This post is sponsored by River Spring Lodge. What does that mean? In this case, I stayed free of charge at River Spring Lodge as a guest of Chef Dave Hamer and his wife, Carolyn. No one involved with River Spring Lodge provided input into the writing or editing of this post, its content or format. This post is entirely my own work.
No one could have begrudged Dave Hamer for retiring.
It was his time to take it easy after clocking decades as head chef in kitchens at high-end hunting lodges throughout the U.S.
In fact, he and his wife Carolyn had it all planned out. There was a retirement community in South Texas that promised all the trappings of golden years living, and they invested in property there. The Hamers had a motor home they also wanted to use to travel cross-country with Puggles, their beagle-pug cross, in tow.
And then Attica, N.Y., called. Pulled Hamer, really. It was a place that figured prominently in his youth, and set him on an unexpected path as a young chef. It’s a path he’d been travelling for years without so much as a thought to going back to where he started until now. And he did it so he and Carolyn could run their own boutique inn, River Spring Lodge.
“This was not planned,” Hamer, 68, said during a break from prepping for dinner on a mid-August evening at River Spring Lodge. “We were going to live out our days travelling. It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure.”
It’s one that started in western New York when Hamer was a teen. He landed a gig washing dishes at a local restaurant and soon graduated to helping behind the burner.
“Chefs would get busy and they would show me stuff, and I picked it up,” he recalled.
Chef Dave Hamer plates his sous-vide barbecue pork shank.
The Early Days
Hamer was convinced he wanted to make a living wearing a toque blanche. He enrolled in cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America, studied under European chefs, and honed his skills in the French cuisine that’s reflected today on the small but thoughtful menu at River Spring Lodge.
Hamer very much lived the chef’s life, though. It was one with an early Bourdain air. Partying was his pastime. Those hours after service were filled with drinking and lots of drugs during his salad days working and living near Albany. Hamer was young and up for the lifestyle.
“It was a party industry. You work and of course you go out and party. I thought life was one big party at that time.”
Hamer started to reconsider his choices after someone who was “part of the Jesus movement” visited him at the restaurant. Something resonated with the young chef who was on a dangerous and destructive path.
Chef Dave Hamer's fruit soup, one of the courses he serves for breakfast at River Spring Lodge.
Religion held the promise of something better, and eventually Hamer gave up drugs for a deity. He went through a “very dramatic conversion that changed the whole trajectory of my life,” he recalled.
“Of course I was looking for help. My life was a mess. I held a job but was wasted, and I wasted all those years. When I was converted, everything changed.”
In some ways, the leap of faith wasn’t a stretch. Hamer was raised in a home where everyone went to church on Sunday. However, at the time, he didn’t subscribe to religion the way the rest of his family did.
“My idea of God was he’s a policeman and judge and I’m the criminal. I wanted to distance myself from that,” Hamer remembered. “Keep in mind, this was the 60s.”
But the conversion brought about a change that “was like day and night.” So much so that Hamer hung up his apron to attend bible college. After that, he was presented with the opportunity to minister in Attica, and spread the Good Word among “hippies who are all senior citizens now,” he said with a smile.
Putting Down the Chef's Knife
He gave up life behind the burner to work full-time in the ministry for about a decade, travelling from place to place to preach. Summers were slow, though, so the couple decided to use both of Hamer’s professional skillsets to their advantage.
Hamer would do seasonal work as a chef, taking gigs at high-end lodges in Alaska, Maine, and California for three to six months a year. Once hunting season was over, the couple were free to live life on the road, travelling to speaking and preaching gigs in their motorhome.
They’d stay about four years in each spot before moving on to the next lodge, the next kitchen, and the next series of podiums and pulpits in the off-season.
It was a pragmatic arrangement, but really, Hamer didn’t see much difference between his two jobs of preaching and cooking.
Chef Dave Hamer's Norwegian cedar-planked salmon.
“They’re kind of the same,” he said. “They’re two different kinds of food. We feed the body and we feed the soul. One’s a reflection of the other.”
It was their life for 20 years before Texas tempted them to call it career. Then Hamer was overcome with the urge to return to Attica. It was during his visit that he found out about a failed vegan health spa about four miles from where he pastored a lifetime earlier. It was in Darien Center, a speck of a burg tucked into hilly terrain with rigid spines of forest about 45 minutes from the tangle of big city streets in Buffalo.
The resort sat empty for three years, waiting for someone with the vision to turn it into something viable. Hamer wasn’t sure he was the person to do it but the universe seemed to tell him otherwise when, on a hope and prayer, he and Carolyn worked out a deal to buy the secluded property.
In August 2016, they opened their eight-suite boutique hotel, River Spring Lodge, billing it as a hunting and fishing lodge. It’s also a couple’s retreat, a quiet place to stay after a rip-roaring day at Darien Lake amusement park, somewhere to find serenity after shopping in Buffalo, or a Walden-esque escape for a writer looking to get out a few words.
“We’re the perfect distance (from Canada) for a trip,” Hamer said. “It’s not far enough to be burdensome but it’s far enough to get away. Most of our business is from Canada.”
