Three Questions for Cory Swafford of Waterbury’s Blackback Pub | Grilling the Chef | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Three Questions for Cory Swafford of Waterbury’s Blackback Pub


Published April 30, 2024 at 1:48 p.m.
Updated May 1, 2024 at 10:18 a.m.

Chermoula chicken sandwich, cold ramen noodles, broccolini and pub nachos - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Chermoula chicken sandwich, cold ramen noodles, broccolini and pub nachos

Blackback Pub in Waterbury has long been a starred stop on Vermont's beer tourism map. Its impressive tap list always includes half a dozen choices from Greensboro's Hill Farmstead Brewery alongside other noteworthy American brews, plus Belgian exemplars such as the barrel-aged Rodenbach Grand Cru sour red ale.

Aside from Blackback's legendary nachos ($14) — loaded with two cheeses, bacon and scallions and laced with maple-chipotle sauce — the beer has largely overshadowed the food. But chef and co-owner Cory Swafford is working to change that.

Last October, after almost a decade of ownership, Lynn Mason and Dave Juenker sold Blackback to its general manager, Ehren Hill, and Swafford, a 50-year-old career cook who has plied his trade at many landmark restaurants. His résumé includes stints at Leunig's Bistro & Café and A Single Pebble in Burlington, Sneakers Bistro in Winooski, and Pro Pig in Waterbury, where he rose to executive chef.

Since Swafford started at Blackback in late summer 2022, he has gradually overhauled the menu. Notably, the chef, who eats vegan at home, has added several vegan options. His broccolini with gochujang peanut sauce and tamari peanuts ($9) and chickpea fritter gyro ($17) with sumac onions and a housemade version of the fermented mango condiment called amba are as compelling as his Tunisian-inspired chermoula chicken sandwich ($18).

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Cory Swafford

Swafford runs the busy kitchen with sous chef Joseph Wallace and three line cooks. (If you spy Swafford on a break, ask the former professional card magician to do a trick.) On nights off, the chef and his wife have friends over for roasted broccoli Reubens with homemade sauerkraut, followed by spirited rounds of some of their 2,000 board games. (Ricochet Robots is a favorite.)

Seven Days chatted with Swafford about how he unexpectedly became a professional cook, his decision to go vegan and those famous pub nachos.

Have you always loved to cook?

I had never cooked anything other than chicken Alfredo for one girlfriend in my teens. I was not looking to be a cook. I was actually with a roommate in Burlington 28 years ago [when] he was interviewing at a Friendly's restaurant, and I was sitting there waiting for him. The general manager came out and pointed at me and said, "Hey, do you need a job?"

I did need a job, and it turned out I loved it. I thrived on the energy in the kitchen.

What prompted you to go mostly vegan at home?

Being the chef at [Pro Pig], I was eating fistfuls of brisket and pork every day. I was getting into my mid-forties, and I needed to make a change. I went to get life insurance and had a full physical and bloodwork done, and it wasn't very favorable. I couldn't change at work, so my wife and I made the change at home. I dropped tons of weight, and I felt more energetic.

When I started, we'd batch-cook on Sundays: crockpot beans and rice, veggie burgers, simple things. I'd make big salads at home with oil-free dressing to bring to work.

I do a lot of Indian cooking at home, like palak paneer with tofu instead of paneer, butter chicken but using seitan for chicken and cashew cream instead of dairy. I just choose a region of the world and kind of go wild with it for a while.

You've changed up most of Blackback's menu, but the pub nachos remain.

That [dish] is a legend all its own. I wouldn't even dream of taking that away from anybody. It's sweet and salty. It's rich with the blue cheese and that little bit of heat from the chipotle. It will be here forever.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Beyond the Beer | Three questions for Cory Swafford of Waterbury's Blackback Pub"

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