Why don't Vermont's top cooks stay in one place?
Anyone who has followed the business of high-end Vermont restaurants in the past year will be feeling a little whiplash. The rapid rotation of the state’s top chefs could be compared to a game of musical chairs, or even Candy Land, full of delicious rewards and pitfalls. Either way, many of the area’s most notable cooks just can’t seem to keep still.
Seven Days spoke to Vermont chefs — and a restaurant owner — about what makes local restaurant staffing so unstable. They cited several factors that have kept them moving from place to place, or pushed them out of the kitchen entirely.
In Burlington’s high-pressure market, the drama started last year when Aaron Josinsky  left Bluebird Tavern  and was replaced by Michael Clauss . Josinsky had come to Bluebird — he and the restaurant were nominated for a James Beard Foundation award  last year — from gigs as sous-chef at the Waiting Room and the Inn at Shelburne Farms , as well as at the New York farm-to-table mecca Blue Hill. Clauss, a former New England Culinary Institute  instructor, managed Daniel Boulud’s catering business in New York before returning to Vermont to head the kitchen at Burlington’s Daily Planet .
Since leaving Bluebird, Josinsky, who was not available for comment for this story, has worked as a consultant at Topnotch Resort and Spa  with the title “seasonal chef.” Meanwhile, his Bluebird Tavern sous-chef, Nathaniel Wade , who had previously cooked in prestigious Portland, Ore., kitchens, headed to ¡Duino! (Duende) . This year, Wade was the one recognized by the Beard Foundation when he was named a finalist for best chef in the Northeast.
With its pileup of restaurant names, the chart of local chefs’ careers begins to look like a more palatable version of those sex-ed visualizations of a person’s partners’ partners’ partners. It can be difficult for diners to remember who’s cooking where, and the chef shuffle is challenging for restaurant owners, too.
Walt Blasberg , owner of the North Hero House Inn & Restaurant , has had five chefs in the last five years. Though his sous-chef and line cooks have generally been faithful to the place, Blasberg has struggled to keep a top dog. Aside from one instance where a customer hired away Blasberg’s staff to start a restaurant of his own, the innkeeper isn’t sure what to blame for the difficulty, other than the migratory nature of chefs. “Almost every résumé I see is six months here and nine months there,” says Blasberg. “By the time they’re 32, they’ve got 27 jobs on their résumé.”
To find out more about this job jumping, we talked to chefs who have put down roots and ones who are still on the move. And we uncovered some of the most common reasons for the Green Mountain chef’s nomadic lifestyle.
Vermont is a state of seasonal economies. Outside Burlington, restaurants are largely dependent on tourists to remain afloat. In Blasberg’s case, his Champlain Islands resto fills up in the summer.
Sean Buchanan , who left his position as executive chef at Stowe Mountain Lodge  last year to become a salesman for Black River Produce , had become accustomed to a winter boom time followed by weeks of summer nights with no more than 20 diners. He found it difficult to maintain waitstaff when tips weren’t coming in, and to pay the number of kitchen staff he needed to run smoothly on busy weekends.
Tom Bivins , now executive chef at NECI, was the chef at the Inn at Shelburne Farms for eight years in the ’90s. To support himself during his restaurant’s off-season, from October to May, he resorted to answering phones and filling the farm’s cheese orders. At times like that, says Bivins, “I would say everyone in Vermont starts to consider options besides restaurants.”
Buchanan also points to what he sees as the relative excess of restaurants in the state. According to the Vermont Department of Health , there are currently 2307 eateries operating in Vermont. Figure in the 2009 state population of 621,760: That’s one restaurant for every 270 Vermonters.
There simply aren’t enough people to keep every one of those places profitable every night. “I don’t think there’s a restaurant in the state that never has to go through a struggle, [when] they pray the money is coming in,” says Buchanan. “The cost of doing business up here is really high, especially when you rotate labor and you have to rotate people all the time.”
For his part, though, Blasberg doesn’t buy this reasoning. “There’s a pub on every corner in Ireland, and they seem to do OK,” he says.
Even when the economy is kind to restaurants, chefs have reasons not to settle down. As an educator, Bivins sees chefs at the very start of their careers, but he says cooks continue their educations in kitchens for years after they’ve graduated from NECI. “That’s how you get your experience — learning new things, working in a different kind of environment,” he explains. “You become a journeyman to learn new things.”
However, Bivins notes that, given the economy in which they matured, many of his recent charges are less likely than are older chefs to expect, and bother to seek, stability in their work. Most leave NECI not planning to keep jobs for more than a year at a time, he says.
Jeff Egan , kitchen manager at Hunger Mountain Co-op  in Montpelier, is an extreme example of a nomadic chef. In fact, he named his catering company the Wandering Chef for his habit of leaving once he’s “mastered” a job. Egan began his culinary career at age 29, after 10 years as an environmental campaigner in Canada.
