Cooking in Brandon, Vermont: Trust the Man in the Toque
By Max Hartshorne
It must be the toque, that’s his secret. Right? When you walk into Chef Robert Barral’s big demonstration kitchen, it’s that towering toque that hits you. He’s the real deal. And for the next two days, you’ll be cooking in his kitchen. We got a chance to chop, simmer and braise with Barral during one of his Vermont Cooking Weekends, held in Brandon, Vermont in April. They are held about once a month throughout the year.
The package includes all meals, cooking lessons from the master chef, and a two-stay in an elegant restored Inn dating back to 1909 in the center of a classic northern Vermont town. There’s also a culinary daytrips around the region.
The best part? Eating the meals we prepared right at the cooking table with the chef, and hearing the history of the Lilac Inn from owner Doug Sawyer. Chef Robert also took us out to meet goat cheese makers and beef cattle farmers in the beautiful Vermont countryside while we let our cassoulets simmer in the oven.
Part of what we enjoyed about our weekend was the friendliness of everyone we met. From the shopkeepers at an eclectic antique shop next to a rushing river, to the proprietor of the gourmet wine shop, the chef’s wife, we felt welcomed even though we were clearly flatlanders.
The weekend began Friday evening in his classy restaurant, Cafe Provence. Brandon, a town of about 4500 people, is a typical small Vermont town about 40 miles north of Rutland that boasts a few big city features. Among these are the Lilac Inn, which was built as a summer home by a rich heiress in 1909, Barral’s French Restaurant, Cafe Provence, with authentic recipes from the chef’s own region, and a wonderful department store called Shapiro’s, full of toys, boots, dresses and just about everything.
After champagne, tasty hors d’oeuvres, and an elegant Friday night meal (which we didn’t have to cook), we retired to the Lilac Inn, just up the street from Cafe Provence. Doug and Shelly Sawyer bought the inn 12 years ago, after long careers running the rat race in Connecticut.
“This place started out as a home–not an inn,” Doug told us, as we toured room after room with purpose-built bathrooms, four-poster beds and classy period appointments. Our room had the high ceilings of yesteryear and the very important feature of modern wifi.
This beautiful building, which was built around a long-deceased elm tree, had a tumultuous history. It lay empty for three years and was once in bad condition. Another couple from California had tried in 1990 and failed to make a go of the place as an Inn. But like many other couples who might dream about owning their own inn, it’s much harder than it looks to be successful.
During our visit, in April 2013, it was the inn’s slowest season which Doug calls “stick season.” By the first of May, Doug said business picks up and they’re off and running for another busy season with many weddings and big events in this original party house.
Brandon has a lot of interesting attractions nearby, Doug told us. In Burlington, just 45 minutes north, he recommended the Shelburne Museum, with over 150,000 artworks and artifacts that are exhibited in a remarkable setting of 39 exhibition buildings, 25 of which are historic and were relocated to the Museum grounds.
Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain, is another great day trip about 20 minutes away. We discovered the Robert Frost hiking trail about 30 minutes from the inn in the Green Mountain National Forest. Here a hiking path is dotted with stopping points where we read Robert Frost poems. Delightful!
On Saturday at 9 am, we donned our aprons and set to work, with Chef Robert assigning us duties. The menu was daunting, including goat cheese cakes, Provencal seafood stew, risotto, and braised lamb shanks. Plus a big seafood broth to give the risotto its special flavor. For dessert, we’d be whipping up chocolate bombs. As we began cooking, a few of Chef Robert’s techniques came into play.
With an easy manner, Chef Robert is a natural teacher. No amount of sloppy onion cutting or double dipping into the cassoulet with a spoon rattles him. We began our cooking duties by watching him cut an onion….a true chef has a way of cutting them without cutting all the way through then flipping the onion over to finish it off sideways. He had lots of other interesting tips that he shared as we began to prepare the meal.
One was how he uses parchment paper instead of lids that drip all over the place. He cuts the parchment paper to fit and pushes it down into the pot.
Any chef knows how important stocks are as a key base for a multitude of dishes. Robert explained that he takes the carcasses of the many chickens that are used in the restaurant and freezes them.
Then he makes the stock by adding celery, onion and leeks to a big pot and boils the carcasses for two hours or more. For the seafood stock, he does the same thing with lobster bodies. He heats up a pan very very hot, tosses in the bodies so they sizzle, cooks them like that for a while and then adds the water and the same vegetables and lets it simmer for a few hours. These stocks are the most important part of a chef’s repertoire, we learned.
And a tip that all cooks can use: if you use olive oil it imparts a taste on delicate items like goat cheese, so it’s better to use canola oil, which won’t affect taste. And garlic?
Don’t ever use the pre-chopped kind you get in a jar, you need to chop it yourself to release the essential garlic flavor. And beans, which are an important part of any cassoulet: don’t add salt, he said, it makes the beans open and fall apart. And duckfat, if you can get it, makes a umami level flavor to anything it touches.
We all had tasks to perform, and this was a feast for the ages. The big pot containing lobster bodies boiling down to make the seafood broth sent a delicious fragrance of the ocean wafting out all over the kitchen.
