Chef Robin Mailey moves easily between his roles as chef and vintner at Callicoon Wine Merchant in the Catskills. His years of experience in New York, 14 of those as the owner of The Market Cafe on 9th Avenue, prepared him for the transition upstate. His love of wine spurred the move from weekender to wine shop owner back in 2007. “I always joke that opening a wine store was really more a way for me to get great wine for myself,” he laughed.
Robin’s Hell’s Kitchen backstory came to light after a trip to the restroom at his Callicoon restaurant. “You’ll always get somebody that walks into the restroom here and sees The Market Cafe menu. People (like you) ask ‘what’s the connection with The Market Cafe?’ — it’s always nice to reconnect that way. We really loved Hell’s Kitchen,” he said.
Robin was working in the kitchen of catering chef Fanny Farkus on W39th St between 9/10th Avenue in 1993 when restaurateur Florent Morellet — known for his eponymous 24-hour eatery in Meatpacking — decided to close Bellevues, Florent’s second place in the city on 9th Avenue between W37/38th Streets.
“It was Fanny’s idea that we would buy it and move the catering company into it. We would use the storefront for grab-and-go food. There wasn’t much around there. Supreme Macaroni across the street, Manganaro’s next door, Esposito’s and Cupcake Cafe,” Robin recalled.
Although in the early 90s it was a “pretty seedy area” they built a clientele of mid-level fashion executives, architects, folks from post-production houses and photographers. “So we decided that we don’t really want to do the catering grab-and-go thing. My experience was always in restaurants. So we opened The Market Cafe in 1993,” he said.
In 2001, just before 9/11, Robin and his wife, Tippy, started to research a weekend place upstate. “We were looking in all the places where people look — in Woodstock and Dutchess County — and weren’t really finding what we wanted,” he said. “Then a bunch of my customers at the cafe who lived right on 38th Street said, ‘hey, have you ever been to Sullivan County?’ So I did a little research. My wife and I made an appointment with a realtor and we bought the very first thing that he showed us. It was 22-acres of land with an old barn. Tippy looked at it and said ‘this looks just like Ireland. I want to live here.’ So that’s how it happened.”
His restaurant partner, Fanny, left the business in 2001, and Robin ran it until 2007. “We had a good 14-year run — at which point I sold it to one of my waiters, Giovanni Morales, and his partner, Stephen Hoover,” Robin said. Giovanni and Stephen continued with the restaurant until December 2014 when they changed the concept to first Oovah Wine Gallery and then Ooviña. Since then, the space at 496 9th Avenue has been Jax-BBQ and now Tavolina.
At that point, Robin and Tippy were spending longer weekends upstate, and they decided to give up their Hell’s Kitchen apartment. “It was a customer’s rent-controlled place on the corner of W37th and 9th Avenue. Other than the horns from the tunnel, we loved it. You just had to turn the air conditioner or the stereo on from about four o’clock to seven o’clock every day, to drown out the noise,” he said.
By then they had a daughter. “We wanted her to have a yard and look at bald eagles and deer in the morning. Now she’s on her way to college. So it all worked out well,” Robin said proudly.
They opened up the original wine store in Callicoon with a cheese shop next door. “Wine was always a passion of mine. I’d always collected and up here in 2001 there was not much available in terms of organic or small produced wines,” said Robin. “At that point, I was sort of really burnt out. I had been cooking since I was 14 and just wanted out of the kitchen. The cheese and gourmet products were the food.”
After 10 years, he decided that he’d had enough of retail. “I realized that chefs are in the kitchen for a reason. They don’t really play well with others.” The decision was made to move to a new site in Callicoon where Robin could combine his wine store with a tapas menu. The conversion of an old garage was completed in 2017.
Now the Callicoon Wine Merchant serves beer, wine and tapas, alongside a small specialist wine shop. You’re as likely to spot Robin behind the cash register offering wine advice as in chef uniform back in the kitchen.
He’s happy to chat with diners and explain the simplicity of his tapas dishes (our favorite — Pea Shoot Salad with Buttermilk Blue Dressing — now features on our home menu).
Their website boasts a rave review from the Jewish Journal: “It’s rather surprising to be drinking Spanish Rioja and eating what is arguably the most innovative food to hit the Borscht Belt since Mel Brooks was a headliner here. You would have a hard time convincing a Manhattanite that a small town like Callicoon, in agriculturally minded Sullivan County, would be home to such a feat, but that’s because you don’t know the bar’s proprietor, chef Robin Mailey.”
However, if you head back to the restroom you will find two very different reviews hanging opposite The Market Cafe menu.
We asked Robin about why he proudly displays these bad reviews. “To hell with those people! I came across these reviews when I was doing a Google search. Besides the fact that I don’t agree with a lot of what they said — I just thought they were funny and sad. Like wow, these people go home and decide to trash people without really having any understanding of anything about what’s going on in that person’s life,” he said.
But the majority of Robin’s customers seem to understand him (even if he admits that chefs are often best kept in the kitchen). “I probably get more compliments about the reviews in the restroom than anything else. Every day, somebody new will come up and say ‘that is just the best thing we’ve seen that you do’,” he said with a smile.
Callicoon Wine Merchant, 30 A Dorrer Drive, Callicoon, NY 12723 callicoonwinemerchant.com