By Mike Diago (originally written for Hudson Valley Magazine)
This spring, Chef Serge Madikians of Amenia-based restaurant Serevan took Hudson Valley on a stratospheric grocery-shopping trip via “Serge Air” — the small rental plane he flies to Cape Cod on sunny days for seafood. He pulled up to the Great Barrington airport in his red SUV on an early Wednesday morning, parked, and bounded out toward the trunk to unload crates for the day’s cargo.
Madikians darted between small Cessna and Piper aircraft on the tarmac, his hair and silk scarf changing direction with the cold wind. “Sadly, we won’t have time for lunch!” he shouted over the engines. “Rick has a student and needs the plane back.”
Rick Solan — a veteran American Airlines pilot, part-owner of the airport, and Madikians’ instructor — had pulled the plane out and was fueling up. They exchanged banter and headed into the airport office.
“Come in. There is coffee!” Inside, Madikians slipped behind the counter, bouncing between the few pilots and office staff, joking, laughing, and otherwise beaming an overwhelming positive energy at everyone. All they could do in his presence was smirk.
Now in its 15th year, Serevan has developed a devoted following for its eclectic blend of homegrown ingredients and foreign flavors. In many ways, the restaurant embodies Madikians himself — a free and fully expressed individual whose path to his current state has been long and varied. However, his time in the Hudson Valley — roughly the last 10 years — has been the most transformational. “Living up here, in this environment, it absorbs you rather than reflects you,” he explained. “You are able to see yourself as one very minute piece of something much larger, and that is very freeing.”
Back outside, Madikians conducted a brief walk around the plane. Once on board, he began a complex sequence involving levers, gauges, and code language communication with ground control. We lurched forward and lifted into the sky until the endless green mountains and fields swallowed all of the scattered crumbs of man-made structures. Madikians continued telling about his life, philosophy, and processes — including how flying fits in.
Aside from serving as a joyful hobby and a practical way to acquire fresh seafood, Madikians said flying “helps me to get centered. From this vantage point you see the vastness of everything.”
“Growing up as an ethnic minority in Iran meant you don’t find your identity in a church or a monument, you find it in your soul and in your gatherings.”
This sense of being absorbed into something larger is key for Madikians. He is interested in maintaining a “disposition toward the day” that minimizes ego and expectations. He recalls his mother’s words: “Good morning, dear. Let’s see what God is going to put on the table” and “The glass is neither half empty nor half full; the glass will quench my thirst.” He uses processes such as waking up early to watch the sunrise, writing, playing music, reading, and practicing sitting quietly with himself, to let go of that which doesn’t serve him. In the peaceful setting of the Hudson Valley, this all feels natural.
Madikians left Iran in 1978. He arrived in the U.S. with a certain cultural notion of success — as part of a millennia-old Armenian minority group in Iran, and as an immigrant here. He initially obtained an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy, then obtained a master’s degree in economics/public policy in pursuit of fulfilling that notion, but an opportunity to attend the French Culinary Institute led to a completely unexpected career. He began training and working at the restaurants of NYC heavyweights like Bouley and Jean Georges before moving to the Hudson Valley for a more suitable pace and environment. Though he shed his cultural idea of success, he never lost his Armenian identity.
Currently he stays connected through creative expression at his restaurant. It’s important for him to work with ingredients and flavors from his culture. “Growing up as an ethnic minority in Iran meant you don’t find your identity in a church or a monument,” he explains, “you find it in your own soul and in your gatherings.”
If he were to prepare a dinner for all of the Armenians in history: “There would be lamb, a lot of fresh herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, tarragon, leeks, radishes, mint, and beautiful boiled potatoes. There would be classical Armenian dudek music, we would discuss literature and art, and the gathering might last days.”
Madikians treats his ingredients with the same discipline he enforces on himself. He wants to minimize his role and ego in the process and do just enough to create the conditions for fresh ingredients to shine.
As we coast over Cape Cod, the Vineyard Sound to the left and Cape Cod Bay to the right, his processes begin to make sense. We land and meet his fishmonger, James Day, who is waiting on the tarmac. Madikians examines large oysters and checks the date (“just-harvested!”), before packing them into crates with ice. After loading up, we prepare for the 90-minute flight back. This time the winds have changed and there is turbulence, but soon the fearful ascent passes and we arrive at a calm cruising altitude once again.