The lamb shanks, huge beautiful pieces of meat, would be cooked in the oven for more than three hours, emerging so tender that the meat was falling off the big bones.
Risotto, which is usually a challenge for even the most experienced cooks, was easier when he let it cool on a sheet of parchment. Making risotto ahead makes a lot of sense, if you’ve ever tried stirring stirring and stirring and then worried about serving it at just the right moment. It lasts for a long time on the sheet and can easily be reheated when made ahead.
Meeting the Goats
After we got everything bubbling and on the stove or in the oven, it was time for us to set off on our culinary field trip. Our first stop about seven miles out of Brandon was to Blue Ledge farm in Salisbury, where Gregory Bernhardt and Hannah Sessions raise a herd of goats and produce 50,000 pounds of flavored and plain goats milk cheese, as well as several varieties of cows milk cheese.
Theirs is the largest chèvre farm in Vermont, Hannah told us as we admired her affectionate little kids, and raising goats in Vermont is getting more and more popular. Blue Ledge was at the head of a big wave of new goat cheese producers in the state she said.
The cheese is made and stored in an underground aging cave, which keeps everything naturally cool. Pigs are raised at the farm who are fed the whey, a byproduct of the cheese making process. Some of the cheese is covered in ash, others develop their own healthy molds. One time, Greg said, a couple from France was touring the farm and lept when they saw the most moldy cheese, which was headed for the trash. “The French love moldy cheese,” he laughed, “we had to hold them back.”
Hannah said that in their household, husband Greg is the foodie–she didn’t even eat goat cheese as a girl growing up in Vermont. The couple cultivates 50 acres for animal feed, and another 50 acres of their land is in conservation.
The goats get to roam on 20 pristine acres of woods and pastures. It’s a perfect situation to produce the finest quality milk for the cheese. Chef Burral uses Blue Ledge Vermont cheese for our goat cheese cakes, which are delicately formed by hand and gently fried to a golden brown by his cooking class students. Anyone can visit Blue Ledge Farm for a tour, which is open for visitors on Fridays.
Spotted Dog Family Farm
Our next stop on our farm tour was to meet a couple who produce some of the beef chef Robert uses at Cafe Provence. At the Spotted Dog Family Farm, owners Charles and Sue Whiting raise Irish Dexter cattle, which are a breed of smaller cows who only eat grass.
None are sent to the proverbial feedlot for fattening up, they just eat the Vermont grass and unlike most cattle, they are bred naturally, not with artificial insemination. What a life!
Irish Dexter cattle live 36 months before they are slaughtered, unlike most commercial breeds who only live less than half as long. The Whitings have one of Vermont’s largest Irish Dexter herds, and while we were there, Chef Robert made a pitch to buy more of their tender meat.
He wanted tenderloin and other cuts, since he’s found that local beef sells very well at Cafe Provence. The couple sells every pound of beef they produce, the locals and the few restaurants who get it can never get enough!
Like many other people we met in Brandon, the Whitings came to their current occupation after many years doing other things. Charles was once a police officer on Cape Cod, and Sue was a physical therapist.
Today they raise the dogs who gave their farm its name–Dalmations. Their dog, Hawk, has a peculiar habit, Sue said that every night at 8 pm she feeds him a banana. He also likes eating apples!
Back to the Kitchen
After spending some time browsing at Found Objects and popping in and out of the other antique stores and a kitchenware store in Brandon, we had lunch at Burral’s Gourmet Provence Bakery and wine shop. This store is run by Burral’s wife Line, and is packed with great wine finds and delicious pastries as well as lunch to go.
Soon it was time to put our aprons back on. The lamb shanks had filled the big kitchen full of a wonderfully rich aroma. It was time to finish off the risotto and put the final touches on the cassoulet, with white beans long simmered in the oven.
Chef Robert is a patient cooking teacher, despite his impressive resume. This includes stints as executive chef for Carnival Cruise lines and in busy London and Paris restaurants. He honed his teaching skills at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier VT.
But after 16 years, he and his wife wanted a change. So they opened the cafe, and as their success grew, they expanded and expanded to finally take over the entire building. Today they have the large Cafe Provence restaurant, the Center Street Bar, and down the street they own the Gourmet Provence bakery and wine shop.
The meal was first rate, as we expected it to be. In the relaxed setting of the demonstration kitchen, sipping wines from the bar next door, we all enjoyed eating our handiwork. The chocolate bombs, decadent and delicious, were the final bite of the night.
After a relaxing sleep in the four-poster beds of the Lilac Inn, we came back for breakfast and Chef showed us first how to make hollandaise sauce, then the perfect technique for poaching eggs and making crepes. We were happy to be given the printed recipes for all of our dishes, and looked forward to visiting the Robert Frost hiking trail to work it all off.
Find our more about these Vermont Cooking Weekends
The Lilac Inn
53 Park St.
Brandon, VT 05733
Doug and Shelly Sawyer
11 Center St.
Brandon VT 05733
Chef Robert Barral
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