Many food lovers have dreamed of opening a restaurant. Some may have a killer concept. Others just want to know what it’s like to work a line. The ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective isn’t the first space in the country to provide that opportunity to burgeoning restaurateurs, but it’s certainly the first in Vermont, and possibly in New England.
Firsts are nothing new for ArtsRiot. Earlier this year, the event-and-creative-consulting company owned by PJ McHenry and Felix Wai moved into the former Fresh Market quarters on Burlington’s Pine Street. Since then, the duo has made the artsy South End even more colorful by hosting weekly summer gatherings of food trucks (called the South End Truck Stop), the South End Farmers Market, and regular concerts, art shows and other events.
But McHenry and Wai “didn’t want to be restaurateurs so much.” That’s the assessment of Tommy Winrock, known as chef/owner of the now-closed Tommy’s City Grill and chef at the Spot, on Shelburne Road. The business partners came to Winrock (who had worked in Witting’s Chinese kitchen) before they shuttered their restaurant at the end of October. They had a new idea: Would he be willing to run a collective kitchen featuring regular pop-up meals?
“I just kind of fell upon it. The cosmos brought me here,” jokes Winrock of his good luck, which followed a year out of the business, working as a carpenter.
Last month, ArtsRiot launched its Kitchen Collective, serving a different pop-up cuisine every day of the week except Sunday. Since then, Matt Sargent, creator of Wednesday night’s Phantom Dinner, has amicably left the lineup. But five other chefs, including Winrock, are rocking meals every week, many with the goal of one day running their own restaurants. As part of the ArtsRiot collective, chefs pay for their own food and helpers as well as a rental fee for each night they’re in the kitchen.
We hit Winrock’s Saturday night “Handmade Food” pop-up — where he’s revived popular fare from his Tommy’s days, including mole, cheesesteaks and hot wings — after this story’s deadline. Read about that meal in this week’s Alice Eats in the Bite Club blog on sevendaysvt.com. Before press time, we tried the other nights and have much to report below.
Who will take over Wednesday nights? Another foodie with a dream? Seven Days spoke to the chefs about what it takes to be part of the ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective.
Monday: Until Next Time Catering Presents Big Easy Mondays
The high ceilings and dark wood of the ArtsRiot dining area make the room particularly mutable. On Monday nights, it becomes the Big Easy as Tara Norrell shouts out New Orleans street names to match plates with diners.
Those names replace the number cards used on other pop-up nights, and Virgin Mary votive candles light each table as Norrell delivers bowls of red beans and rice. For $8, diners get the stick-to-your-ribs meal with a pint of Switchback — an auspiciously nutty, spicy pairing.
Norrell, manager of Bluebird Tavern, says that she and her husband, Kevin, wanted to serve on Mondays for two reasons. First, it’s his day off from the line at Hen of the Wood Burlington; second, red beans and rice, stewed all day with pork bones left over from Sunday night, are a traditional Monday dinner. That’s exactly how the couple prepares the dish in ArtsRiot’s well-appointed, spanking-new kitchen.
Beans and rice are a staple, but the Norrells, who once lived in New Orleans, change the rest of their menu weekly. Last week, dishes included bourbon-glazed chicken with dirty rice and tangy, thyme-spiked gravy. Tara Norrell’s lemon icebox pie came topped with a buoyant cloud of meringue.
The Norrells hope that, before long, Until Next Time will become a restaurant of its own. “We have a family, and we can’t go jumping ship from our regular jobs. But we are out there getting exposure, and hopefully our food will create a good following from there,” Tara says. “And if someone walks in and says, ‘We want to invest in your restaurant,’ that would be awesome.”
In a 2011 cover story, we called Jeff Egan one of Vermont’s best chefs without a restaurant. At the time, the Bee’s Knees and Cliff House alum was kitchen manager at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier. Now Egan, who calls his catering company (and South End Truck Stop oyster-shucking business) the Wandering Chef, is on the move again.
He’s left the co-op to partner with former Cliff House general manager Brian Clark on Cauldron. The name is based on the ting, or cauldron, mentioned in the I Ching. According to Egan, “The mixing pot represents a lot of different things in terms of hospitality, community, room for growth.”
