Johannes Klapdohr exudes enthusiasm about his work, and luckily for us, the fruits of that work are accessible. The chef and co-founder of Sapphire Valley’s Library Kitchen & Bar, Klapdohr has hit his stride in the creative reinvention of the local landmark.
The “new” Library opened over the New Year’s holiday in 2016-2017, and in the past year has become the epitomic place for fine dining, brilliantly positioned against the historical backdrop of the 1864 farmhouse that it once was.
On any given night one can see a comfortable blend of regulars and out-of-towners enjoying food and drink at the sleek kitchen bar, a small room with a fireplace, or the happening main dining room. “I like to think it has a ‘clubby’ feel,” he explains, and he’s right. There is a familiarity about the place, but don’t be fooled. This new Library is sophisticated, state-of-the-art, and delicious.
The menu, which changes seasonally to augment the use of fresh local ingredients, ranges from trout with Jerusalem artichokes to seafood risotto and chocolate bread pudding.
Johannes, as most everyone calls him, grew up in a family that respected the process of food preparation. He is the third generation of family chefs and has warm childhood memories of his grandfather’s hotel restaurant in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, a quaint area founded by the Romans. Everything was made from scratch, he recalls, and everything was fresh.
His culinary ambition fueled fourteen years of study and work under various European chefs at several Michelin-starred restaurants. It was while he was serving as the executive chef in a Berlin restaurant that his sister, who was in Atlanta, suggested he take a temporary assignment working at the Olympic Games, to be held in Atlanta in 1996. In preparation for the Games, the city was actively looking for international chefs.
What was to have been a brief stint in the United States proved eye-opening and challenging and, at the end of the job, he knew he was hooked. His post as executive chef at the famed Nikolai’s Roof introduced him to the vibrant chef community in Atlanta and provided the contacts that propelled his life of gastronomic adventure. It was in Atlanta that he met his eventual wife Liz, well known to the Library clientele for her uncanny ability to make first-time guests feel as if they are coming to her home for dinner.
Next stop after Atlanta was Sea Island, Georgia, where for three years Johannes served as executive chef at The Lodge. It was an exciting time to be there, as considerable development and re-building were underway, but the passion to cull the source of gourmet food proved strong. And so, he accepted the position of executive chef of the famed Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan. Milan, Ohio that is.
The Culinary Vegetable Institute celebrates the collaboration of chefs and farmers working together. Located at the tip of Lake Erie, it is renowned for having the most fertile soil in the United States and is a leading supplier of sustainable foods. It was here that he saw first-hand, for example, the importance of soil regeneration for the maximum nutritional value of crops.
“You can’t cheat nature,” he explains, detailing how the proper rotation of crops yields the best output.
Beans, for example, release nitrogen while tomatoes need nitrogen. Thus, it makes perfect sense that tomatoes would be planted in soil that most recently grew beans. He rues the fact that peaches are slowly losing their nutritional value because of improper soil regeneration, and that is merely one example.
The stint at the Culinary Vegetable Institute has informed his attitude about food ever since. Johannes bemoans the common health problems that are increasingly being experienced by younger people and blames a chemically-enhanced, unnatural diet. He cites the well-known book by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, and would wholeheartedly embrace its doctrine of “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
The father of three children, ages 8, 7 and 2, Johannes makes it a practice to take them on walks to discover the smell and feel of “real” food and advocates water and milk over soda. Not surprisingly, the big planters located in the Library’s front yard are actually fresh herb gardens and the iconic red tractor on the lawn gives a nod to his guiding philosophy.
After Milan, Ohio came The Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, where opportunities abounded to put into play the healthy yet delicious principles that were celebrated at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. As executive chef of the entire resort, Johannes had responsibility for all food services which, in addition to the hotel’s famed restaurants, included infinite special events and all activities at The Farm. The farm-to-table movement was in high gear and there seemed no better place to run with it.
But a chance encounter with Marvin Gralnick at the Lonesome Valley Food Show in 2014 set the stage for a brand-new venture.
Gralnick and his wife Helene may be best known for the successful retail emporium Chico’s. Beginning in the 1980’s with one small store on Sanibel Island that sold Mexican folk art and sweaters, by the time they retired in 2006, the chain boasted over nine hundred stores, including the Black Market/White House brand.
But Marvin’s true passion is art, and his visionary works that call to mind Pollock and Miro have found their way to extensive public and private exhibitions here and abroad. At the time of this chance meeting, Gralnick owned the building that had been The Library and was contemplating its future.
As the two men talked over a period of months they discovered a common wavelength for excellence and creativity and a dream of a cutting-edge restaurant, highlighting Johannes’ food and Marvin’s art. The Library began to take shape.
The building itself was basically a shell, and the two strategized to somehow create a contemporary environment that would also honor its considerable history. Thus, the name “The Library” was set in stone.
“Our guests chose the name,” he says, recalling that the name was originally selected by the previous owner Scott Rooth, who wanted the restaurant to be reminiscent of a popular bar of the same name that had been in the old Fairfield Inn during Prohibition days.
While the core farmhouse, said to be the oldest building in Sapphire Valley, remains nearly intact, much of the property has undergone extensive renovation. For Johannes’ part, he wanted a “transparent” kitchen, so the design is purposefully open, and guests may even sit at a heavy wood bar and watch their food being prepared. A prominent chandelier in the center of the kitchen/bar room looks as if it could have hung in the original house, but was rescued from a Chico’s store in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Other lamps were culled from Marvin’s considerable collections. Tables were handcrafted to complement the original Library chairs which are currently used, and copper accents were utilized extensively at the bar for a funky “industrial” look. The interior is painted a clean white, providing the perfect backdrop for Marvin’s bold and often edgy art.
A rendition of the flag with the words “America, A Work in Progress” hangs high above the kitchen and bar room and another work proclaiming “LOVE” in lights sparkles in the main dining rooms.
For his part, Johannes creates his art in the kitchen where a staff of eight works its magic five nights a week, year round. The menu changes frequently, to reflect the best of what’s fresh. Temperatures are dropping as this is written, and the Library’s menu offers savory stews and cassoulets and side dishes celebrating brussel sprouts, acorn and butternut squash, pears and apples.
If the always crowded parking area is any indication, the two artists have delivered on their collaboration and are providing what Johannes calls “making the exception the rule.”
At the end of an evening at The Library, guests are presented their checks inside an antique bound journal. Almost all are compelled to write a brief message, a fitting preamble to the next wonderful chapter at the Library.
“Your food is amazing. I like it, and I am only a kid,” writes one recent patron, while another calls the dining experience “a slice of gastronomic heaven.”
Like the proper rotation of crops, everything old is new again, and, in the case of the Library Kitchen & Bar, better than ever.