Between high school and college, I took on my first hospitality job at a Relais & Châteaux property in Darby, Montana: Triple Creek Ranch. I was fortunate to learn the ins and outs of fine dining from a chef who set the staff aside before service every day to answer copious questions about ingredients, preparations and pairings for his nightly menu. I wish I still had my marked up menus, as I can attribute much of what I know about food to Chef Jason Willenbrock, who now runs Posh Chocolate in Missoula, Montana.
Since Triple Creek, I’ve worked with and befriended a number of talented chefs in Vermont. I am always impressed with just how inspired Vermont cuisine is, as well as chefs’ commitments to making their guests happy while also showcasing Vermont’s best products. When night after night they’re plating hundreds of dishes in hot kitchens, passion for ingredients, the rush of service and a deeply engrained love of food is what drive Vermont’s talented chefs to keep on, keeping on.
Getting to Know Vermont’s Top Chefs
I was curious to know more about Vermont’s top chefs: where they eat out when they happen to get a night off, what inspires them and how Vermont—the place, the community, the brand—shapes their cuisine. Read five questions from Vermont’s top chefs below. There might be a surprise or two as you get to know the culinary talents behind some of Vermont’s very best restaurants.
It wasn’t planned. I was on my culinary internship in Telluride, Colorado, and came to Burlington to visit a college friend. I accidentally stumbled upon Shelburne Farms. I flew to back to Telluride and put in my notice! That was in 2000. I left for the first few winters and worked in other parts of the country: Atlanta, Portland, Boone, North Carolina… My third time back I stayed for good.
What about Vermont keeps you inspired? The farms and small producers have always been ahead of the chefs and restaurants. I dug in pretty quickly, and those original farmer relationships are still my strongest; they are very inspiring. I came along at just right time in Vermont. I came up with Pete’s Greens and Jasper Hill, Half Pint, and so many others. That is some pretty inspiring company to keep up with. Now, it is a combo of wanting to see the business and our employees grow, as well as those agriculture relationships.
When you go out to eat, where do you go locally? My favorite places are the places that are owned by friends of mine. In my town, it’s the Pro Pig, Reservoir, Blackback, then up the highway to Hatchet, Kitchen Table, Waterworks and Misery. The best food I have had recently was at Arts Riot.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? That’s too hard to answer. I don’t really look at food like that unless I am in a big city putting $1,000 on my AMEX; “meals-of-a-lifetime” type places. I like to be with friends: eat, drink, feast. I am easy to please with regard to the food. Most food is good. I don’t understand the current culture of critics, ratings, reviews…seems so silly. And disrespectful.
What about the restaurant industry keeps you going? We are growing and learning every day. Life is completely different today than it was 12 months ago, three years ago, five and ten. We are now just feeling settled and learning how to focus while keeping it fresh and new, creating events and staying motivated. It’s a living and breathing thing; it’s constant.
(A bonus #6): What’s next for Hen of the Wood? And what’s next for you? I am really restless. Now it is about focusing. We have a lot of people who depend on us. The restaurant business keeps you in full-survival mode, and we want all three places to thrive and grow, provide opportunity, be soul satisfying. I am pretty idealistic and want to keep my values even in the face of cost-cutting, cheaper products and the challenges of being profitable. I guess that’s a lofty goal nowadays.
Why Vermont? Besides growing up in Vermont, I have always felt it to be a very special place. I like the fact that it is rural but progressive at the same time. No one is too stuck in their ways, and the people are welcoming to everyone.
What about Vermont keeps you inspired? My inspiration is driven a lot by the seasons. I like the ebb and flow of of ingredient availability. In the winter, you have to tap into your creative side a little more. In the summer, there is an explosion of great fresh ingredients.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? I have had some really great meals in Vermont. It is hard to pick a favorite, but one that stands out in my mind is a dinner I had at Bluebird Tavern back when it was on Riverside Ave, and Aaron was still the chef. It was very well executed and made me think differently about what pub food could be. I was working at Michael’s on the Hill at the time and was pretty focused on fine dining. I saw you could take some of those finer elements and bring them to a more approachable level.
What’s one ingredient that chefs and diners alike don’t pay enough respect to? One ingredient that needs more respect is good wheat flour. It is so easy to just grab any random bag of all purpose flour at the market. But there is some really great small production local flours out there. Also knowing what different kinds of flours will do in different applications is great to learn.
What about the restaurant industry keeps you going? I really just like to make people happy. Knowing people like something you have created is also hugely satisfying.
Want to try Chef Doug’s cuisine? He has a slow-fish dinner coming up at Bleu on May 12th. Bleu sent their friends Captain Tony and Cranberry Bob to New Orleans to the International Slow Fish summit, and at the dinner, they’ll be talking about their experience and how it relates to Vermont.
Michael Kloeti, Chef & Owner, Michael’s on the Hill, Waterbury Center, Vermont
Why Vermont? The beauty of the land really reminds me a lot of where I grew up in Switzerland. My wife, Laura, and I wanted to raise our kids in an area like this in a small town with a closely knit community. We also wanted to be able to be close to the farms and food sources. In general, people are more accepting of one another, which I really appreciate too.
What’s one ingredient that chefs and diners alike don’t pay enough respect to? Salt.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? My favorite meal is one I have at home: Grilled Ribeye Steak (charred on the outside and rare on the inside), grilled local bread and asparagus, a chunk of Bailey Hazen Blue cheese on top of the steak, heirloom tomato salad on the side and a nice bottle of red wine.
What about Vermont keeps you inspired? The anticipation of what the next season brings. In Vermont, creativity is guided by the seasons, and it takes a whole lot of creativity sometimes in February. But is pretty fun to open all the things we preserved at the peak of season that we saved for the meager times, and we definitely have to love our root vegetables!
