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Hudson Valley, Catskills + beyond

Hudson Valley Wedding Caterer Heirloom Fire

PARTY PEOPLE: A Conversation with James Gop of Heirloom Fire

If you’ve spent any time around the northeast wedding scene, you’re probably familiar with my next guest. James Gop is the founder and head chef at Heirloom Fire, an open-fire catering company that is quite literally a feast for the eyes – cooking is done in full view of the guests over open fires, the chefs dress in vintage-inspired vests and hats and accessories, and the signature family style wedding dinner is presented on a 5’ long wood board delivered to each dining table. “You eat with your eyes first,” James says of Heirloom Fire’s signature style.

A lot of what draws people into the Heirloom Fire experience is found in our evolutionary DNA. “It’s the art of survival, “ James says, explaining that our ancestors were hunters and gatherers who spent a large majority of their lives in search of food and then preparing it and ultimately sharing it around fires. “Fires are generational,” he says. “The best conversations happen around dinner tables, and I think that started with our ancestors sharing the hope of living another day together.”

Hudson Valley Wedding Planning / Heirloom Fire Catering / Open Fire Catering
Photo by Mark Spooner

But creating experiences with food wasn’t always on James’ mind. As a child, he was very artistic, constantly drawing and creating things. In particular, he remembers that he always loved Halloween, since it gave him an opportunity to “escape into something else.” He also explained that his relationship with food when he was young was unhealthy. “I was really obese in middle school and high school,” he says, “and I was always surrounded by food, but not in a good way. When we went to the grocery store, it was more about ‘what can I get for how little,’ and then storing as much as possible in our two standing chest freezers.” Food became a source of security. Later he turned to starvation and other restrictive behaviors to lose a significant amount of weight, even though those routines left him sick and depleted.

Eventually James decided to make his way to Hollywood to pursue a career in special effects makeup. He says that his work during this time inspired the look of the outfits the Heirloom Fire team wears today.

After some time, James became interested in food. He spent time in culinary school, in the kitchens of several high end restaurants, and eventually returned to the Berkshires and worked with a small butcher shop, a farm and several other small makers in the area. As he met the local farmers and their families and sourced meat from the surrounding area, he really started leaning into the value of local, seasonal foods, and understanding how rapid growth and industry had really disrupted the American food scene. “It’s the story of capitalism and food,” he explains. He started reading about how post WWII the “bigger, faster, cheaper” models of production took over the agricultural food movement in the United States. “We started trying to feed the world, instead of feeding the community, with our produce.” He began to look at and appreciate food differently, and Heirloom Fire grew from that.

Photo by Forged in the North

Heirloom Fire’s approach is a return to the local, sustainable, and community-centric nature of food. In addition to sourcing the best local ingredients from small purveyors in the Northeast, James is also super passionate about what happens to all of the “leftovers.” The Heirloom Fire team is constantly making stocks with bones and seasonings from dehydrated animal skins. Whenever possible, leftover food from events is given to local farmers to feed their pigs. “Nothing goes to waste here,” James says. 

“[Heirloom Fire] was built between a Tuesday and Friday,” James says. He was between jobs and figuring out his next move when he got a call to do a lamb-roast event for a celebrity client. He jumped at the chance, prepped the food in his parents’ kitchen and had his cousin, who happened to be a fabricator and welder, make the cooking mechanisms. After that, the growth was rapid and all at once. “There were refrigerators everywhere, we were making charcuterie in my basement and renting trucks every weekend.” His cousin continued to craft the metal structures they use to cook and display their food every weekend. Years later, they have their own facility with a large kitchen and hand-made “curing cabinet” where they hang and cure meats for their charcuterie program, as well as their own truck that carries their custom outdoor kitchen all over the Northeast and beyond for events.

Photo by Mark Spooner

In addition to private events, James is also committed to producing events for the public. They regularly host dinners in their Berkshires tasting room as well as other more exotic locations. The craziest location he’s done an event so far? That would be inside a cave in Rosendale, NY. “That was the Widow Jane Mine,” he says, “half of it is under water, so that was a challenge. But I have to keep pushing things forward,” he says.

Sometimes, that drive to keep pushing things forward is costly. During the event season, “the week starts on Sunday, since the small farms we like to work with need lead time.” On Sundays, he places his orders with the local purveyors by 5pm. Mondays and Tuesdays are spent foraging and finishing up menus, Wednesdays and Thursdays are for prep, and Fridays and Saturdays are in full event mode, where 15-16 hour days are the norm. On Sundays, “the first half is for rest,” and spending lots of time with Angus, his dog. “He’s the smartest dog – I talk to him like he’s a regular person,” James says. “He’s family.”

To keep burn-out at bay, James looks to activities that inspire him. “If I don’t have inspiration on a daily basis, it’s not healthy for me.” He loves Audiobooks (“The Six Types of Working Genius” by Patrick Lencioni and “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber are favorites), working with leather with his Cricket, and in 2022 he even made his own mini-sauna.

When asked where he sees himself and Heirloom Fire in five years, he says he just wants to keep trying new things. Ultimately, James describes himself as “a dreamer and an inventor.” And inevitably, he’ll keep dreaming and inventing new things, turning the “art of survival” into the “art of the possible.”

Rapid Fire with James Gop

  • Spring or Fall? Spring
  • What’s your Enneagram? 4
  • Sweet or Savory? Savory
  • Guilty Pleasure: Sour Candy. In fact, he’s currently on a quest to find the most sour candy on earth.
  • Ability to read minds or ability to see the future: See the Future
  • What’s your desert island food? Aioli
  • Your best advice for couples planning weddings? “Trust your team – you hired them for a reason. Don’t force something that doesn’t fit.”
  • If you could teleport right now, where would you go? I’d visit people and animals that have passed, and let them know I didn’t forget.
  • Who’s invited to your ideal dinner party? – Dan Barber (“You know that feeling where you meet your hero and they’re better than you thought? That’s Dan Barber for me”), his grandmother (“she saw and did a lot – I’d want to meet her as an adult”), Thomas Jefferson (“so we can talk about seed keeping – he was one of the first people to send tomatoes to America from France”), and the first person from his family that came from Germany to America (“I want to understand more about my heritage”)

Thanks, James, for spending some time with us! You can find James on Instagram or via the Heirloom Fire website.

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