On a snowy weekday morning this past December when shops and eateries in the area that had managed to open at all were seeing little foot traffic, Max Hansen Carversville Grocery in the center of that tiny Bucks County hamlet (population: 100) was bustling. Many customers had walked over to the Fleecy Dale Road store at the intersection of Carversville and Aquetong roads, including kids who took advantage of the snow day to go sledding on the hill behind it. “The snowplow drivers stopped in early,” Hansen reports of that day, “and the local folks who have vehicles with four-wheel drive because that’s how you get around this area in the winter. It’s part of what makes this location so special.”
Hansen, a Bucks County native and celebrated chef, caterer, and best-selling cookbook author who in May, 2013, took over the reins of what had for many years been the landmark Carversville General Store, had also walked there. When he states, “My little world is centrally located,” he is not exaggerating. His home, which he shares with wife, Andrea, is 10 houses up the road — a four-minute walk. The catering kitchen and office from which he runs the second and largest of his four enterprises, Max Hansen Caterer, is eight minutes in the opposite direction. The woodshop where he carves and turns a line of wooden spoons, spatulas, and serving knives — for sale at the store under the brand Max Hansen Firewood — is in an outbuilding on his home property. “The wood shop is looking a little neglected these days,” he says, “but I’m happy to report that the spoons are selling!”
The fourth enterprise is Max Hansen Smoked Salmon (more about that later). Together, the businesses have between 30 and 40 full-time employees, with that number swelling seasonally. “On a busy Saturday where we may have four catering events going at one time, we can have 150 people working for us,” Hansen says. He has owned and operated a catering business under a variety of names for 20 years, with clients from Philadelphia to New York. Among those he has served are Presidents Clinton and Bush (W) and rock stars such as Carly Simon.
“But there’s something to be said for being centered around the community one lives in,” he says. That, in part, is what motivated this 54 year old to take on the project of renovating and reimagining the decades-old country store, which had been losing money for years. Hansen’s childhood friend Dan Stern and his wife, Nanna, had purchased the place 10 years ago, working with the building’s owner, Bob Kling, to keep the general store — which the post office still operates out of — the de facto center of the town’s daily life. Hansen’s task was to transform it into a modern gourmet market that offered finely curated comestibles and top-notch prepared foods yet maintained the charm and authenticity of the past.
A sunny counter facing windows that overlook the square has become a popular gathering spot for locals enjoying breakfast and lunch. Among the regulars are well-known Bucks County artist David Stier, some of whose paintings currently grace the grocery’s walls, and Noel Barrett, the mustachioed, pony-tailed gent known to millions as the antique toy expert on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.” Barrett stopped by during the store’s customer appreciation day last November. “I moved to Carversville 28 years ago,” he said that day, “and the general store was just opening. It was big on plumbing supplies back then. I’ve come here through six iterations and four owners. It’s been a long wait for the best.” With a twinkle in his eye he added: “We’re very blessed, but the downside is it will bring more people into this tiny town!”
That day Hansen showcased some of the specialties he makes using both locally grown ingredients and products and those he has handpicked from elsewhere for their quality. The highlight was dishes using the whole Berkshire pig he had slow smoked in his custom unit, plus smoked gigante beans with bacon and molasses, and mac and cheese with bacon and poblano peppers. Among the regionally produced ingredients featured in the grab-and-go case and on the store’s vintage wood shelves, cabinets, and tables are: Shibumi mushrooms, Blue Moon Acres greens, Castle Valley Mills grains, Rojo’s Roastery coffee, OWowCow ice cream, PorcSalt charcuterie, and Italities olive oils. These are offered alongside a winning, idiosyncratic mix of stylish accessories and high and low comestibles. PorcSalt salumi, yes, but also Taylor ham. Chips made from trendy chia next to Cracker Jack. Burlap bags of Virginia peanuts and boxes of Jell-O pudding.
All of the above is arranged with an artistic eye by Andrea Hansen. Of her, husband Max says, “I’m often given the credit for everything, but really, it’s both my wife — she is a blessing and so talented — and my team.” Among those he mentions are Drew Abbate, who recently closed his Doylestown bistro, Vine & Fig Tree, to become the grocery’s chef and manager, and Rita Gekht, Greg Glowatz, and Ellen McGoldrick from his catering operation. “I couldn’t do any of this without this strong team we’ve put together. A lot of them have been working with me for 10-plus years — some for 16!”
Pride of place in the refrigerated case is Hansen’s own renowned smoked salmon, which he has been producing for decades, and which no less an expert than Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame has dubbed “arguably the finest smoked salmon produced in America.” These days it can be found not only at the French Laundry and the Carversville grocery, but also at top-shelf markets such as Dean & Deluca. Closer to home, it is at Nassau Street Seafood, Olives, and Agricola. In 2003 Hansen wrote a best-selling cookbook, “Smoked Salmon, Delicious Innovative Recipes.”
The road to that smoked specialty started with Hansen’s Bucks County childhood. “My grandparents moved here in the 1930s,” he says. “They were patrons of the arts, first in Phillips Mill and then they built a property — Quarry Farm — on the outskirts of New Hope. It was an inspirational place to grow up! They knew all the local artists, including Howard Pyle, who founded the Brandywine School. My grandmother studied with Maxfield Parrish.”
