Grilling the Chef
Dennis Vieira, The Red Clover Inn and Restaurant, Mendon
Chef Dennis Vieira
When he was in high school in Swansea, Mass., Dennis Vieira — the youngest of six siblings in “a 100 percent Portuguese” family — didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Instead of pursuing the academic track, Vieira opted to try the autobody voc-tech program, but found he didn’t like getting grease on his hands. Casting around for another option, he tried culinary. “There was only one other guy in the class, so I was surrounded by girls,” he recalls. “I was, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this.’”
But chatting up the ladies wasn’t the only motive that kept Vieira behind a stove. He describes cooking as “a knack; it comes naturally to me.” The proof is in the pudding. Vieira did a stint as chef de cuisine at Hemingway’s, one of southern Vermont’s most highly regarded restaurants. Now, as executive chef at The Red Clover Inn — which opened under its current owners in July — he feeds visitors from the metropolis and as far away as Australia.
To showcase the best of the Vermont products that he culls from a handful of primo area farms, Vieira makes everything from scratch — including the desserts — and changes his menu several times a week.
Cooking that way is rigorous, but Vieira, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, learned his stuff when he apprenticed at a pair of highly regarded European restaurants. “When you go to Europe, you start off at the bottom and work your way up. Usually you get stuck doing the things that nobody wants to do, so you have to get really good at doing them fast so they’ll let you do other stuff,” he says. Vieira spent hours “cleaning fish, butchering wild boar and doing vegetable work,” he recalls.
Although The Red Clover was designed as a destination restaurant, the staffers aim to keep locals as well as tourists happy without compromising the quality of the food. “I am putting wings on my tavern menu, but I’m not saying exactly what they are,” Vieira says slyly. What they are is not exactly your garden-variety bar food. “I get whole birds so I have wings: guinea hen wings, partridge wings, duck wings, chicken wings,” the chef explains. “I braise them off with piri-piri pepper and honey, then fry them up in duck fat.”
Vieira attests that he loves cooking in Vermont — “It’s the most European place I’ve been [in the U.S.] food-wise.” But he says American rules and regulations governing ingredients he can and can’t use drive him a bit crazy. “When I buy a whole veal, I can’t get its head back,” he laments. “I could probably feed five or six people with just that head, and it goes in the trash.” Another gripe: “I think it’s insane that they’ll let the population eat Twinkies, but they won’t let them eat duck blood,” Vieira says.
Partridge wings? Duck blood? Chef Vieira piques our interest, so we decided to put him on the grill.
How did you eat when you were growing up?
I’ve pretty much been cooking at home since I was 8 years old. At one point in my life, my mom got really sick. She’d done most of the cooking — she used to make a lot of soups like caldo verde — and I started cooking more and more because I was home.
My father worked full time — he’d dropped out of high school and was a welder for years. He came to America at 11 from an island called São Miguel in the Azores, from a town famous for its hot springs — they cook eggs in the water. He loved food and would cook on weekends.
We weren’t people who shopped at co-ops and Whole Foods; it was value shopping. Pickled pigs’ feet wasn’t a weird thing to see in the fridge. The dented-can store wasn’t an infrequent visit.
We had octopus stew once in a while, which is one of my favorites. There’s stuff called chouriço — not to be confused with chorizo — a braised pork sausage really only found in a few communities. There were chouriço loafs we used to eat all the time. They’d put it in the center [of a loaf of bread], roll it and bake it. We’d make custard with yellow rice and cinnamon. There was a bakery down the street. Portuguese baked meringues. They’d pipe them out with a star tip. When you think you have enough sugar, they add more sugar to it. Salmon pie.
Back then, were there any foods you thought were gross?
Milk. I’m allergic to whey. As a child, being breastfed for the first or second time, I almost died. I used to have my dad order pizza with half cheese, half sauce. Now I realize I could have had the “cheese,” because it’s basically plastic. My first ice cream was at age 23, at a creemee stand outside of Montpelier. [The allergy’s] the kind of thing that you grow out of as you get older, and now it doesn’t bother me as much. I had a spoonful of raw milk yesterday.
Canned vegetables are horrible, even in shepherd’s pie, but canned potatoes that are peeled were always one of my favorites. Now I make fingerling potatoes, peel them while they’re hot and add olive oil and a touch of fleur de sel. I usually serve that with some grilled fish, like sardines.
Name three foods that make life worth living.
Pig, wine, cheese. Duck fat’s way up there.
Have you ever eaten something truly weird?
I think durian fruit is probably one of the worst things I’ve put in my mouth, but after some technique was put into it, it was one of the best things I’ve put in my mouth.
