Doing Up a Diner

Checking in with Kris Schram of West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram.

Roadside. Populist. Built for speed. The classic American diner was a thing of beauty.

I say was because, tragically, the Great Age of the American Diner is over. With the advent of even cheaper and faster food, individually owned diners lost their roadside spots to invading armies of McDonald’s and Mobil Marts. But worse than the real estate, many American diners also lost their souls. Unable to compete with fast food prices, they ditched house-made fare—eggs, burgers, blue plate specials—for mile-long menus of factory-spawned junk. 

But here’s the thing: Having historically offered hospitality to the working people who were unwelcome at other restaurants, diners carved a lasting niche in the American heart. Consider all the TV shows and movies where diners play a central role: “Seinfeld,” Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas. When directors want a universally recognized American meeting place, they film in a diner.

Here in our region, an elite, international chef has re-opened the West Tagkhanic Diner. We caught up with Kris Schram and asked him, What is it about diners? 

Photo Credit: Lawrence Braun

Chef and Owner of West Taghkanic Diner, Kristopher Schram, in the Hudson Valley.Chef and Owner of West Taghkanic Diner, Kristopher Schram, in the Hudson Valley.

No Grease Monkey. Kristopher Schram, lately of Copenhagen, unites haute sensibilities with diner fare.

WHO Kristopher Schram

DINER West Taghkanic Diner, Ancram

FIRST RESTAURANT JOB Pizza Garden, Hudson

CAREER Bæst (Copenhagen), Relæ (Copenhagen), Terra (Napa Valley)

When you think of Hudson’s architecture, it’s easy to privilege the 19th century: all that age and ornament, all those fancy roofs. But in Ancram, there’s a building that speaks equally eloquently of its time. It’s the West Taghkanic Diner, straight outta 1953, a beacon of stainless steel.

Its new owner, Chef Kristopher Schram, knows from restaurant bling. Beyond his extensive fine-dining experience (in which no technology was denied), he also comes from Bæst, Christian Puglisi’s wood-fired pizzeria in Copenhagen. Bæst is notoriously unhinged. First, it cured its own salumi. Then it made its own cheese. Then it bought its own cows.

Nowadays, Schram and two other chefs battle it out in a miniscule kitchen that was designed for frying burgers. His solitary blingy tool is the nine-foot smoker outside where Schram and his team smoke bacon, pastrami, clams, pork belly, turkey breast—even water, which Schram uses like dashi to add a subtle umami richness to many foods, even hollandaise.

“I see a diner in a different way,” he says. “Yes, there is short order cooking, there are eggs for breakfast. And I love eating at diners. But what I’ve planned here is that you have your staples—your Reubens, your breakfast plates, your turkey clubs—but everything else can be kinda different. And when you look at diner menus—Greek diners, Mexican diners—there really are no rules.”  

WTD’s breakfasts nod to modern appetites. “Local Greens and Grains” offers eggs over smoked chickpeas with Nordic rye bread. There’s local yogurt with chia seeds and local grain porridge; at the same time, Schram is literally slinging hash—a plate of eggs, pastrami, bacon, potatoes, and toast. 

Meanwhile, Schram is lovingly restoring WTD’s wealth of vintage, diner-specific equipment. This includes steely waiter stations with reach-in flatware troughs, gravity-fed plate and saucer dispensers, and virtually everything behind the counter. The only thing missing is the Bunn-O-Matic coffee machine.

“We were going with much better quality, but I didn’t want to lose that touch. We’re putting our really good coffee in insulated pitchers and pouring free re-fills at the table.” 

Brunch in the Hudson Valley at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.Brunch in the Hudson Valley at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.

All American. At WTD, the traditional roadside menu is lightened with locally raised produce and whole grains.

Serving Hudson Valley diner specials at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.Serving Hudson Valley diner specials at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.

Order up! Of course, you can always get fries with that shake.

Classic Hudson Valley cars at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.Classic Hudson Valley cars at West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, New York.

Steel, Chrome, and Neon. WTD's vintage materials suit this car from the wayback machine.

West Taghkanic Diner's Buttermilk Biscuit RecipeWest Taghkanic Diner's Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe

WTD Biscuits

Recipe courtesy of Kate Snider, Pastry Chef, West Taghkanic Diner

WTD serves these tender biscuits with house-smoked apple jam and salted butter. Spelt gives them an extra-nutty flayer of flavor, but rye, einkorn or whole-wheat flour can be used. Unlike many biscuit recipes, which call for cutting in fat by hand, here the butter is grated. This, and the untraditional addition of heavy cream, allows for a tender crumb and flakiness—the hallmarks of any good, handmade biscuit.

Yields 5 to 6 biscuits

INGREDIENTS

½ cup (4 oz/113g) unsalted butter, cold
1½ cup (180g) cake flour (I recommend White Lily Flour, found in most grocery stores)
1 cup (120g) spelt, rye, or whole-wheat flour
4 teaspoons (15g) sugar
2 tablespoons + 1 tsp (22g) baking powder
1½ teaspoons (4g) salt 
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup buttermilk

TO PREPARE

Preheat oven to 375°. Use a box cutter to grate the cold butter. Place grated butter in the freezer while you measure out the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk cake flour, spelt (or other grain), sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, combine the heavy cream and buttermilk. Toss the frozen, grated butter through the dry ingredients and gently mix until evenly dispersed. Add the cream and buttermilk and mix until the dough just comes together. It is important to not over mix!

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until the dough comes together and will not fall apart when cutting the biscuits. Roll dough out to about a 1-inch thickness. Cut biscuits into 2½-inch squares and place on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper.

Bake biscuits for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned.