The Olde Bryan Inn’s Executive Chef on Keeping the Restaurant Relevant, Even During a Pandemic

As anyone who grew up in the Spa City knows, nothing beats walking into the cozy Olde Bryan Inn on a cold winter’s day and ordering a hot bowl of French onion soup to enjoy next to its blazing wood fireplace. Housed in a nearly-200-year-old building, the “OBI,” as locals know it, is a Saratoga institution and has delighted customers for four decades and counting. That’s thanks, in large part, to John Capelli, the restaurant’s executive chef.

A Saratoga native, Capelli came to the OBI as the restaurant’s first intern in 1990. He was then hired as a prep cook and moved up the ranks—“to salad to sauté to grill to expedite to brunch cook,” he says—within a year. He was named executive chef in the late ’90s when he was in his mid-20s.

The OBI has gone through its fair share of changes, too—log cabin (circa 1773), Bryan family residence (1825), Burnham’s Hand Laundry (1925), Veitch family residence (1954) and, finally, the restaurant that it is today (1981). After 250 years, and with a seasoned chef like Capelli at its helm, OBI is ready to handle anything thrown its way. Including a pandemic.

How has the OBI managed to stay so popular and relevant?
My mission is “simple comfort food” meets “cutting edge.” As far as the menu in general, I am very passionate about having something for everyone. I like to have a wide variety of menu items that include as many ingredients as possible from local vendors. I also like listening to our guests for continuous feedback.

What’s it been like navigating the pandemic at the restaurant?
It’s been a challenge, for sure. We’re taking every precaution we can so people can come in and have some comfort food and feel like [COVID] is not going on. But, without sounding arrogant, this property has been through everything: We’ve been through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Korean War, World War I, World War II…so to us, coronavirus is just another challenge.

What has kept you working at the OBI for all these years?
It’s a tie: my passion and pride for the industry and what I do, and my owner, Steve Sullivan. I absolutely love the guy—he’s a mentor, he cares about his community, he cares about his people. And I love getting out on the floor every single night, greeting tables, carrying out food, checking on people. It’s just wonderful to feel, at this point in my career, that I’m not at all burnt out or sick of doing this. It’s just the opposite. I wake up every day wanting to come in and make people happy. 

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