The NECI Niche
Surveying the spread of Vermont's Culinary Connections
When French chef Robert Barral opened elegant Cafe Provence in the small town of Brandon last summer, he knew he was taking a risk. Barral, who speaks with a beguiling, Old World accent and is known universally as "Chef Ro-bear," says the out-of-the-way location was "a huge concern" given that his restaurant specializes in cuisine from the south of France. The average entree price is $17. "We were thinking, 'My God, who is going to come here?'"
But Barral, who has been the head chef at the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton restaurants, reports that business has been good; last weekend, the line of customers stretched out the door.
Barral came to Brandon via the New England Culinary Institute, where he worked for years as the executive chef. Founded in 1980 by Fran Voigt and John Dranow, NECI has attracted numerous talented teachers and students to the Green Mountains. Many of them have left the state -- like "Good Eats" TV show host Alton Brown, who graduated in 1997. But some, like Barral, have stayed.
In addition to the three NECI-owned restaurants in Vermont, more than two dozen of Vermont's eating establishments --many of them in small towns previously unfamiliar with haute cuisine -- are owned by former students and instructors. The availability of talented chefs who are willing and able to experiment with food has significantly altered the state's culinary culture. They're not always slaving over a hot stove, either. Some NECI grads are making perfect pastry. Others are improving the food in local institutions. Still others run wine shops, catering businesses and delivery services.
Barral came to Vermont after meeting Chef Michel LeBorgne, who convinced him to move here and teach at NECI. Back then, he says, Vermont eaters were not so adventurous. "I still remember the days in Montpelier when we couldn't make a duck breast medium rare," he says. "The duck had to be crispy, completely cooked, and dry."
Now even family-style restaurants are passing the taste test. NECI grads Laura and Tom O'Connell own the Windjammer Hospitality Group in South Burlington. When they took over her family's restaurants, "the menu was prime rib, very basic steak and seafood," says Laura. Now they serve grilled Texas chili-rubbed ribeye and cedar-planked pecan-crusted salmon with pineapple chipotle salsa.
But NECI executive chef David Hale, himself a NECI grad who moved here to attend school in 1988, suggests that "NECI and Vermont have grown up together, rather than us driving any major shifts in the landscape." He cites the increase in high-quality food producers --and an influx of urbanites --as other factors to explain the growing number of good restaurants. He says NECI's biggest contribution was bringing "formal structure and classical techniques to a region that has been, for the most part, Mom-and-Pop-based."
Williston aside, the Mom-and-Pop thing hasn't changed much. What's different, as this map illustrates, is the likelihood that Mom or Pop --or both --has attended culinary school.
1. Market Fresh Catering, Winooski
Liane Mendez and Daniel Sampson, Chef/Owners
Culinary Arts, 1997
Maine-born Liane Mendez was a trained architect when she applied to NECI. There she fell in love with Vermont, and with Dan Sampson. After bouncing around between jobs for a few years, in 2003 the two opened a small cafe and catering business in the Champlain Mill. Customers who brave the downtown construction will discover homemade soups, grilled reubens and Asian dishes such as Thai beef salad with nuoccham dressing.
2. Auggie's Island Grill, Burlington
La Villa Bistro, Shelburne
Adam Spell, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1998;
BA Food and Beverage Management, 2000
Adam Spell says he left NECI with an invaluable understanding of how flavors mingle. But his great collection of recipes came from home. The St. Thomas, Virgin Islands-born chef perfects them at Caribbean-flavored Auggie's, which he owns with his wife, Jill. House favorites include conch fritters and pan-seared mahi-mahi with mango chutney.
3. City Market, Burlington
Bri Palmer, Catering Department, Culinary Arts, 2001
Bri Palmer worked at the Blue Seal in Richmond for three years before leaving to run the self-serve pick-up deli in Burlington's downtown grocery store. It's part of the prepared foods department designed by fellow NECI grad Jamie Eisenberg. Hungry shoppers seek out Palmer's mascarpone tortas -- a layered dish with cream cheese, basil pine nut pesto and roasted red peppers. "It's a really rich, creamy goodness thing," she says.
