Walter E. Siebel is often asked, but will soon be asked no more, How can a guy who eats out so often be so thin?
He said its a common question when people realize he is the restaurant reviewer for the Watertown Daily Times, a position he has held for nearly a decade, with about 500 reviews under his belt.
He responded to the question on this day, at a table at Jumbos Diner in Gouverneur, by taking a bite of macaroni salad that had just been placed in front of him by a server.
Thats my first food of the day, and Ive been up since 5, he tells his late-morning interviewer.
The guest told Mr. Siebel to finish his meal, if that was the case.
No, thats my answer to that, Mr. Siebel said. I do eat well. I eat properly, which is probably a better word.
Mr. Siebel has been a crusader for Times readers, guiding them on the path of also eating well by sharing his energy and enthusiasm in his popular Sunday column, Food for Thought.
One of his thoughts about food is that going out to eat is more than drive-up windows.
The food could be passable, but I dont think people should eat from their laps while theyre driving, he said.
Eating out, he said, should be a total package.
Its more than just the food, he said. Its a social thing. Its an hour, hour and a half of getting out of the house with somebody else cooking.
Soon, the tables will be turned on Mr. Siebel. In a new venture, he will be the kitchen manager at a new restaurant and will occasionally be that somebody else cooking.
His final column for the Times appears today. Mr. Siebel of Pierrepont, along with Marc S. and Christine Compeau of Potsdam, will soon be opening Jakes on the Water in Hannawa Falls.
a shared passion
Mr. Siebel has known Mr. Compeau for several years and has always appreciated his business sense.
Hes kind of a self-made guy, Mr. Siebel said.
About eight years ago, Mr. Siebel said, Mr. Compeau told him he was thinking of doing something with that place in Hannawa Falls.
Last fall, Mr. Compeau told him that hed bought the place and wanted Mr. Siebel to join him in the venture.
Mr. Compeau, the director of Clarkson Universitys Center for Entrepreneurship, said in an email: As Chris and I chase our dream of opening a restaurant that makes Hannawa Falls proud, we knew the key to succeeding was identifying a kitchen director that shared our passion. We have known Wally for many years and cant express how thrilled we are that he has joined us.
Mr. Siebel enters his new job well versed in the operation of a new business as well as a restaurant kitchen.
In 1975, he co-founded Northern Music & Video, 29 Market St., Potsdam, with Alex Vangelow. His local experience in the food business includes cooking at casual and fine-dining restaurants and originating the fundraising dinner Gourmet Guys & A Gal that supports the Community Performance Series.
This past winter, Mr. Siebel was a restaurant judge in the prestigious James Beard Foundation awards. He reviewed a handful of restaurants above the Thruway, from Albany to Syracuse, for the foundation.
Its been an interesting journey from music education major at SUNY Potsdams Crane School of Music to restaurant reviewer and now kitchen manager. Asked how his passion for food developed, Mr. Siebel said, Ive always been a foodie of sorts, planning vacations and getaways around food and wine. Sometime in the 80s, a group of my musicians friends got the cooking bug and started to figure out how to make gourmet meals at home to impress our wives and friends. Like our making music, cooking became another creative outlet for us.
It probably took a few years, but we worked ourselves up to things like chicken liver pate, risotto, osso buco, cocquille St. Jacques and lobster thermidore.
Mr. Siebels experience in restaurant kitchens includes something of a whos who of north country restaurants.
My first real restaurant kitchen experience was in the late 80s at Frenchs 1844 House, forerunner of todays 1844 House, Potsdam, he said. The owner told Mr. Siebel that her assistant chef wanted New Years Eve off and asked him if he would be interested in filling in. So I got a three-night crash course with Gigi in the kitchen and the two of us banged out about 100 dinners on New Years Eve, he said.
After that, he did similar stints helping out when needed at Angelos Fresh Seafood in Potsdam, Newton Falls Hotel, Thirsty Moose in Childwold, Bravo Italiano Festival in Watertown, Cranberry Lake Lodge and most recently, The Windfall Bar & Grill on the outskirts of Cranberry Lake.
My fondest experience has been working the last six years at 1844 House under Chef Brian Walker, Mr. Siebel said. He listed the tasks hes taken on there: guest chef, relief chef, salad and dessert chef and prep chef, as well as preparing specialty hors doeuvres and appetizers for large parties and banquets.
Jakes on the Water, at 5726 state Route 56 overlooking Hannawa Pond on the Raquette River, has had several owners.
Over the years the restaurant has been known as the Shorelounge, the Shoreline, Chris Fays and, those whove been around these parts for some time will recall, Greens, Mr. Siebel wrote in his column in November 2012, when he reviewed it in its incarnation as Canoe Place Inn.
