When I first see Chef Vicky Zeph, it’s early afternoon on a Monday – the restaurant closed and quiet on its off-day, the clouds hanging low in a gray sky, and the street beside Zeph’s on Central Avenue in Peekskill nearly empty. The restaurant, an ancient brick and mortar remnant of another age, lies shrouded behind carefully maintained vines, vegetables, and countless flowers, while the keeper of the garden – also the restaurant’s chef – ponders her next pulled weed. She rises, takes a mindful look at me through worn, round glasses and wisps of dignified, silver hair, and dusts the soil from her jeans.
I have the slight feeling that I’ve just interrupted a ritual. The magic of this lush garden seems to gawk at my pressed pants and shirt. The greenery begs for a simpler state of being, as does the restaurant it protects. But Chef Vicky Zeph is happy to welcome me into the sanctuary that she and her brother Michael have built for over two decades – a place where nature, food, and family still coexist peacefully.
She guides me from the sidewalk and through a door into her kitchen. Visible from the street through large, antique windows, the room resembles a workshop or artist’s studio with its large, wooden countertops and turn-of-the-century allure. When I ask whether she would like to talk here, she motions to the staircase leading upstairs.
“Let’s talk up in the dining room,” Chef Vicky says, as she ushers me through a maze of kitchen equipment, arranged meticulously to accommodate the space. “It’s cooler up there.”
The notion of Zeph’s began as a tickle in the back of a very ambitious child’s mind – almost a fantasy, but never quite a certainty. Always a straight-“A” student at Peekskill High School, Chef Vicky remembers taking a career test and surprising one of her mentors.
“One of the questions was, ‘What do you want to do in the future,’” she says, reminiscing for the first time in a long time. “I wrote, ‘To own a restaurant….’ My counselor thought that was pretty funny, he got a real kick out of that... it wasn’t really a dream, just an idea.”
Before venturing towards the inevitable, however, Chef Vicky attended the University of Virginia for math, something she was always very good at.
As she speaks, it’s evident that anything involving a desk, a pencil, even a computer, makes her a bit uneasy.
“I liked doing hands-on things… I like to keep busy.” Her face grimaces and then smiles. “I never would have survived in an office setting.”
The chef part of her life story occurred to her after college, while living back home and working at a local diner. After facing the fact that she would never be able to stomach the office-and-cubicle monotony of the business world, she enrolled at the now-famous Culinary School of America in Hyde Park where she excelled at all levels. Following school, she was recruited to work in France for a popular restaurant, Regine’s, where she cut her teeth in the restaurant business.
“They always sent people to recruit new graduates,” she says, trying her best to stay humble. Michael, her brother, manages to sneak in quietly to the room, offering his own recollection.
“What she didn’t say was that she was at the top of her class [at the Culinary Institute],” he says, whimsically.
“They’re serious when you work over there,” she continues. “I was probably the only woman in the kitchen… at the time, I shared the kitchen with Daniel Boulud [of Daniel NYC], who was just a pastry chef back then.”
While in France, she worked for three restaurants and sharpened her skills as often as her knives. After nearly a year and a half, she returned to New York, where she continued to learn the technique behind mastering her trade. She read books, jumped around from kitchen to kitchen, and focused on her new, and very real, goal of opening her own restaurant.
At some point, she decided she was ready.
“I had the basics,” she remembers, while analyzing the garden-grooves and notches in her fingers. “Everything I learned in France, in school, in books… At some point you either get better or you don’t.”
When the 1980’s arrived, Chef Vicky and Michael, both impetuous and eager to venture out, decided to buy an old building in Goldens Bridge – a “country church” they hoped to recreate into their fantasy restaurant. Unfortunately, the would-be brother-and-sister business partners quickly learned that a building alone would not create the Zeph’s of their dreams. They also needed money.
“We were crazy,” says Chef Vicky, almost a little embarrassed. “We were very naïve.”
Michael shifts in his chair. “But we were also really lucky,” he adds.
While the plains for their establishment in Goldens Bridge had fallen through, the two sat on the property they had purchased for over five years. In that time, as the area around it expanded and the value of their “country church” increased, they realized their investment had become worthwhile after all. At the tail-end of the 80’s, Chef Vicky and Michael sold the building for four times the amount they purchased it for. Finally, they had the money they needed.
In 1990, the pair set back out to find the perfect location for their new restaurant. They returned to their roots and found the recently vacated space where Zeph’s stands today – an old gristmill in the center of their hometown, Peekskill.
“We’ve been here now for 21 years and we have built up a very loyal clientele,” Mike says. “We’re very lucky… we can weather the hard times better because we’ve got such a small operation, because we can handle the big jobs ourselves. Vicky’s in the kitchen, and I’m in the dining room… We just go with the flow.”
Don’t attempt to put a label on Chef Vicky’s menu or try and get her to dress up her dishes with “three little dots of sauce” or any other gimmicks. As far as she is concerned, her knives and kitchen utensils are a tool belt of gadgets meant to accomplish a task.
”It’s blue-collar work,” she says, doing her best carpenter or electrician impression.
She knows it’s more than just nuts-and-bolts – but she won’t admit that it’s her inner artist at work. With a cuisine she describes simply as “ethnic soul food,” her dishes come out with less spectacle than her customers are used to nowadays. But the flavor is why they come back.
“It’s technique,” she continues, as she divulges on her learned understanding of cuisine. “You draw on the things you learn along the way…It’s become crazy. It’s gotten away from the flavor.”
Mike leans closer to me to drive in his final point – Zeph’s raison d'être.
“We have different ethnic dishes… it’s not cutting edge really,” he says. “What makes [Zeph’s] special is the freshness, simplicity, and the execution. No shortcuts.”
Mostly, Chef Vicky and Michael are happy to be in the town where they grew up – to see it alive again, like they remembered when they were kids here. To see the businesses come, the river shining a little brighter, the kids playing, and the town flourishing – these are the things driving Zeph’s, a Peekskill landmark in its own right.
“Peekskill was great as a kid…,” Chef Vicky says, finding a memory sunken deep in the past. “There was a lot going on…. There was a lot of talk [in the 90’s] about what would happen… but now it seems like this is what they were talking about. This is it. There’s a lot of progress and it feels good.”
“With all of the new restaurants in town, they do what they do, and we do what we do,” Mike adds. “And If you do it honestly, it’s not about competition anymore… Each place has its own unique experience.”
Chef Vicky is turning 60 on Thursday, August 18, and doesn’t seem to blush when I ask her how old she is as she poses for a photo. She admits that you can’t avoid age. “It is what it is,” she says proudly, then grins.
She leads me out the door and back to the garden where we first met. I get introduced to a few cornstalks, some kale, and a few leaves of rainbow chard. Some string beans dangle their fingers in a goodbye fashion as I thank Chef Vicky for the visit.
I realize that her garden is exactly like her restaurant – it isn’t forced.
Rather, it is guided, naturally with time.