4. Leunig's Bistro, Burlington
Monica Lamay, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 1997
The head chef at this popular French-American bistro was born and raised in Burlington. But she worked in California kitchens, and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, before returning home to roast. She doesn't trifle with Leunig's escargot maison in garlic walnut herb butter, but "I change the menu five times a year," she says. "I like to make it as local and fresh as I can."
5. Mirabelles, Burlington
Alison Lane, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1989
Andrew Silva, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1987
Alison Lane says the eclectic eatery and pastry shop she owns with Andrew Silva probably wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for NECI. Lane moved to Vermont from Vancouver to attend culinary school in Montpelier, where the friends met and both taught after graduation. They opened Mirabelles on Main Street in 1990, and expanded four years ago. In addition to serving exquisite fresh French pastries six mornings a week, Lane and Silva also dish out biscuits with egg and cheese, shredded hash browns and Asian salmon burgers.
6. The Windjammer Hospitality Group, Burlington
Tom and Laura O'Connell, Owners
Culinary Arts, 1992
The Windjammer restaurant and Upper Deck Pub have been in Laura O'Connell's family for almost 30 years; she was born a Levering. But she and husband Tom have spiced up the menu since they took over. They're also happy to provide NECI grads with a good, creative place to work. Right now there are three NECI alums on the payroll, making burgers and the occasional maple grilled pork loin chop with warm apple chutney.
7. Wine Works, Burlington
Bill Shahady, Owner
Culinary Arts, 1993; BA Food and Beverage Management, 1996
Bill Shahady knew he liked wine, but he didn't know how to express it until he went to NECI. There he got a primer on which grapes grow where, and what wines go best with what --knowledge he used to open what he says is the only all-wine store in Vermont. He's the guy to see about a light, aromatic, Argentinian or a unique Spanish cabernet rose. Shahady introduces new labels into the area whenever he can. "There's more to wine than whatever somebody's promoting in a magazine," he says.
8. Smokejacks, Burlington
Leslie Myers, Chef/Owner, NECI instructor, 1996-1997
Kathleen Maloney, General Manager, Culinary Arts, 2001
Leslie Myers graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, but moved from the West Coast to teach at NECI in 1997. These days she's running Smokejacks, an upscale restaurant specializing in seasonal delicacies made from local ingredients. She also runs marathons. Myers credits NECI for stocking the local labor pool with lots of qualified food-service employees. Smokejacks general manager Kathleen Maloney is a grad.
9. Let's Pretend Catering, Burlington
Bill Allen, Executive Chef, NECI instructor, 2000-2002
Bill Allen worked in Los Angeles and New York City before moving to Vermont to teach fine dining at NECI. In 2002 he became the executive chef at the former O restaurant, and in 2003 Barb Bardin hired him to cook for Let's Pretend. Allen controls every aspect of the meals he prepares, and says he brings "the immediacy and freshness of a restaurant experience to a catered meal."
10. Big Chile Republic, Burlington
Chris Hechanova, Chef/Co-owner, former NECI student
Chris Hechanova didn't actually go to NECI -- the aspiring chef moved from Illinois to enroll, but found once he got here that he couldn't afford both rent and school. He took a few classes, including one on table service -- ironic, considering he's the proprietor of a highly acclaimed Mexican food delivery service. The menus he and partner Andrew Lawrence devise change every week, and include dishes such as Pollo a la Veracruzana -- braised chicken with tomato, capers, olives and herbs with salsa rojo, rice, sour cream and cilantro on a flour tortilla. At $5.50, it's great food for someone on a limited budget.
ROUTE 7 CORRIDOR
11. Shelburne Farms
Jamie Miller, Cheese maker, Culinary Arts, 2000
NECI alumni have managed the cheese-making operation at Shelburne Farms for 12 years. The artisanal operation at the historic farm produces about 100,000 pounds of rGBH- and rBST-free farmhouse cheddar in a year -- less than what a large commercial producer would make in a single day. The pure-bred herd of Brown Swiss cows are milked on the spot, ensuring a freshness that's garnered several awards from the American Cheese Society.