His grandparents, Bertha and Marshall Cole, were also friends of Charlie and Freddie Child, whose brother, Paul, would one day become Julia Child’s husband. “Charlie Child painted a mural at my grandparents’ home, so we grew up eating dinner with this amazing art as background,” he says. That was how, while still in his early 20s, Hansen got to work alongside Julia Child at a private social event. By then he had studied classics and art history at Vassar, and had graduated at the top of his class from the New England Culinary Institute (NECI). He counts among his most prized possessions two knives that were a wedding present to his parents from Julia and Paul Child. “I use them every day,” he says with a mixture of pride and affection.
Hansen’s love of food and cooking started with childhood summers in New Hope with his grandparents. “I gardened with my grandfather, so I came to love canning tomatoes, pickling pumpkin, making creamed corn with him. As a child, I thought that all the asparagus in the world came from my grandfather’s garden. He was composting back then, the 1960s, before it became a common thing.” He played tennis in high school, and when he told his mother he wanted to play indoors as well, she told him he would have to earn the money. “So, I started washing dishes at Mother’s Restaurant in New Hope,” he says. Mother’s is also where award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton got her start — also as a dishwasher. Hansen says the children of both families grew up together.
For a number of years, Hansen and his parents lived in Concord, Massachusetts. “Again, it was a place with history and beauty, like here. In between my years at Vassar I worked summers as a dishwasher on Martha’s Vineyard, at the Ocean Club, one of the most notable restaurants on the island.” But he was a dishwasher with a brain and with the discipline of an athlete, so they soon made him a prep cook and subsequently a line cook. “They were like a second family to me. I was pushed — and that’s when I made the decision to pursue the culinary arts. I was more productive and passionate about that than anything else — and I was good at it,” he says.
After graduation he was working at a restaurant in Montpelier, Vermont, when a call came in from singer/songwriter Carly Simon, who had been a regular at the Ocean Club. “She said she was opening a restaurant in New York City — what would eventually become Memphis.” Memphis would go on to receive many accolades, including being dubbed the best Cajun/Creole restaurant by New York magazine. “This was in the early ‘80s. So I went to the city!” he says, still with a bit of astonishment in his voice. “I was 22 at the time, with no experience doing Cajun and Creole cooking. So instead of taking the chef job, I said, ‘I’ll work for a chef who does.’ That was an amazing time to be in the restaurant business in Manhattan! I met, for example, Larry Forgione and Alfred Portale. I was fortunate; I learned a lot. I had a lot of responsibility at a young age.” After that, Hansen went on to work in France as private chef to Arthur Hartman, who had served as ambassador to both France and the Soviet Union. Classical French cuisine became the foundation for Hansen’s personal culinary style.
Eventually Hansen returned to New York’s fine dining scene, where he worked with culinary icons Michel Rostang (Le Regence at the Plaza Athenee) and Thomas Keller (Rakel), among others. “That is when my obsession with smoked salmon began,” he says. It became full blown when he then returned to his alma mater, NECI, to teach. “During those two years I came up with the smoked salmon recipe with one of my instructors, David Miles,” he relates. Hansen had stumbled across an old Scottish smoking manual at Kitchen Arts & Letters, the legendary New York cookbook store. “We tried wet curing and dry curing. We tried curing under refrigeration and at room temperature. We tried Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon. In the end, we started over from scratch.” Hansen’s fish (he uses Atlantic salmon) soon came to be considered equal to a fine, dry-cure Scottish salmon, and at the height of its popularity he was producing 10,000 pounds a year. (He expects to reach that level again soon.)
“We use kosher salt and sugar to cure, which produces the fine texture. Another important factor is the exact mix of hard and fruitwood chips,” he says. “The salmon is one thing that distinguishes us from our catering competitors.” Catering, in fact, consumes most of Max Hansen’s time. “Even though I am usually working out of the grocery store office, 70 to 80 percent relates to the catering end of the business, which is my bread and butter.”
Yet it is clear that the grocery is where his heart is, at least for now. “I’m doing it for this very unique community I live in,” he says. “My client base includes artists, authors, titans of business, and many creative, talented people who really want to be here in this amazing community.” He credits wife Andrea, who is “a couple of years younger” than her husband, with getting the retail side of the business off the ground. “She’s responsible for the genuine, step-back-in-time feel of a general store, but one with a current approach to food,” he says. “One with the comfort and community of yesteryear, but today’s food and convenience.”
For 2014 Hansen’s major goal is to hire a business manager. “I need to get out of my own way! I’m creative — I like writing recipes and I need to write another cookbook. This one will not be ingredient-specific like the smoked salmon book, and the grocery is a good platform to issue it from. We’re making money — not hand-over-fist, but we’re getting busier and busier and we are becoming more efficient. This ‘engine’ is capable of doing more! I’m usually patient, but I also have drive. The immediate community already knows about us, but the wider community — Princeton, Philly, Doylestown — is just starting to discover us.”
Among his plans for the store are: to use its garden (“it’s amazing”) for picnics, to show films in the field behind the store in the summer, and to establish a regular dinner series, limited to 35 guests, called Max’s Table. “The first one was in November and it was a big success. We plan to hold at least one a month,” he explains, adding, “Perhaps in winter, even once every other Friday — to keep the spirits of Carversville up!” (The dinners will be announced on Facebook and via E-newsletter.) “It really is a dream come true. I love this little town. It’s a very special place on earth.”
Max Hansen Carversville Grocery, 6208 Fleecy Dale Road, Carversville. 215-297-5353. www.maxscarversvillegrocery.com. Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.