A month and a half ago, Eric Warnstedt - executive chef at Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill in Waterbury - picked up the phone, and the person on the line professed to be Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. Warnstedt's response? "Get the fuck out of here!"
But the caller really was Cowin, and once the "awestruck" young chef had regained his composure, she delivered the news that every up-and-coming American cuisinier hopes to hear: Warnstedt had been chosen by the magazine as one of 10 "best new chefs in America" for 2008. This puts him in excellent company: Former winners of the 20-year-old prize include Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
As exciting as the news was, Cowin asked that Warnstedt keep it as quiet as possible until the official announcement was made in early April. It happened last week in New York City, with 1000 people looking on. "They paraded us around. It was a full-on Manhattan scene," he exclaims.
But despite the acclaim, Warnstedt and Chef Craig Tresser plan to "stay focused on our mission and our ethics," he suggests. "We're a little local restaurant in Waterbury, Vermont. We want to give preference to our community."
In his mind, that community extends at least as far as Burlington. HOTW's current space is only zoned for 40 guests, and even prior to this newest honor, the maitre d' has been "turning people away on weekends." "It's a little small here for us, and there's no room to grow," he comments. Warnstedt's current dream is to find financing to move to the city, perhaps into the Queen City's Armory building on Main Street. "I think we'd be a worthwhile stop in Burlington," he muses. Ya think?
Dan Barber is another Food & Wine "best new chef" alum and a well-known advocate of farm-to-table cuisine. Barber, the executive chef at New York's Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, will be the keynote speaker at this year's Vermont Fresh Network Forum, which will be held at Shelburne Farms. According to VFN board member Molly Stevens, "We've asked him for a couple years and he finally said he would come."
Stevens says that the theme of this year's event is "Connecting the Dots" in the local food scene. "We're talking about taking things to the next level of connectedness and how to do that. It's more than just one connection; it's building systems," she explains.