12. Basin Harbor Club, Vergennes
David Merrill, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 1986
David Merrill worked at the Basin Harbor Club for a decade before attending culinary school. After graduation, he moved to Cape Cod to work at a full-service resort. But when the head chef job opened at Basin Harbor, he beat it back to take charge of the club's three kitchens and 70-person staff. In the 12 years since he returned, he's tried to "de-institutionalize" the place, using local ingredients whenever possible and making all of the sauces and stocks from scratch.
13. Swift House, Middlebury
Carrie Mooney, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 2001
The Swift House might be known for its Tuscan-style lobster tail, but Chef Carrie Mooney boasts about the desserts. The chocolate bread pudding, creme brulee --even the ice cream is made on the premises, which is a 190-year-old former residence. Mooney, a New Hampshire native who moved to Vermont during her NECI years, is vocal about buying local. She cooks Misty Knoll chicken and gets her dairy products right up the road, at Monument Farms.
14. Middlebury College
Brad Koehler, General Manager of Commons Operations
Culinary Arts, 1986
Middlebury College is the only four-year college in the state participating in the Vermont Fresh Network, which ensures at least some of the food Midd kids eat is local. Twenty-six percent, in fact. NECI alumnus Brad Koehler played a big role in securing that partnership. Koehler also oversees the Commons-style dining halls, where you can get your steak cooked to order.
15. Cafe Provence, Brandon
Robert Barral, Chef/Owner, NECI Executive Chef,
Former NECI instructor and executive chef Robert Barral has worked at fancy resorts and on cruise ships. But last summer, he and his wife Line opened a new French restaurant in downtown Brandon. It features an open kitchen, so diners can see Barral and his 100-percent NECI-trained staff preparing dishes from the south of France. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus change seasonally. The restaurant is closed on Mondays so Barral can teach cooking.
16. The Perfect Wife, Manchester
Amy Chamberlain, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1988
The sign in front of Amy Chamberlain's memorably named restaurant makes for a good photo-op -- "People stop and take
pictures all the time," she quips -- but it's the good food that's kept the Manchester place open for the past eight years. Chamberlain keeps popular local favorites like turkey schnitzel on the menu, but she calls her cooking "freestyle cuisine." She likes to experiment with Asian recipes, such as sesame-crusted yellow fin tuna with stir fried vegetables and "killer Oriental sauce."
ROUTE 89/91 CORRIDOR
17. The Kitchen Table, Richmond
Steve and Lara Atkins, Chef/Owners
attended School of Culinary Arts, 1995
Steve Atkins grew up in Shelburne, Lara in Tennessee. They met at NECI, then moved to Napa Valley, where they worked in restaurants for five years instead of completing their degrees. After attending a friend's Vermont wedding, they found the old Checquer's Restaurant in Richmond for sale on-line and bought it. Then they moved back and opened The Kitchen Table, where diners feast on "comfort food" taken to a new level, like grilled pork tenderloin, served with roasted Brussel sprouts, potato-parsnip puree and cider jus.
18. Toscano, Richmond
Jon Fath, Owner, Culinary Arts, 1995
Jon Fath drummed for a couple of rock bands before entering culinary school. About a year and a half ago, he and his wife Lucie turned the former Daily Bread bakery into a rustic Mediterranean bistro. In keeping with the down-to-earth tradition of the spot, Fath describes his downtown Richmond restaurant as "not overly foofy" -- despite offerings like a grilled salmon filet with ginger citrus beurre blanc, wasabi-mashed potatoes and chick peas.
19. Bolton Valley Resort
Andrew LaHaye, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 2000
Before landing at the ski resort last winter, this New Hampshire-born chef worked at the Mist Grill in Waterbury and as the Inn at Shelburne Farms' executive sous chef.
At Bolton, he oversees six different eating areas that serve everything from "eclectic American" to pub food and pizza. Skiers looking for fine dining can try the newly renovated Bailey restaurant, which serves a garlic pepper duck breast with pumpkin ravioli in a cherry compote sauce.
