POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – Brandon Walker’s love of family – and good grub – both run deep.
So it is no surprise that the Brooklyn-born chef decided to open his first restaurant in Poughkeepsie’s historic Mount Carmel neighborhood, where dozens of Italian mom-and-pop shops and restaurants once thrived.
When Essie’s, an elegant yet casual eatery, opened its doors at 14 Mount Carmel Place last summer, Walker found himself being welcomed with open arms.
Many members of the community, which dates back to the early 1900s, popped in to greet Walker and to share stories of Little Italy’s history.
One elderly gentleman recalled that the spot Essie’s now occupies was a grocery store and deli that had belonged to his grandfather, Walker said.
Essie’s is named after Walker’s maternal grandmother, who, like most of the women in her family, was a great cook.
Essie was from Virginia, and it is her southern cuisine that influences Walker’s menu.
The chef said Tuesday that his Caribbean heritage also plays a role in the dishes he creates.
Think grit croquettes, country ham and cheddar corn muffins, squash cassoulet and fried green tomatoes with okra, ham, scallions, chives and Red Eye Aioli – all made with local and seasonal ingredients.
The aioli is a tip of the hat to Red Eye gravy, a southern treat also known as poor man’s or bird-eye gravy. It is made from the drippings of pan-fried ham, bacon or other pork and is sometimes mixed with black coffee.
Walker used to think the food universe ended at the borders of New York City.
But then he went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and discovered all the bounty that the Hudson Valley has to offer, namely its people, farm produce and artisans who make cheese, wine and other goodies.
He also met his future wife, LaTrevette, here. A nurse by day, she helps him manage and operate Essie’s at night, Walker said.
Walker, 38, who started in the restaurant biz when still a teenager, saw potential in Poughkeepsie’s diversity and knew that his approach to American fare with a global flair would fit in well.
His turns in other kitchens include those at several 3-star eateries such as Oceana, BLT Prime, and Park Avenue Café. He also helped launch Panzur Restaurant and Wine Bar, and was the opening executive chef at Nic L Inn Wine Cellar on the Hudson.
Walker said his goal is to launch a restaurant “group,” with Essie’s as its flagship.
New outposts will also have “themes,” but Walker was keeping details close to his vest.
Walker also did a turn on the Food Network show “Rewrapped.” He won by whomping up a carbonara, an Italian pasta dish, using Ritz Bits crackers with cheese. He ground up the crackers into flour and used the "cheese" in the sauce.
Essie’s also serves craft beer and cocktails, like the “Poughkeepsie Pioneer,” made with gin, and a “Dirty Sweet Tea,” which combines bourbon with smoky lapsang tea.
Essie’s, which is closed on Sundays and Mondays, is open from 5:30 to 10:30 for dinner.
But starting late this spring, it will be open for lunch from noon to 4 p.m. And -- Hold onto your forks and knives, foodies! -- for brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Walker said he will announce the dates of those openings at a later time.
Essie’s, though not even a year old, is doing well, Walker said.
“Business is steady and social media reviews have been great,” he added.
People are “really excited to see something new being done here,” he said.
Walker attributes Essie’s’ success to his energetic and talented staff.
The game plan is the same as it has been from Day 1, he said.
Essie’s three goals?: “To be consistent in what we do, to provide great food and service, and, eventually, to be a leader in the Hudson Valley,” Walker said.