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Chris Rosenblum | Wandering their way back home, Hummingbird Room owners return from adventure

Eric and Claudia Sarnow are working to reopen the Hummingbird Room in Spring Mills.
Eric and Claudia Sarnow are working to reopen the Hummingbird Room in Spring Mills. CDT photo

The curtain is set to rise on the second act of the Hummingbird Room’s story.

Nine years ago, the renowned restaurant in the 19th-century brick house near Spring Mills closed without fanfare. Owners Claudia and Eric Sarnow quietly disappeared from the public eye.

Now they’re back, poised to reopen and once again serve gourmet dishes after almost a decade of international travel and adventure.

During their hiatus, the Sarnows led an exotic life. Eric prepared sumptuous meals for the rich and famous as the chef of a giant private yacht, cruising through the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. His wife and son periodically visited him overseas.

But that ship has sailed. The Sarnows, who kept the Hummingbird Room house, have decided to give the restaurant business another try — but with a different flavor.

Starting this week, they won’t have regular days open as before. Instead, they’re looking to book private dinners at the restaurant or cook for small gatherings elsewhere. Their plans include retailing their food products locally, perhaps bundled in gift baskets.

They might offer cooking classes in the restaurant or community bread-baking sessions in a brick oven planned for the backyard.

Whatever they do, they hope, will sustain their joy of cooking with fresh, local ingredients and their pleasure from sharing fine food — twin passions that began to dim in 2005.

“We got the feeling that the restaurant was running us,” Eric said. “We weren’t running the restaurant.”

“We were tired, and that joy went out of it,” Claudia said. “When the joy goes out of what you’re doing, then the things that used to make you happy suddenly become your jail. And it wasn’t happy for us any more.”

They’re returning on their own terms, excited to stand on the verge of another leap into the unknown. It’s not the first time they’ve heeded a pull almost spiritual in nature, a yearning for reinvention.

“That always seems to be a thread in our life, that we are well-guided if we pay attention,” Claudia said, laughing.

In 1993, they listened to that inner tug and moved from Philadelphia.

Eric was a classically-trained chef at the famous French restaurant Le Bec-Fin, which closed last year. Prior to that, he had worked in France for three years at two five-star establishments, Chateau d’Artigny and Domaine de Beauvois, in the Loire Valley.

But after their son, Evan, was born prematurely in 1992, he and Claudia reassessed their life. Long days meant he seldom saw his infant son. He needed a change.

Claudia found one.

She knew the owners of the Woodward Inn from living in Centre County, and had heard they were looking to sell.

Her husband, who grew up beside Lake Champlain in the Adirondacks, considered the prospect. He had liked the area on a fishing trip before Evan’s birth. The country, he thought, would be a good place to raise a family.

When the Woodward Inn owners were willing to lease the property, the Sarnows took the plunge.

“People always say we were brave,” Claudia said. “But we were just so naive. We were just like: ‘Why not? People like good food. We’ll move to the country with our baby and start a restaurant.’ ”

Their next move came two years later.

They knew a family who lived in a beautiful 1847 house. Claudia, after visiting it, had fallen in love. Every time she passed it on state Route 45, her dream rekindled.

One day, out of the blue, the owner called. Her husband had been transferred, and they were selling. Were the Sarnows interested?

They definitely were. But there was a competing offer.

The parents and their 10 children put it to a family vote.

They saw how enamored Claudia was with the place. They liked the idea of their beloved home becoming a restaurant so the public could appreciate it.

They made their choice.

As Evan grew, so did the Hummingbird Room’s reputation. The Sarnows enjoyed running a farm-to-table operation in the Old World tradition Eric had absorbed while cooking in France.

But then it grew stale as day-old baguettes. Life again whispered to the Sarnows.

Claudia one night happened to see a TV program about the yachting lifestyle. Inspiration struck.

“She just came downstairs and said, ‘What do you think? Those people must need someone to cook for them,’ ” Eric recalled.

Claudia had inherited a house near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After some research, they discovered that several crewing agencies were located nearby.

While Claudia and Justin Remo, the Hummingbird’s sous chef, ran the restaurant, Eric traveled to Florida to investigate. He returned ready to go.

After the last football weekend of that fall, the Sarnows shut their front door. Off went the answering machine, and away they went, embarking on a new chapter.

Rumors had them bankrupt or divorced. But their neighbors and friends knew the truth.

They were just away exploring.

“But at the same time, we were sort of terrified by this crazy idea of walking away from our restaurant and working on yachts,” Claudia said. “We didn’t know anybody who had done that.”

Eric eventually ended up in the galley of a luxurious 145-foot long, 3-story yacht with an elevator, regal staterooms and bathrooms adorned with marble sinks. For the past seven years, the ship has been both his workplace and a ticket to visiting Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, Greece and Morocco, among other countries.

Not only did he expand his culinary horizons, he had a great time, once catching a 35-pound wahoo at sea and barbecuing it on deck, even learning how to maintain the yacht’s two 16-valve engines.

Meanwhile, Claudia and Evan spent winters in Florida and the Caribbean, summers in Spring Mills, staying in touch with friends. From time to time, they traveled to see Eric, staying on board the yacht, once even crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

But this past summer, the Sarnows let themselves be guided once more.

The yacht was being shipped in a huge barge to Europe, leaving Eric with free time. For the first time in ages, he was back in his old haunts.

Over weeks, he rediscovered the house and property.

Maybe it was time to shift from the sea and revive the Hummingbird Room. Local farmers markets had proliferated since their departure. The “slow food” movement had grown.

Maybe it was time to pay attention again.

So the Sarnows’ life took another turn. Last month, they hosted a fundraiser dinner for the Penns Valley Conservation Association — a soft opening of sorts. For the weekend after Thanksgiving, they’re planning an open house for the public with local food and crafts for sale.

They’ll also be open to other voices suggesting paths.

“I want people to come and tell us what to do — except what we did before,” Claudia said.

These days, they’re savoring their latest choice like a delicate wine. Friends and former employees have welcomed them back. With Evan on the staff now, it’s a true family business.

Only time will tell whether the second act is a hit, whether customers will contact them at MissRubysSupperClub@gmail.com to arrange dinners.

Whatever awaits, they’re banking on life steering them right as it always has.

“I just know in my heart it’s going to work,” Claudia said. “It’s going to be fine.”

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