building up for sale. We choose to make the best of a crummy situation by growing our business in a new space that we love.
Can you share more about your vision for the Kingston space? How do you see your business unfolding in the new location?
The first time we saw the Kingston space, we all knew right away that it was the perfect fit for us. The building is beautiful and spacious, with plenty of parking and a great location at the gateway to the historic city of Kingston, NY. We have a specialty food shop featuring all of our best-selling prepared foods, healthy grab ‘n go meals and a curated selection of specialty grocery items. We’ll continue to offer our Family Style Take Away program with delivery to Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Saugerties & Kingston. The program is a great way to stock your fridge with wholesome meals to have on hand throughout the week. We also have drop-off catering, which we anticipate being in huge demand this Spring & Summer.
As the owner and chef, what inspires your menu? How often do you change it?
Our menu changes seasonally. My background is in farmers’ markets so I love to see what is in season locally and create a menu around that. We also love to have fun with holiday menus like offering Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie for Memorial Weekend and Lobster Rolls & Homemade Marshmallows for the 4th of July.
The restaurant/catering industry has seen much change and disruption with Covid. How are you adapting and is there a silver lining?
We have pivoted more times during the pandemic than we care to remember. It hasn’t been easy, but we have found ways to make it work. For example, our Family-Style Take Away program took off in a big way as people became fatigued with cooking every meal at home. The program allows you to stock your fridge with wholesome meals to reheat throughout the week. The menu changes weekly and focuses on items that store, freeze or reheat well. It has been a win-win for both our customers and us. Customers have been so appreciative, kind and generous. It feels great to be able to provide meals that make their lives easier while keeping us cooking and operating.
What is your company’s “culture” and how do you inspire your staff?
We have truly worked together as a team, especially throughout the pandemic. We spend lots of time talking and figuring out how to manage our way through and pivot to accommodate changing customer needs while keeping staff and customers safe. What really inspires the staff, though, is the relationships they develop with customers. Our small scale allows us to get to know each other in a way that a larger scale business does not.
What do you love most about living + working in the Hudson Valley?
I love the strong agricultural community with so many farmers’ markets and farm stands as well as the close access to nature for hiking, biking, kayaking, etc.
You have a loyal fan base. What impact does your business strive to have on your community?
We love being a part of our customer’s special occasions. We have seen couples have their first dinner date, celebrate Valentine’s Day with us, get engaged, cater to their wedding, then bridal and baby showers, and suddenly we are celebrating baby’s birthdays. It’s very special to us.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
Farms2Tables has been a godsend for us. They are a distributor for local farms. They have a great app that shows you which farms have what products available each week so that you can order all in one place. We used to drive all over the valley to source ingredients and they have made it so much easier to source local ingredients.
What’s missing in the area that you wish we had?
What is your favorite thing to eat/cook when you’re home alone or with your family?
I love vegetables and always have bowls and baskets full on my kitchen counters. I simply toss them with olive oil, salt & pepper, roast them and serve them with an herby sauce.
Tell us something about yourself people might be surprised to learn?
My business partner Juan & I have been working together for 25 years. Juan came to work at my first restaurant in New York in 1997 and we became business partners in 2015. It’s been a great working relationship that I’m very grateful for.
Name three things you always have in your fridge or pantry.
A hunk of cheese, popcorn kernels for stovetop popping, and a variety of finishing salts like Maldon, Smoked Sea Salt, Yuzu Salt, etc.
What was the best dish or meal you’ve ever had and who made it?
Some of the best meals that I’ve had have been street foods while traveling. Just before Covid, my husband & I traveled to Zurich, Switzerland during Dec ‘20, and the city was filled with festive Christmas markets where we had Raclette, grilled Wursts served with great mustard, and mulled wine! Served outside by a cozy fire–nothing tasted better.
Could you share a recipe for one of your favorite dishes?
Yes! I’d love to share my recipe for Rhubarb Johnnycake. It’s a recipe that I adapted from my great-grandmother. She had huckleberry bushes on her property and if we picked the berries she’d make us Johnnycake with them. I use a local corn flour from Wild Hive Farm and change the fruit seasonally. The rhubarb version is my favorite though. Recipe > HERE
Confession time! You have to admit, after scrolling through these gorgeous food pics that you’re dying to bite into each one.
We’ll you know where to go!
Black-Eyed Suzie’s Upstate
Executive Chef Cheryl Paff & Chef Juan Tzitzimititila
14 Hurley Ave, Kingston, NY
ONLINE ORDERS for Family-Style Take-Away
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Read all of Inside+Out’s MEET THE CHEF SERIES
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Chef Isaias Lira | Lis Bar | Kingston NY
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Chef Clare Hussain | Runa | New Paltz NY
Chef Christoper Weathered | Mill & Main | Kerhonkson NY
Chef Elizabeth Steckel and Dirk Schalle | The Gunk Haus | Highland NY
Chef Cheryl Paff and Chef Juan Tzitzimititila | Kingston NY | Black-Eyed Suzie’s