20. Olive Bistro, Stowe
Jeff Brynn, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1994
Jeff Brynn grew up in Shelburne, but came to Stowe via New Zealand, where he moved with his Kiwi wife after graduating from NECI. When the family was ready to return to Vermont in 1999, Brynn sold his New Zealand bakery and bought Olive Bistro. The small Mediterranean eatery is open Wednesday through Sunday, and Brynn's focaccia, baked in stone pizza ovens with kosher salt and fresh rosemary, is what people like best.
21. Conoscenti, Montpelier
Dale Conoscenti, Chef/Owner, Culinary Arts, 1987
Dale Conoscenti was a flavor designer at Ben and Jerry's before he started cooking for kids at the Barre Town Elementary School. There, as executive chef for nine years, he got national press --from Eating Well, USA Today, and on ABC and CNN --for serving exotic chilled soups and paellas. The fare at his 2-year-old self-titled restaurant is no less experimental. His Caesar salad is actually a salad within a salad -- a tapanade with fresh garlic and two kinds of olives inside a half-moon of Parmesan cheese atop the greens.
22. Sarducci's, Montpelier
Chris Veatch, Chef, Culinary Arts, 1987
Jeff Finch, Sous Chef, Culinary Arts, 1996
Chef Chris Veatch moved to Vermont from Colorado to attend NECI in the 1980s, and he's still here. For the last decade, he's been at the Capital City's popular Italian eatery, where he cooks rabbit, lamb shank and cockles with kale and andouille sausage. His point of pride? "Consistency," he says. "Keeping it good for 10 years."
23. Sean and Nora's, Barre
John Mayfield, Chef/Owner, Instructor, 1995-2001
John Mayfield didn't attend NECI, but he says he learned a lot while he taught there from the "great sharing of knowledge" among NECI instructors.
He credits the school for "putting Montpelier on
the culinary map." Now he's trying to do the same for Barre. Promising "food from America's neighborhoods," Sean and Nora's is a hot prospect.
24. Three Stallion Inn, Randolph
Bob Hildebrand, Chef, Culinary Arts, 1999
Bob Hildebrand went to work in a suit and tie for 15 years before moving to Vermont from Boston and enrolling in NECI. Now he works at a moderately upscale eatery in Randolph, where he keeps prices low -- all entrees are under $20 -- to avoid scaring off local customers. He enjoys experimenting with "challenging" meat, like rabbit, pheasant, quail and venison. During the tourist season, he likes "to go a little wahoo," but "other times of the year I don't dare," he says.
25. Twin Farms, Barnard
Peter Heaney, Sous Chef, Culinary Arts, 1995
Ted Ask, Sous Chef, Culinary Arts, 1998
Most Vermonters will never eat at the restaurant attached to the five-star Twin Farms resort in Barnard -- rooms there start at just over $1000 a night. The restaurant doesn't even have a menu. The kitchen staff, including sous chef Peter Heaney and Ted Ask, take the dietary specifications of each guest into account when they prepare meals such as lavender salt-crusted rack of lamb with gratin of garden turnip, braised mustard greens and barley jus. Heaney, whose wife Pam Knights was instrumental in starting the Vermont Fresh Network, says he and Ask have pushed the head chef to use as many local ingredients as possible. "The guests," he adds, "don't seem to mind."
26. Inn at Weathersfield
Scott Myers, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 1996
Scott Myers sees a lot of second-homers from Connecticut and New Jersey at the Inn at Weathersfield, and he likes to feed them Vermont products. He's proud of the local produce he serves in the summer. But not everything is Green Mountain-made -- for example, the sauteed kangaroo topside steaks in Michigan sour cherry sauce. "The food is so much more interesting once you get out of the city," he says.
27. Riverview Cafe, Brattleboro
Tristan Toleno, Executive Chef, Culinary Arts, 1996
Tristan Toleno describes
his 40-item dinner menu
as "casual American fare." Customers can order burgers or a goat cheese salad at his 4-year-old cafe. Toleno grew up in Marlboro
and got a philosophy degree before attending NECI. After spending a few years in New York City, he moved home, then opened the restaurant. His goal as a restaurateur is "to be popular and emphasize Vermont products."