The rhythm and creativity of the kitchen crew fuel fine-dining in Middlebury.
After bingeing on shows like Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table, one would think that most chefs are tattooed badasses who roam from one organic farm to the next tasting the freshest ingredients offered by eager farmers, probably on some kind of motorcycle. Purveyors of oysters and scallops come from the fishing barge straight to the kitchen’s delivery entrance offering these chefs exquisite fruits de mer to serve on the half shell. It seems like these fantasy chefs spend a lot of time plating microgreens on artistically composed plates with tweezers.
But as restaurateurs who own Jessica’s at Swift House Inn, my husband Matthew and I have learned that the life of a chef is not nearly as glamorous as Netflix implies, but one of unyielding hard work, managing unexpected staffing issues, coping with petty gripes from (very few) unsatisfied guests, punctuated by bleeding, burnt fingertips. It is mostly planning. Planning for contingencies. Planning for disasters. Planning for the next catering gig or special event. Planning, planning, planning.
And yet, there is also art. Jessica’s at Swift House Inn from Wednesday to Sunday in the summer and from Thursday to Sunday in colder weather, our chefs dress in their whites, scrub down their hands, and sharpen their knives to answer the Call—the Call to elevate something as humble as a rutabaga into art that is transcendent.
Jessica’s kitchen itself is small by commercial standards, only about 20 feet by 20 feet with fairly low ceilings. Adjacent to the dishwashing dock, a very old butler’s pantry is the primary working space for the black-clad wait staff who use the area to polish silverware and glasses and make coffee. On the other side, there’s a very old chef’s pantry with wooden counters for whipping eggs and cream, wooden cabinets where clean towels are stored, and a window which the chefs leave open to allow pies to cool, just like on a Looney Tunes cartoon. The main part of the kitchen is a hot, cramped place, where four bodies orbit in a kind of frantic ballet while the air conditioner wheezes and sputters to create some semblance of cool. When someone approaches another cook’s backside, one must shout “Behind!” to not elicit a hot grease collision.
At this moment, the captain of this pirate ship, executive chef Rob Fenn, has gone out into the kitchen garden to battle with the mosquitoes, which have been virulent this wet summer, and harvest fresh produce to serve tonight. Chef Rob Fenn conceptualized the menu for the Best Bite competition at the Annual Forum Dinner. He is a native son of Vermont. He grew up on the land, foraging, hunting, fishing, and gardening since he was a boy. As a young chef, he cut his teeth in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he worked in prestigious fine-dining restaurants while snowboarding the mountains. Long ago, Rob once lived on the grounds of Swift House Inn not far from the kitchen garden with his wife Laura, the mixologist. But now he lives on his own land named for his family in a house that they built. And they grow their own peppers and zinnias in the summers.
For the past twelve years, Rob has faithfully cooked behind the line at Jessica’s at Swift House Inn with awe-inspiring dependability, and he did it with vision in only one eye. Unlike the usual stereotypes of chefs as toxic megalomaniacs, Rob is soft spoken and mild mannered, creative and considerate. But do not confuse kindness for weakness, because one sharp look from his good eye behind those glasses and all insolence melts away and respect is accorded.
While Rob is out harvesting, Nick DeForge, the young chef de cuisine who started four months ago, explains how he makes squid ink-striped ravioli by hand. He says he uses the squid ink to dye one batch of dough black. He makes a thin strip of the black pasta that will contrast sharply with the pale pasta once he presses a stripe of it together through a machine. Then he’ll stuff it with lobster. Even though he himself is allergic to gluten, he’s passionate about making pasta from scratch and has elevated the noodle game at Jessica’s at Swift House Inn.
Rob comes back with big handfuls of red shiso leaves, cherry tomatoes, and, of course, parsley. He jokes that the mosquitoes motivate you to work faster. Then he starts breaking down several pounds of lobster with a sharp knife, tapping it on the shell until it cracks before picking out the meat with the knife point. He works quickly and smoothly—you know it would take you, the unskilled non-chef, about five times longer or possibly more to get to the same amount.