A giant squid that was 6 feet long. With its tentacles, it resembled somebody who had been growing dreadlocks for about 25 years. It tasted almost meaty, like prime rib. Portuguese octopus is world renowned; it’s the finest and the best.
When I was working at Clio, the mom of the general manager, Christian Touche, came to town. She’s from Provence. She braised lamb trotters, which are pretty small, and tripe. She made a farce [mince] out of the lamb trotters and stuffed it into the tripe to make little purses. She braised them until they were really soft and served them with an eggplant and tomato ragout.
Duck tongue in artichoke soup; whale blubber; live scallops and live shrimp — I’ve had those. But since I’ve been in Vermont, not so much weird stuff.
What’s the last thing you ate?
An egg with salt, one piece of whole multigrain toast and a sip of black coffee.
What foods are always in your pantry?
Nothing. Tea: Lapsang Souchong, Russian Caravan, Sencha; hibiscus is probably my favorite, but plain rose hips are always good; straight-up black teas and white teas.
If you open up my fridge right now you’ll see about eight or nine bottles of white and red, a bottle of olive oil and an apple my friend gave me that came from her tree.
When you’re a chef, you don’t really spend time at home. Home is barely set up, just a bed and a couch. I get to the restaurant at a quarter to 7 in the morning. I’m here. If I got established and stayed here for a while, you’d see fleur de sel and sel gris, Arborio rice for risotto … hot sauces, too. I like spice, but not Tabasco. I like sauces that have texture to them. Seafood and game birds are things I really love.
If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
Can I name four? Marc Veyrat, a chef from the Savoie region of France, in his old style of cooking. He was a mountain man but then went on to do molecular gastronomy. Pierre Gagnaire. Joël Robuchon. Jean-Louis Palladin — the one who brought sea urchins into the U.S. That guy was amazing.
You’re trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?
Actually, I would probably prepare something with seafood: A multicourse dinner, working in a progression through a variety of tastes, textures and scents, making a full circle so that the dessert somehow resembles the first course.
When I really get into it, dessert isn’t just a crème brûlée. I start with a savory sorbet and then build up the sweetness. Your last dessert should be neutral, almost bitter. Something with crisp, clean elements that leave your mouth completely cleansed.
What’s the worst dish you’ve ever created?
When I was about 14, I had a friend over. After we broke into my dad’s liquor cabinet, my friend and I got hungry. I pulled a frozen steak out of the fridge and ran it under some water for, like, three minutes. I served my friend and me completely frozen steak, seared on the outside, with burnt garlic and mushrooms. That was pretty much my worst creation ever.
What’s your favorite cookbook?
A History of Food [by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat] is one of my favorites; the earlier editions of The Joy of Cooking; the original Escoffier [Le Guide Culinaire], but that’s kind of dense for the average person. The Food Lover’s Companion is always on my office desk.
Name a local restaurant that you patronize.
I don’t go out to eat all that much around here, but I did have a really good meal at Michael’s on the Hill the other night. I’ll usually take a trip to Boston, New York or Montréal. I still have a lot of friends in Boston who are general managers or chefs.
My ex was a pastry chef. When we lived in Boston, we’d take the red-eye to Paris, have dinner and come back. My favorite place to go was Chez Denis. You go there, and if they know you’re into food they give you a complimentary charcuterie plate: There’s no frills; there’s no hiding anything. If you ask for tripe, you’re gonna get tripe. The wine list consists of “red” and “white.” They give you a carafe and you get charged for what you drink out of the carafe. Flying back, we’d be stuffed like pigs with all this butter and cheese and good stuff.
What’s your favorite beverage?
Fresh-squeezed orange juice with San Pellegrino.
What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
Everything from Vivaldi to Tool.
If you weren’t a chef, what would your job be?
A shoe maker? In city kitchens, when somebody comes in and they’re really green or take shortcuts, you call them a shoe maker.
I don’t know — I’ve been cooking for so long. I’ve toyed with the idea of a game-warden-type thing: Maybe a fisherman or a farmer, something to do with agriculture.
What are your hobbies?
Outdoorsy stuff. I’m a trout fisherman; I love to fly fish. I hunt.
What’s your most embarrassing favorite food?
I don’t eat ’em now, but I used to eat ’em as a kid: Chicken Littles [mini-sandwiches] from KFC. They go against everything I believe in.
What do you think is the strangest thing about American food habits?
The fact that corn that’s deemed unsuitable for human consumption is — in some way, shape or form — in every single thing you eat.