And he hopes his rustic New England menu will embody those values, too. While the Norrells keep a full-time restaurant as a distant goal, Egan joined the Kitchen Collective with a plan. “This is a chance to focus on cooking and let people know I’m out there,” says the chef. “In the next 12 to 18 months, I hope to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant [version of] Cauldron.”
When Egan does — likely in his hometown of Morrisville, he says — Burlington diners will already be familiar with the fare. There will be oysters, of course, but also creative seafood, such as last week’s salmon-scallop-cilantro ceviche. Grilling for guests at his home inspired Egan to include skewered items. A recent skewer plate featured meaty chunks of local pork marinated with herbs and lemon, then served in a pool of cider gastrique with half a roasted quince.
Soon Egan will expand his menu to include two items each in three categories: Here, Near and Far. Together, they’ll encompass everything from ultra-local items to ones embodying distance, whether it’s “cultural, emotional, flavor-wise or historical,” Egan explains.
Whatever the dish, it’s all part of the learning curve for Egan as he prices, sources and solidifies recipes for the future Cauldron.
Thursday: Southern Smoke
In sharp contrast to Egan, chef Brian Stefan says he doesn’t think he’s mature enough to own a restaurant yet. The man behind food truck Southern Smoke would rather remain mobile. That’s how the formerly Charleston, S.C.-based fine-dining chef ended up cooking everywhere from Bali to Thailand to Alaska to the Caribbean. It’s also how Stefan learned the flavors that inform his culinary anthropologist’s take on international barbecue.
Stefan was the first to join the ArtsRiot pop-up scene with his occasional “Hard-Core Foodie Nights,” which began last month with dishes such as blood-and-chocolate pudding. But the chef’s Thursday dinners are far more approachable — his options to date have included barbecue from the Southwest, Asia and Jamaica.
The jerk chicken Stefan offered at the Jamaican theme night was more smoky than spicy: a large leg smoked to juicy perfection and served over spiced rice with buttery, roasted plantains and a hash of squash and green peppers. Even Stefan’s patty was very much his own: Instead of ground beef or chicken, his was filled with tender chunks of smoked pork.
Parked on a couch at ArtsRiot, wearing a Thai Red Bull T-shirt (he calls the stuff “methamphetamine in a can”), Stefan warns fans that he’ll leave town the week before Christmas and spend a month gathering recipes in New Orleans, Nashville and Charleston.
When he’s back in 2014, Southern Smoke devotees will be in for family-style meals featuring “one big entrée with three or four sides,” he says. The dinners will include dishes Stefan can’t make on the Southern Smoke truck, such as braised meats and fried chicken. And there’s sure to be a song of the South in every bite.
Friday: The Hindquarter
Luke Stone is already plenty busy. As co-owner of food truck the Hindquarter with his boss at Cloud 9 Caterers, Sarah Moran, he already has two jobs. Since October, the truck has been parking on the University of Vermont green. But now, with a lighter winter catering schedule, Stone has added a pop-up night at ArtsRiot to his weekly duties.
The UVM spot and weekly pop-ups allow Stone and Moran to retain cooks who otherwise would have to find other jobs in the leaner months. Now they can serve creative local food all year long.
Stone says he and Moran have no plans to open a Hindquarter restaurant. “I kind of like the catering and food truck. It’s not all late nights and the daily grind of a restaurant,” he explains.
But Stone does enjoy being able to prepare dishes he can’t on the truck or at catering gigs. Loyal ArtsRiot diners have already clamored for some of his dishes to return weekly. Stone promises that kimchee ramen and creamy potato croquettes — filled with homemade ham and presented in a pool of clothbound-cheddar mustard — will remain staples.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, Stone debuted another potential signature: the fried pork shank for two. Trying to find a good use for the cut, Stone and his team experimented with a confit preparation that involved slow-roasting the pork for 24 hours. “Then we threw it in the deep fryer, and the skin came out perfectly crispy,” the chef remembers.
The shank’s combination of fall-apart-tender inside with crispy outside is a coup; topped with gremolata, it makes a tangy treat. In its first week, Stone served it with a big bowl of creamy polenta topped with mushroom gravy. He says in the future he may replace that side with homemade steamed buns for an Asian interpretation, or house tortillas for a Mexican meal, among other family-style entrées.
No matter how it’s prepared, Stone’s “monstrous dinner for two” embodies the spirit of experimentation that defines the Kitchen Collective. And if you don’t care for one, there’s another chef with a different menu the next night.