Grilling the Chef: Jason Tostrup
If you’ve had the good fortune to eat in chef Jason Tostrup’s dining room at the Inn at Weathersfield more than once, you know that no two dishes there are ever quite the same. Consistency may be the holy grail of the classical kitchen, but this inn takes an intensely creative, eclectic approach to stellar local ingredients rather than trying to render a signature dish the same way over and over again.
It works. This summer, Fodor’s Travel Guides anointed the inn’s Restaurant Verterra “the best restaurant in Vermont.” The honor came on the heels of Bon Appétit magazine naming Weathersfield a “Top 10 Culinary Inn” in 2008; the following year Emeril Lagasse visited Vermont to film an episode of his “Emeril Green” television show alongside Tostrup. Lagasse watched Tostrup cheerfully turning out Country Fried Quail (made with Cavendish Game Birds) and Apple Cider Tart. While that particular cornmeal-dusted quail is no longer served at Verterra, what patrons can count on is a devotion to farm-to-table so intense that three-quarters of the menu is sourced within a few dozen miles of the inn — even in winter.
It’s no easy task. Tostrup may spend the bulk of his time in the kitchen, but he also devotes a significant part of it to building menus around what’s fresh (or dried, or cellared) and figuring out how to use each part of the animals he purchases for his kitchen. He freezes wild ramps into pesto he can use during the year, and stocks his cellar with hundreds of pounds of root vegetables each fall.
Inn at Weathersfield owners Jane and Dave Sandelman bought the inn nine years ago and tapped Tostrup two year later to take the kitchen’s reins. The trio’s visions converged on local cuisine, and Tostrup began forming partnerships with local enterprises such as Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet (for cheese), Weathersfield’s Black Watch Farm (for grass-fed beef) and Wood’s Cider Mill (for cider jelly, a revelation to Tostrup), among many others.
What’s striking about Tostrup, besides his hearty devotion to farm-to-table cuisine, is an earnestness unusual for a chef at the top of his game. Though he says he “stumbled on food by accident,” his life seems to have been on a direct trajectory toward it.
As a child in northern Minnesota, Tostrup helped Beatrice Ojakangas, a pioneer of Scandinavian American cuisine, as she cooked in their church basement. “I don’t think it was a conscious thing, but I volunteered at everything I could possibly do to cook with her,” he says.
After attending a small culinary school, Tostrup eventually found himself turning out high culinary dishes at Renaissance Restaurant in Colorado, and later at Bouchon, a Thomas Keller resto in Napa Valley. It was there, at the epicenter of the burgeoning localvore movement, that his commitment to using local ingredients blossomed. Along the way, Tostrup apprenticed at Daniel and Jean Georges.
His only maxim is that food, like the seasons, is always changing. “Food should be fun. You stay at home and you make things you like, but then you have adventures where you want to try something different or try something new,” Tostrup says. He eschews the notion of a “signature dish,” suggesting, “Everyone wants a signature dish, but the way my brain works is that I’m very spontaneous and very last minute.”
Chef Jason took a break from his busy kitchen to answer our questions.
SD: What’s been on the Inn menu lately?
JT: A newly invented traditional dish: cassoulet. We have a very popular veal program; I buy a lot of animals whole, so I’m usually searching for dishes to fulfill those ideas of using the whole animal. I put together a veal cassoulet — instead of using duck, sausage and pork, I use spicy veal sausage, braised veal breast and belly. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a dish that has a lot of significance. It shows how much goes into this type of food from the farm side.
The other thing I love doing right now is a composed cheese course, and a boiled cider pie, which is just phenomenal. I use duck fat and thyme in the pie crust and pair it with cheese, and right now one of the main cheeses we use is from Consider Bardwell Farm. [Most] of the milk from Jersey Girls Dairy goes to Consider Bardwell, and Jersey Girls uses their bull calves for veal. It’s a deeper kind of understanding of why we intentionally have certain dishes; it’s not haphazard. It connects us to the land and the moment.
SD: What is your training?
JT: I grew up in northern Minnesota with a very Scandinavian background, and Beatrice Ojakangas, who’s written some very well-known cookbooks — 13 of them, I think — went to our church. She was the authority on Scandinavian cooking. Her cooking was pretty exciting as far as church-basement cooking goes, and was transformational for me in terms of looking at the world. She held a lot of parties at her home, and at her farm she had a beautiful kitchen with copper pots, like nothing I’d never seen.
I was in the restaurant business early on as a server, at 18, doing executive lunches at the corporate headquarters for Cray Supercomputers. Someone called in sick, and Chef asked me to step in ... It turned out to be my first cooking job. It was a very professional environment. We would cook for Dan Quayle; we would cook for Alan Greenspan.
I went to a small community college culinary school in St. Paul, Minn., and then to the University of Wisconsin to study hospitality and tourism management. Later I moved to Colorado and met my mentor, Charles Dale, at Renaissance Restaurant [in Aspen]. I basically started at the bottom there ... as a salad cook. I eventually worked my way up to be executive chef.