Making up for lost time, he worked with upward of 80 other cooks at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto before cooking for reforestation workers in remote Alberta. Since moving to Vermont in 2002, Egan has had more than his fair share of jobs, including working as executive chef for the Cliff House  at Stowe Mountain Resort and for Vermont Discovery Cruises . “I’ve cooked at every altitude in the state,” he jokes.
But Egan says there is a method to his madness. “I stay in a place long enough to learn the things that are my goal,” he says. “Not every job is going to teach you everything you need to learn.”
NECI’s Bivins also chalks up this propensity to the artistic spirit of those who specialize in fine cuisine. “Some people are just very creative, and once they reach a certain point at a restaurant, they say, ‘I’m ready to move on.’ Some folks really need a challenge.”
Bivins guesses this is the explanation for Josinsky’s wild ride through the restaurant scene. After his tenures at Shelburne Farms and Bluebird, “He learned you don’t have to stop at any one of those places,” suggests Bivins, who finds Josinsky’s “seasonal chef” title at Topnotch, a position that ended April 1, particularly interesting. “He made it very clear he’s keeping his options open, and Topnotch had to keep their options open,” Bivins says, adding that he’s excited to see where the young chef ends up next.
The characteristics of a great chef often include more than a dash of egotism. Frank Pace was a California Culinary Academy grad who made his name in San Francisco before arriving in the Green Mountains. He worked as executive chef of Smokejacks and Quatorze Bistro in Burlington, and is now the head butcher at Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in South Burlington.
Pace says that the passion and ambition innate to a skilled chef are bound to cause creative conflict. “When you’re passionate about this one thing, and you’re in it, and you’re driving and driving and driving and you come up against a lot, you say, ‘Why am I putting up with it?’” he says. In retrospect, Pace thinks it was nothing more than ego that led him to leave his restaurants once he attained the level of executive chef.
Of course, he points out, a bossy streak is implied in the very job title. In French, “chef” means boss or leader, a vestige of the militaristic kitchen system introduced by Georges Auguste Escoffier in the 19th century. However, unless a chef owns his own restaurant, he has to answer to another boss — a recipe for potential conflict.
Sean Buchanan says chefs shouldn’t receive sole blame for that friction. He believes the restaurants that work best, despite employing a chef who’s neither an owner nor a partner, are those whose owners have a clear understanding of what they want from their employees.
Chefs who lack the freedom to put their stamp on a restaurant may become bored and leave, starting a vicious cycle. A chef has to gain the trust of the restaurateur before he or she can stray from the established menu, but that doesn’t happen overnight. When chefs are constantly in transition, trust can be elusive.
With that in mind, Blasberg says he’d prefer to eventually share ownership of the North Hero House with a chef — if the right person came along.
Bivins agrees with that principle and adds that, if he were consulting with Blasberg, he would recommend the restaurateur look to older chefs. They may demand a higher starting salary, but they’ve learned to be team players.
Personality conflicts aren’t the only things that make a chef’s job grueling. The Food Network may have made cooking look glamorous, but it’s essentially a blue-collar career with hot work spaces and long hours.
Drug and alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry is legendary, and Blasberg suspects that Vermont’s seasonal business exacerbates the problem. “It’s the slow times that are the worst for them,” he says of kitchen staff. “They love it when the adrenaline is going and they’re just jamming. The trouble is when it slows down and they have to look for something else to create that feeling.”
Even for relatively clean-living cooks, the physical and emotional stresses of the job can lead to burnout. Since few restaurants in Vermont can afford big-city-sized staffs, chefs can wind up doing more jobs than they bargained for. As Buchanan puts it, “You’re not just a chef, you’re a manager, accountant, line cook, purchaser…”
For a young chef, the 80- to 100-hour weeks these tasks often entail are part of the learning experience. But when chefs start to think about raising a family, the demands become less appealing. “The industry isn’t designed to give chefs a regular lifestyle,” says Buchanan, who heads outside of his home for our phone interview so as not to disturb his two small children as they nap. “Talk to chefs out there — how many of you get two days off a week? How many get a set schedule?”
Bivins says many of his students regard seeking a stable work environment as “settling.” But he believes there comes a time when we all start to want health insurance and time off. “They’ll get there,” he says with a chuckle.
For many chefs, their thirties and forties are put-up-or-shut-up time, when they start a restaurant of their own — where they can call the shots and make their own hours — or get out of the kitchen, at least for a while (see sidebar).
In Bivins’ case, that turning point led to a new career as an educator — to his complete surprise. “I thought this was a transitional job,” he admits. “That’s my true confession. I never thought NECI was what I would end up loving and wanting to do. I think some chefs do that and say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to get out of this thing. I really like this.’”
Other chefs will keep playing musical chairs, trying their skills in kitchen after kitchen. And local observers of the dining scene are unlikely to get bored any time soon.