Meanwhile, sous chef Micah Pratt, another Vermont guy, who has worked with Rob for years since their days together at the Waybury Inn, is busy making a maple vinaigrette with the blender, drizzling olive oil into the pitcher before pressing the button to make it whir. He offers me a taste, and it is indeed tart and sweet, the perfect coating for salad greens. Three years ago, Micah started at Jessica’s at Swift House Inn as a breakfast chef who garnished his omelets and scrambled eggs with edible flowers lovingly picked from his own garden. He is also known for foraging for fresh ramps along the river in secret spots to create his pickled ramps and pestos. A passionate outdoorsman and bush craftsman, Micah is just as at ease cooking dinner on an open fire as he is operating the pancake griddle.
Nick turns around from his work halving cherry tomatoes from the garden to stick his finger into the water bath that the 17-year-old prep cook Atticus Peterson has made to prepare a tray of crème brulee in several ramekins.
“It’s not hot enough,” Nick says. David Herren, the award-winning sommelier and sometimes chef, happens to walk in to the kitchen at that moment, and explains that the technique is called a bain marie. Nick disagrees. He’s been to chef school, the New England Culinary Institute. He points to a metal cylinder that looks more like a pencil cup than a ceramic ramekin and says, “a bain marie actually looks more like that.” David nods and goes on his way to continue setting the dining table out front.
Nick retains the enthusiasm of a young chef, waxing poetic about the chef’s life. His eyes light up when the discussion turns to chef books. On his right forearm, a tattoo of a skull wearing a toque with a chef’s knife moves as he slices tomatoes. He explains how he came to be inked with Anthony Bourdain’s logo. Nick happened to be in Provincetown in Cape Cod with his wife in 2018 when he learned that Bourdain had died. Nick had just been reading in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential that Provincetown was where the great food rock star first tasted fresh oysters on a half shell—one of those a-ha moments that inspired Bourdain to pursue the chef’s life. Nick knew that he just had to honor this moment, which was kismet in his mind, with a tattoo. A badass one at that.
At this point, Orrin Smith, one of the front desk agents who is usually found at the very blue reception area in the Gate House, makes an appearance in the crowded, steamy kitchen. He sets down two big buckets of ice and introduces himself to a new employee candidate named Liz Neilson from South Carolina who is auditioning to be the breakfast cook and prep cook for the night shift. (Spoiler alert, Liz did not end up taking the job. Such is the food and beverage labor situation in Vermont.) “I feel like I’m in the way,” confesses Liz.
Rob cleans the greenish gunk out of the lobster and culls three pounds of pristine white lobster meat and stores it in a plastic Cambro container. Nick is excited about using the fresh lobster in his pasta. They make plans for the dinner menu and chat about their many shared interests—tractors, tools, and motorcycles. Vermont guy stuff.
Micah seems like he’s everywhere all at once. One moment he’s making another kind of vinaigrette, the next he’s coming up from the walk-in refrigerator with armfuls of watermelon for a salad and cauliflower for the vegan entrée, and then he’s breaking down an enormous wheel of Bayley Hazen Blue cheese from Jasper Hill Farms. He’s focused this evening, but he does look up from his tasks and asks randomly, “What’s a chapbook?” “A book of poems,” I say. He nods and goes back to work.
The pastry chef, Catharine Noel, who has been shaping pastries somewhere else, tiptoes into the kitchen, wielding a big muffin pan. She carefully sprinkles some cinnamon sugar into it and taps out the excess into the overflowing sink. She exits as unobtrusively as possible, mindful of the many bodies and tasks at play.
“Any idea what we’re making for family?” Nick asks Micah, in regards to the shared meal that the chefs make for the staff before dinner service begins.
Micah shrugs his shoulders and looks uncertain.
“Did you do burgers on Sunday?”
I don’t stick around to find out what Micah and Nick end up cooking for the staff, but I return the next day just before dinner service starts to taste the squid ink lobster ravioli that is the special tonight: A pouch of silken pasta enrobed in a sherry thyme cream sauce and garnished with minuscule lemon thyme leaves picked fresh from our herb garden and the dust of toasted bread crumbs. Rob and Nick watch as I bite into the toothsome ravioli and experience the briny, sweet lobster meat inside. Rob is worried that it might be too garlicky. But I don’t think there is any such thing. It’s delicious. This is art, and it is indeed sexy and glamorous. Maybe there’s some truth to those chef shows after all.