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? Nothing. Diversity is the seasoning of life. But I will say that great bread is my base always.
Why Vermont? Vermont has always been ahead of the farm-to-table trend without even knowing it. We live like Americans used to live. Real butter, organic farming, farm-fresh eggs and the cheese—ohhh the cheese.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? I hate to say something prepared by myself, because I have been tasting my own food for 25 years, but I just built the Argentine wood grill here at Tourterelle, and let me tell you there is nothing better the a local beef burger grilled over the wood coals in the parilla.
What’s one ingredient that chefs and diners alike don’t pay enough respect to? Goat is one thing I love to eat, but it’s been hard to sell in the restaurant until now. I buy whole goats and marinate and grill them for hours over wood coals, Argentinian-style.
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? Fruits de mer. The seafood platter from where my wife Christine is from is epic and local. Stone crab, spider crab, whole shrimp, oysters, butter clams, periwinkles and langoustines all steamed, then chilled and served with fresh mayo and a crusty baguette. You eat it for hours while drinking a nice dry french wine. Yum.
When you go out to eat, where do you go locally? I would love to travel more around Vermont to try so many places (I have a long list) but find most often in Burlington and Middlebury. I love the pizza at Pizza Verita and the home-cooked feeling at Stone Soup in Burlington. Corned beef hash at Snap’s in Bristol and thai food at Sabai Sabai in Middlebury.
Why Vermont? The people, amazing community and the beautiful surroundings.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? A potluck wedding anniversary in a tent on a hillside.
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? Any kind of pasta
What about the restaurant industry keeps you going? The group of fun, inspiring people in this industry.
Kevin Lasko, Chef & Owner, The Backroom, Pittsfield, Vermont
Why Vermont? We chose Vermont for the epic outdoors, quality of life and—above all—the abundance of amazing local products.
When you go out to eat, where do you go locally? We really miss all of the ethnic food in NYC here, so when we are craving some of that, we will stop at Mad Taco in Montpelier (on Mondays, of course, when we can also buy some Heady Topper). We are also always checking out restaurants in Burlington when we are there. Locally there is not much around, but many of our guests at the restaurant have invited us to their homes for dinner, which are always memorable meals. Vermonters are very good cooks.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? The best meal we have had in Vermont was definitely at Hen of the Wood, Burlington. We stopped in late and sat at the kitchen stools next to the chef.
What’s one ingredient that chefs and diners alike don’t pay enough respect to? Animal fat/offal. So much of the meat up here is grass-fed and pastured, which leads to high-quality fat and offal. One night at The Backroom, we had some beef heart from Newhall Farm. It was a Randall cattle… everyone was like, “What is this filet mignon? It’s so good.” I think Americans are a little skittish of offal, because there is so much commodity meat out there that you just really don’t want to eat the organs of. Same thing with the fat; it is just so clean and pure tasting. I just smoked a ham from Maple Wind Farm that we cured ourselves in a maple brine… The fat that rendered off it to the drip pan is AMAZING: sweet, smokey, porky. You could literally put it on anything, and it would be delicious.
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? I would choose to eat potatoes every day. They’re—hands down—my favorite food. They say the 100 folds on a classic French toque are for the 100 different ways to cook eggs. There has to be 200 ways to cook potatoes.
Want to try Chef Kevin’s inventive meals? The Backroom is getting ready to shut down for their “Summer Vacation,” (they cater 35 weddings from May to November at Riverside Farm in Pittsfield), but on June 14th, they plan on doing a “20-Mile Dinner,” with everything sourced or foraged within 20 miles of the restaurant.
Chris Alberti, Chef & Owner, Peasant, Waitsfield, Vermont
Why Vermont? I started coming to Vermont in the mid ’70’s to ski, hike and play golf with my family. In 1979, I came up to go to school at St Michaels. I only stayed for two years, but I knew I would be back to live. I’ve always loved the outdoors, and the sense of community and peace in Vermont was the always the draw!
What’s one ingredient that chefs and diners alike don’t pay enough respect to? I hope and pray that all chefs and diners have respect for the local and not always local livestock that we all use for our menus. I try to give thanks for every animal I use at Peasant.
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? I would eat the Penne Bolognese at Peasant every day as long as I could get a side of spinach once in a while!
What about the restaurant industry keeps you going? First and foremost, I love to cook and create the simple dishes we sell at Peasant. I also love to meet people enjoying themselves in the space my wife, Mary Ellen, and I created together.
What’s next for Peasant? And what’s next for you? We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing at Peasant. I’m surrounded by my adult kids every night of the week; there’s nothing better anywhere!
Ian Huizenga, Chef, Bar Antidote, Vergennes, Vermont
What about the restaurant industry keeps you going? The people, hands down. Whether its the great staff I’m so fortunate to work with every day or the people in the community that I’ve been able to meet… Seeing a full room of people having a good time enjoying themselves is by far and away the best feeling. The rush leading up to it is amazing.
What’s the single best meal you’ve had in Vermont? A honey-juniper glazed Vermont beef tongue taco with a hot’n’sour bean salad.
If you had to eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be? Fresh salad greens with grilled veggies, some good cheese and a fried egg.
What’s next for Bar Antidote? And what’s next for you? Bar Antidote is expanding upstairs into the clock shop, where we will offer our full menu and a tap room with a growler retail section for our First Cut Series of Beers that I’ve been brewing for the restaurant since December. We’re hoping to have at least three beers that are 100% Addison County ales by the fall—once local hops are available again—and six to eight total offerings that are brewed by me to complement the Antidote.
Who is your top Vermont chef, and what dish of theirs is your personal favorite? Share in the comments below.
*All chef photos are courtesy of their respective restaurants. All food photos are by Travel Like a Local: Vermont.