Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 4

Part lV: From Jefferson to Jello

Chef Courtney White, at the Montpelier restaurant Salt, making dried kale “seaweed” flavored with miso, tamari, and orange.

Written By

Suzanne Podhaizer

Written on

December 04 , 2012

One of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite snacks was anchovy deviled eggs. He was also wild about fresh peas, and several of his surviving handwritten recipes are for creamy French desserts. I know this because at my Montpelier restaurant, Salt, we once spent several weeks cooking and serving dishes that were common at fancy Monticello dinner parties or inspired by the late president’s extensive garden.

With modern photographs of Jefferson’s Virginia estate on display in the restaurant—an artichoke in bloom, a bean vine winding around a pole—I regaled customers with tales of the founding father’s dining habits and information about the heirloom fruit and vegetable seeds that he collected on his travels and lovingly brought to the new world. As I did, the chef ladled out chilled lettuce soup, slathered mushroom ketchup onto veal meatloaf, and tossed fresh noodles with tomato confit and creamy cheddar sauce. Then, a few days later, we pulled down the photo show and began a new menu, which focused on Spanish-inflected fare such as chicken-liver and caramelized-onion empanadas, almond and green-grape gazpacho, and paella.

As you may know, Salt specializes in farm-to-table cuisine. Our goal is to take the goods that nearby farmers have available and turn them into creative and delicious dishes. But these days, that isn’t particularly unusual. Hundreds of Vermont restaurants use at least a modicum of local produce—think of the obligatory mesclun salad with maple vinaigrette and sliced apple—and many of the best are driven by their collaborations with growers.

So when we opened in December 2010, the chef and I decided to do something unusual: change the menu completely every three weeks. While some restaurants tweak their menus a little bit every day so that the offerings change and evolve over time, and others do a quarterly overhaul, no other establishments I know of do quite what we are doing.

Why? From the standpoint of typical business practice, it’s completely nuts. As soon as the chef has gotten used to the rhythm of searing duck breast, deep-frying pork belly, and dunking handmade ravioli in a pot of boiling water, those items disappear, and she has to start from scratch. Similarly, every 21 days, the waitstaff must memorize an entirely new list of 13 dishes (5 appetizers, 5 entrées, and 3 desserts), complete with details about cooking techniques and the farms from which we’re sourcing. We also have to keep a close eye on what we buy, since ordering too many black beans or too much cornmeal might mean keeping the extra in storage for several months, until the menu allows them to come back around in a different form.

But there are enough upsides to make these strenuous menu rotations worthwhile. Our jobs never feel rote, because a few days after we’ve begun cooking the new menu, we’re brainstorming about what will come next. By the same token, our customers can drop in once a month and, despite our tiny list of selections, never eat the same thing twice. In fact, we’ve got customers who rarely miss a menu.

While frequent customer visits are a boon for the bottom line, the final reason for the ever-changing menu is the one that is closest to the heart of our mission: sourcing locally. Because we update our offerings so frequently, we can buy from the smallest farms—ones that don’t have as much to supply, or as many customers, as larger farms—and as long as they can keep us in spinach, pork chops, or feta cheese for a few weeks, that’s enough for us. Ideally, just as they run out, we’ll be asking for Swiss chard, beef ribs, and chèvre instead. While most dining establishments must buy from someone who raises thousands of chickens per year, we can get away with buying from those who raise hundreds. Or we can support somebody completely new by committing to their entire batch of animals or the whole harvest of a particular crop.

However, when we’re sourcing from farms with limited supplies, sometimes things don’t go as planned. When the weather isn’t in our farmers’ favor, and the frost takes out everybody’s lettuce at once, we might need to change what’s in the salad on the fly. When poultry doesn’t fatten up as expected, and the birds aren’t ready to be slaughtered on schedule, something that seems as basic to our menus as chicken can be impossible to find.

As the year wends on, fewer and fewer local items are available. And sometime around November, we reach a point when we realize that it will be five months or more before we see a single new crop. Anything green—a few leaves of spinach or the tops of scallions—seems precious. It can be tough to stay creative when faced with a larder filled with beets, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and little else. Sometimes, it’s hard to stay out of the culinary doldrums.

And that’s where themes come in: Every time we change the menu, the chef and I pore over the list of locally available ingredients, decide which ones excite us, and then choose a thread that will tie all of those items together. The theme can be based on the cuisine of a particular region of the world, or of a historical era, like our Jeffersonian selection. It can even be inspired by a work of literature or a film.

This December, when the film version of The Hobbit comes out, we’ll have a menu based on foods mentioned by Tolkien. It will work beautifully, because he writes about turnips and sausages, cakes and ale, all of which are perfect when it’s slushy and cold outside. This past summer, as soon as farmers began harvesting paper-husked tomatillos, we put them to work in a Mexican menu. I was particularly enchanted with last year’s Alice in Wonderland menu, one that featured the color red on every plate, and another that showcased upscale versions of food from the 1950s (think tuna-pea-wiggle made with fresh pasta, seared tuna belly, and pea shoots—and Meyer lemon jello).

Selecting a theme helps to keep us out of ruts and makes it so that every appetizer complements every entrée, and every entrée leads smoothly into each dessert—no culinary discord allowed. Just as important, it ensures that we’re perpetually doing research and learning new techniques. When it comes time to write a cookbook, we’ve got hundreds of recipes we’ve developed, it’s just a matter of choosing which ones we want to use.
When I first opened the restaurant, speaking openly about the themed menus made me a little nervous. Good ingredients and good technique form the basis of our concept, and I didn’t want people to get the sense that we’re kitschy. After all, it’s not exactly typical for a restaurant to serve pierogi, borscht, and homemade kielbasa one week, and the next, offer shrimp and grits, smoked catfish and barbecued ribs.

That said, it’s also not typical for a restaurant to procure food the way we do; to make it work, we need to break what might seem like inviolable rules of “the biz.” That we can do so in a way that keeps customers coming back for more, and gives us the opportunity to innovate and continually educate ourselves, means that all of the aspects of the business are working in concert. Kind of like a delicious meal.

About the Author

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer is a cooking coach, food writer, chef, and dancer living in Burlington. She owns Farm-to-Table Consulting, a business that aims to help farmers sell more food by teaching people what to do with it once they bring it home.

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