12 People to Watch in 2009
Our 12 People to Watch in 2009
(page 5 of 11)
Photograph by Dan Stein
Megan Fells & Charles Fells Jr.
By: Lynn Hazlewood
Chef Charlie Fells grew up in Poughkeepsie, and remembers when Main Street was a thriving thoroughfare. As a child (he’s 42 now), he’d shop with his parents at M. Schwartz, a clothing store that went out of business in the 1980s, after the malls began draining commercial life from downtown. Although the city tried to reverse the trend by converting two blocks of Main Street to a pedestrian mall, it wasn’t long before most of the remaining shops were forced to close or move. As storefronts were boarded up, vagrancy and crime rose. “I saw it go from great to bad,” says Fells.
Yet in 2005, when Fells and his girlfriend Megan Kulpa, also a chef, decided to open a restaurant, they opted to lease space in the old M. Schwartz building. Although by then the mall had been reopened to traffic, and a few landlords were renovating once-stately Victorian buildings, gentrification was a long way off. “But we saw that there were people taking a chance on Poughkeepsie,” says Charlie. “We thought we’d be the jewel in the rough.”
Megan Fells (the couple married in ’07) is now 30, and grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut. Like many a Culinary Institute graduate, she loves the Hudson Valley and says she was “not turned off” by Poughkeepsie’s grittier side.
The storefront space the couple leased was “just a shell,” says Charlie. “We refurbished the tin ceiling, tore up layers of cardboard and linoleum, and refinished the hardwood floors. One day, the landlord started whacking away at the plaster on the walls and there was brick underneath, so we exposed that.” A contractor offered materials from demolished buildings nearby. “We picked out the best stuff, like Douglas fir joists that we used for the bar,” Charlie says. Architect Alan Baer designed the industrial-chic interior with its open kitchen, and Jeff Johnson, a furniture designer, built the bar and furnishings.
“The city helped us out tremendously with loans,” Charlie says. “And we put everything we had into it.” Artist’s Palate, an oasis of hip in an unhip neighborhood, opened in April 2006. The New American menu was also ambitious, with such exotic offerings as crispy fried tofu and lobster mac and cheese (both now signatures).
“It was scary at first, because we were heeding all the warnings about the blight of Poughkeepsie,” Charlie says. “Everyone said we were out of our minds,” adds Megan. But the couple believed they could attract professionals from nearby Vassar Hospital and the courthouses, as well as people attending performances at the Bardavon, a block away.
The gamble paid off, and enthusiastic reviews soon helped make Artist’s Palate a destination for diners outside the area as well as a local favorite.
Not long after, the Food Network, scouting for promising female chefs, invited Megan to compete in the popular show Top Chef, which requires a two-month commitment for filming. “I told them thanks, but I own a restaurant. We’ve invested all our money, blood, sweat, and tears. I can’t walk away for a TV show,” Megan recalls. Last spring, though, when the producers asked her to appear on Chopped, which is taped in one day, Megan agreed. The episode airs December 8th, but “I’m sworn to secrecy,” she says, regarding the outcome. “It’s good publicity for the restaurant, but as I told the judges, it didn’t show my cooking skills. ”
In summer 2007, the couple launched the Casual Palate, an offshoot in Warwick, which closed the following year. “We thought we could hire someone to run our business,” Charlie says. “But if you’re not hands-on, it doesn’t work.”
That lesson learned, they’re about to open a new spot next door to Artist’s Palate, called Canvas. “It will concentrate on small plates and wine flights,” says Charlie. “We’re not calling it tapas, because it’ll be international — Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese. And Megan is Polish, so she’ll be making pierogies.”
“I will?” says Megan. “Well, I’d be happy to.”
Charlie describes Canvas as “South Beach style, with bright, vibrant Miami colors — a casual, sexy space” with a lounge in front where people can unwind after work. “During the day, it’ll be more grab and go, with prepared foods, and locally produced cheeses and meats.” The couple christened the new spot in fall with a fund-raiser for the Dutchess SPCA.
“We’d like to have three or four places in Poughkeepsie,” Charlie declares. “We want to open a steakhouse, and after that, one of those greengrocer, Asian-style markets that you see in the city.”
Meanwhile, Artist’s Palate has certainly added some vitality to a once run-down block. “People say it’s like a bit of city life come to Poughkeepsie,” says Charlie. “But it really never left. It just needed to be uncovered.”
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