For the past several months, Mr. Siebel has led the menu design, lined up vendors and designed the kitchen layout, helping ready Jakes for its June 1 opening. (The restaurant, for those who wonder, is named after the Compeaus former family dog.)
As for food selections, Mr. Siebel and the Compeaus recalled dishes theyd enjoyed at restaurants in the Adirondacks and Catskills that feature refined pub-style food.
I put a suggested list in front of Marc and he said, Thats exactly what Im thinking. I would love to eat there. Mr. Siebel said.
The restaurant is in a beautiful setting, he said.
Marc has taken the place apart and put it back together right down to the bare walls, Mr. Siebel said. The exterior of the building looks the same. The interior is all windows on the water, panoramically from north to south, looking east.
But Mr. Siebel, who said he could eat in a dump if the food is good, knows few people go out to eat just for the view. They go out for a good meal.
What I have to do is to coordinate staff, which under my leadership can do this, Mr. Siebel said. Im in charge of the nuts and bolts to make sure that Marc makes a profit in the kitchen, on top of being the cook who will jump in and help out at any stage.
Mr. Siebel will have three or four cooks to manage and two or three other employees.
Its a big challenge to open a restaurant, Mr. Siebel said. Especially when you start with a totally new staff. Its more than the food and the servers. There has to be a chemistry happening.
Mr. Siebel heard from people that one of the reason previous restaurants there failed is that the location is too far from the village of Potsdam, about 6 miles, to travel to.
I told Marc that the reason people said it was too far to go is that they havent been given a reason to go there, Mr. Siebel said. He has given that reason.
food, business, music
Mr. Siebel is active in the community. That service was honored in 2010 when he received the Roger B. Linden Distinguished Service Award from SUNY Potsdam. He earned his bachelors and masters degrees in music education from the Crane School of Music. While an undergraduate, he was student director of The Varsity, an 18-piece big band which became the Crane Jazz Ensemble.
He is a past president of Julia E. Crane Alumni Association and served on the board of directors for Potsdam Alumni Association and Potsdam College Foundation.
In 2010 and 2011, he was interim director of the Community Performance Series, arranging acts and promoting concerts. He has been a guest lecturer for Crane School of Music business classes.
Mr. Siebel performs with orchestras and big bands and plays in pit bands for school musicals throughout the region. He is the founder and leader of the All Star Big Band. Since 1982, it has performed at festivals and events throughout the north country. Its made up of professional musicians from Northern New York, including faculty from Crane and area music educators.
A food enthusiast
Mr. Siebel said he developed his passion for food as a child going out to dinner with his family on Long Island.
My parents appreciated good food, and they took us out quite a bit, Mr. Siebel said. We went to nice restaurants and Im sure they had to save up to do that.
Today, Ill eat anything and everything. I love steak tartare, sushi, dolmas and fois gras as much as I enjoy cabbage rolls, a good Caesar salad, Swedish meatballs and Ben & Jerrys cookie dough ice cream.
Mr. Siebel used to go out on restaurant reviews with the late Floyd Misek, the original restaurant reviewer for the Watertown Daily Times, who wrote from 1985 to 1998.
A few years after Mr. Misek stopped writing reviews, Mr. Siebel, on a whim, wrote to the Times saying if there was ever an opening for restaurant reviewer, he would be interested. He described his experience in restaurant kitchens and his passion for cooking and eating, and he submitted a sample column.
When there was an opening, the Times contacted him. He filed his first review on Jan. 2, 2005. Like Mr. Misek, Mr. Siebel quickly developed teams of associates who would accompany him on reviews and contribute their opinions.
Sometimes, well mutter under our breath about something, Mr. Siebel said. But everybody concentrates on what they order. We order something different.
He said only once was he was blatantly outed as the Times food critic at a restaurant. But that didnt change his teams approach.
What are they going to do at that point? Mr. Siebel said of the restaurant staff. Theyre not going to change the style of food.
He added, I do know of one place I did within the last year, and they had my picture in the kitchen.
Mr. Siebel said he approached his reviews with no expectations avoiding restaurant review sites like Trip- Advisor or Yelp beforehand.
It takes him about five hours to write a review.
Maybe a little longer, because I try to incorporate everyones input, which is pretty accurate, he said.
He said he wont miss the time it takes for the writing task.
Ill miss getting together with the teams Ive put together, he said. I think theyll miss it too.
But he added, It will give me more freedom to go out and have two glasses of wine and not have to concentrate on everything because I have to remember it. I can just go and enjoy myself for two hours.
This past Monday morning, Mr. Siebel emailed his final column to Times Sunday editor Mary Kaskan. This morning, as he has for the past 10 years, Mr. Siebel will take a walk to his newspaper box and flip to the Currents section, where his column is displayed. He will view the column like its a well-deserved, luscious dessert and think the same thoughts that he has weekly for the past decade after seeing its final editing and the page design:
I go, Thats pretty slick, he said.