[After that,] I spent two and a half to three years working at Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s French bistro [in Napa]. I also worked for a winery out there and ran a restaurant. California was my first exposure to understanding local food. I had been working in super- high-end cuisine to that point, and in California, I came to understand local food resources. That to me made a lot more sense in my life than foie gras and truffles.
SD: What did your family eat when you were growing up?
JT: Pretty simple food. My mom was single and raised us alone while working three jobs. She used to make a really good wild-rice soup, as well as roasted and braised meats. She did a lot of cooking in the Crock-Pot.
SD: Back then, were there any foods you thought were gross?
JT: I’m a very adventurous eater, so I’m going to struggle with that. As a child, maybe dry, over-cooked pork. I also remember we used to go to our aunt’s house; she would always do boiled ham and a Jell-O mold with celery and other vegetables in it. We’d have to go to her house a few times a year, and my mother would eat our Jell-O molds for us.
SD: Name three foods that make life worth living.
JT: You need to narrow it down to times in your life. Firstly, I loved to eat lemons, butter, and raw green onions and wild garlic. As early as I can remember, I ate green onions soaked in water then dipped in butter and salt. At one time, the smell of foie gras was one of the best scents for me. Right now, the cider jelly definitely makes life worth living. [Laughs.] As well as boiled cider — eggs, butter and boiled cider with some rosemary. I also love dark chocolate. Even growing up I loved bitter things.
SD: Have you ever eaten something truly bizarre?
JT: Baby eels. The French fry them live and then toss them with parsley. They’re delicious.
SD: What foods or ingredients are always in your pantry?
JT: Boiled cider [from Wood’s Cider Mill]. Kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce. Badia a Coltibuono extra virgin olive oil — it’s just a great first press. A number of years ago I fell in love with the flavor, texture and color. Anson Mills polenta. I use their buckwheat taragna polenta a tremendous amount.
I’ve also been cooking a lot with Vermont bitters for sauces, marinades and cocktails. This summer I used them for a local peach and bitter sorbet that was phenomenal.
Kala jeera, an Indian smoked cumin that I discovered 10 years ago. I sneak it in whenever I can. Vermont Butterworks [Farms] beans. They’re really, really fresh beans, and you know where they were grown.
Fresh ginger and fresh-grated, good-quality nutmeg. Everything I have in my kitchen has such a purpose; all of the spices I buy are really fresh. I buy my spices from Penzeys.
SD: If you left Vermont, what local products would you miss the most?
JT: Cider jelly and ramps. Jam and preserves from Cherry Hill Farm. The ground beef from Black Watch Farms that we use for burgers. Maple syrup!
SD: If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
JT: Jacques Pépin. He cares about food, but also he cares about people.
SD: What’s the worst dish you’ve ever created?
JT: At Renaissance, I did squab seven different ways and took it way too far. I made a soufflé out of the skull, and I went over the top. The drum was something different; the leg was something else. I always go back to that and think, Why did I do that deconstructing? It was at a peak at Renaissance when the cuisine was at its highest and most extravagant. It was experimentation through a process of deconstruction.
Up until that squab, I was not really looking at food from that perspective, through my own lens. There have been plenty of other catastrophes, but that changed my thought process. People were impressed, but for me internally it became part of turning back to a simpler way.
SD: Describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten.
JT: Definitely some family meals, but what pops into my mind are some awesome, extravagant dinners. My first multicourse tasting menu at Union Pacific [in New York], where Rocco DiSpirito was at the time, was really eye opening. He was 26, and he was doing amazing things with food before anyone knew who he was. Aromatic curried scallops with caviar served under a dome; Earl Grey ice cream.
SD: What’s your favorite or most influential cookbook?
JT: Pleasures of the Good Earth by Edward Giobbi. It was one of the first cookbooks I bought out of culinary school, and Alice Waters wrote the foreword to it. It must’ve been a sign early on of where I was going. That book has great stories on how to kill a rabbit and cook a rabbit, how to make vinegar and cure olives, how to make your own sausage. I still go to that book and know I haven’t mastered everything.
The other book I really like is Monet’s Table [by Claire Joyes]. I definitely love Monet’s work, and he was also a passionate gourmand and cook. He had a beautiful kitchen in his home. A very famous chef [Joël Robuchon] helped test his recipes. I find peace in that book.
SD: What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
JT: Right now, it’s a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
SD: If you weren’t a chef, what would you like to be doing?
JT: Nothing. I really love what I do, and I can’t see doing anything different. But if not, I might love to be a painter.
SD: What’s your most embarrassing favorite food?
JT: I love In-N-Out burgers.
SD: What will you be eating this Christmas?
JT: I’ll get a goose for the staff meal. I do it like Julia Child does turkey. Roast the breast and braise the legs, and serve with stewed dried fruits, goose-fat gravy and mashed potato.