River Spring Lodge in Darien Center, New York. Living Lodge Life
It does feel like you’re removing yourself from the rest of the world when you’re there. As Hamer spoke, a couple from near Erie, PA, arrived for check in. The woman presented him with a quart of fresh blueberries picked that morning from her garden at home. It was an unexpected gesture that elicited an even more surprising response.
“Blueberry pancakes in the morning,” the chef said as he took his gift and moved toward the kitchen.
That’s the benefit of being small. In Alaska, Hamer fed 35 people a night. Everyone got the same thing. At River Spring Lodge, he’s built a small menu that gives diners a choice, and enables Hamer the flexibility to adjust when someone gifts him homegrown berries, or has dietary restrictions, like a vegetarian food blogger who can’t eat cow dairy.
“We’re not typical here at all,” Hamer said. “The dining here is all focused on the guests. When someone comes to dine, the table is theirs for the night.”
And the meal is tailored to the appetite. Four courses are typical for dinner, three for breakfast, but Hamer will happily go up to seven dishes for the evening meal if someone requests it.
Guests in the evening start with a choice of two soups, French onion or New Orleans-style blue crab claw bisque.
“The French onion soup is the real stuff. I use a demi in it,” Hamer said. A crown of “old world raclette” cheese made in Wyoming County is the finishing touch on every bowl leaving the kitchen.
Chef Dave Hamer's sous-vide barbecue pork shank with black cherry barbecue sauce.
He strayed from the usual to make me a Tex-mex tomato bisque, with corn chips arranged like Stonehenge and holding fast along the edges of the bowl. It had a good kick tempered by a sweet Finger Lakes Riesling.
Instead of Hamer’s signature plantation rolls that rely on plenty of butter to make them magical, I got a homemade dairy-free version with a good, dense crumb.
Salad was up next with a choice of three from-scratch dressings: blue cheese, blackberry-tarragon and ranch. I opted for the balanced blackberry-tarragon to punch up my lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.
My main was the Norwegian cedar-planked salmon with a side of couscous and local finger asparagus — skinny green, late summer incarnations of this spring vegetable. It was touted on the menu as “Chef Dave’s Alaskan creation and most requested recipe.” The portion was huge, in keeping with the other mains that Carolyn served to a couple at a table across the small dining room overlooking a trout-filled pond.
They had the sous-vide barbecue pork shank, glazed with Hamer’s black cherry barbecue sauce, and bolstered on the plate by mashed potatoes and creamed corn. It was all they talked about as they ate, raving with every bite.
They followed it up with another one of Hamer’s distinguishing dishes: his crème brûlée. Hamer prides himself on having created a version that doesn’t need to be served in a ramekin. His crème brûlée stands on its own on a plate, and comes with a skirt of kiwi, mango, and blackberry sauce so “you can take a forkful and drag it through the sauce.”
Chef Dave Hamer puts the finishing touches on his signature creme brûlée.
Hamer created a thoughtful blackberry ice cream made with coconut milk for me. He likes the challenge of people like me, Carolyn told me as she presented me with it. It let’s him play and keeps him sharp, she said. Together, they strive for — and achieve — “that personal touch” they’re after for each guest.
I’m stuffed by the end of it all and wonder if I’ll be hungry for the three courses promised at breakfast in 12 hours.
Building a Legacy
The couple haven’t been at it long enough to know whether there’s a pattern to lodge life at River Spring. Jim Kelly, the most beloved (and now retired) Buffalo Bills quarterback, will stay there in October. One night, Hamer made dinner for a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary and another marking their first. They’re building a retreat to appeal to anyone and everyone at any time of year
They have ambitions to turn it into a winter getaway by carving cross-country ski trails into their two acres of peaceful grounds. There are plans for wine and dine packages, too.
Still, River Spring lodge is more than a revamped retirement plan for the couple. Hamer confided that from a financial perspective, it didn’t necessarily make sense to invest in a lodge of their own. He was making good money cheffing at those high-end resorts elsewhere, so River Spring Lodge was clearly about something more for the couple.
There’s a philanthropic page in their business plan. It will enable the Hamers to do more of the charity work that’s complemented the cooking and preaching that’s defined them.
Carolyn and Dave Hamer with their dog Puggles at River Spring Lodge.
“We really feel there’s a purpose for the place beyond what we’re doing,” Hamer said the next morning at breakfast.
The lodge will help the couple to continue supporting a program that feeds 163 Haitian children five days a week. It’s a cause they got behind after the earthquake that razed much of the island nation in 2010. Hamer also gave money to help build 225 homes in Capois in the aftermath. Now he’d like to do some fundraising events at River Spring Lodge to continue assisting such aid efforts.
He also sees the lodge as a way to continue his preaching work, and mentor those coming up behind him in the ministry. He and Carolyn will establish a foundation to ensure River Spring Lodge always exists as a place where body and soul will be fed.
“I want to help younger leaders. I have an inheritance that’s not property but something to leave to future generations. Rather than travelling, now we’re bringing the people to us.”
And pouring everything they have into making River Spring Lodge a destination all the while, instead of calling it a career in Texas.
“The business has to grow alongside (the spiritual work) because the business supports it,” Hamer said. “We do love it. We’re supposed to be here.”