Fourteen Years Sober, Chef Frank Pace Juggles Two Busy Burlington Eateries | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

Fourteen Years Sober, Chef Frank Pace Juggles Two Busy Burlington Eateries

By

Frank Pace - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Frank Pace

The tip for finding Frank Pace arrived by text on a snowy Friday night in late February. The message came from a Goshen innkeeper, who knew where the on-the-go restaurateur would be the next day. "Chef will be out on the trails so bring your skis or snowshoes!" Shari Brown advised.

Saturday turned out to be a once-a-winter kind of day: bright blue above, white ground below. Ten inches of powder had fallen in the woods surrounding Blueberry Hill Inn, high in the Green Mountain National Forest.

Behind the inn, on a path whose ascent into the trees did, indeed, require winter footwear, the smell of burning wood was the first hint that Pace was nearby. Next came the happy murmur of people gathered by a warming fire in the forest.

In a clearing under a stand of trees stood Pace, wearing a red beanie and black snow boots and ladling beef stew from a cast-iron cauldron just pulled from the fire. He garnished each bowl with a Pace-ian touch — fermented slaw — while greeting backcountry skiers and hikers who stopped at his food station in the woods.

"Hi, folks," he said warmly. "How're you doing?"

Pace was many miles from the Great Northern Kitchen, a catering company that he and his wife, Marnie Long, opened in their home in 2009 and now run on Pine Street in Burlington. Yet he was familiar to some of the patrons enjoying the meal, an on-trail dining experience that he catered in collaboration with the inn and a Vergennes-based business called Adventure Dinner.

"Are you Frank Pace?" one Burlington foodie asked. "We've heard a lot about you."

That's no surprise. Pace, who turns 49 on March 17, runs the food business at Burlington's Zero Gravity Beer Hall (formerly the Great Northern restaurant). On February 15, in partnership with Long, he purchased August First, a bakery and café on South Champlain Street.

The acquisition of the breakfast and lunch spot is a major career move for a chef who got his first taste of the restaurant industry in the 1980s as a kid working at his father's diner. It puts Pace at the helm of two popular but very distinct Burlington businesses.

August First is a casual counter-service café housed in a converted garage, with a pastry case that brims with croissants and brownies and a rack that holds baguettes and seven-grain sandwich loaves. In warmer months, the bread gets hawked by bicycle.

Zero Gravity Beer Hall - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Zero Gravity Beer Hall

At Zero Gravity Beer Hall, Great Northern Kitchen serves food in an elaborately renovated, expansive space whose ornate wooden bar was resurrected from a Seattle barroom where Jimi Hendrix played guitar. The taproom's concrete bar has radiant heat; a pool table, woodstove and brewery merch share the space.

Pace remains the hands-on chef of the high-volume kitchen.

"One thing I love about Frank: He will never stop cooking," said chef de cuisine Lahi Ibrahim, 32, who joined Pace at the Great Northern a few months after it opened. "He enjoys being on the line with the team. And it pushes him and pushes all the chefs to be like him: moving forward."

Pace is juggling two high-profile enterprises as his volatile industry faces a reckoning. Many restaurants didn't survive the pandemic, and others confront a critical labor shortage. By all accounts, Pace is up for the job.

He knows all too well how stressful the restaurant business can be. In the mid-2000s, when Pace was a rising star in Burlington's burgeoning restaurant scene, drug and alcohol use — and what Pace called the "internal struggle" surrounding his addiction — threatened to end his career.

Making himself vulnerable was the first step to recovery.

"I got lucky," Pace said. "I was in the right place at the right time. And I asked for help."

Two years ago, on Pace's 47th birthday, Gov. Phil Scott ordered restaurants in Vermont to close to slow the spread of COVID-19. No one knew at the time how long the shutdown would last or how much the pandemic would affect the restaurant industry.

Pace, a resourceful and creative chef — "remarkably talented," in the words of Farmhouse Group owner Jed Davis — responded by curing and fermenting, drying and smoking, to make the food he had on hand last. It was also a way "to cheer ourselves up," he told Seven Days at the time.

The Great Northern reopened as a takeout business. Its kitchen was big enough to allow cooks to socially distance; its dining room became a playground and classroom for the owners' kids.

That forced change evolved into the current business model: In January 2022, the Zero Gravity taproom and Great Northern dining room became a shared space called Zero Gravity Beer Hall, with food provided by Great Northern Kitchen. Customers order at the bar, Pace and his team cook the food, and a runner delivers it.

The setup is customer-friendly and relaxed, Pace said. The new menu features favorites such as fried chicken sandwiches, chickpea fritters, and chicken or cauliflower wings.

"I'm just very happy with this incarnation," Pace said. "This is how we should've done it in the first place."




'A long, strange trip'

Marnie Long and Frank Pace at August First - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Marnie Long and Frank Pace at August First

The trail to a backwoods pop-up is just one of many paths that Pace has traveled in Vermont. He's hiked to the top of Camel's Hump more times than he's seen the Grateful Dead play live — 20 shows and four Jerry Garcia Band concerts. He ambles regularly with his family through the walking paths at Red Rocks Park in South Burlington and Niquette Bay State Park in Colchester.

Pace also walks to secret river locations to fly-fish — a hobby that he considers both meditative and a connection to the natural world that he holds dear. When the conditions are just right, he said, "It's very psychedelic.''

His Burlington path to work leads from the historic house in the Old North End where he lives with Long and their two kids to Zero Gravity Beer Hall. Pace covers the distance at a strong and steady clip, but he'll always stop to say hi in exuberant Pace parlance: "Dude!"

Pace's path into the restaurant business started with washing dishes, slicing meat and chopping vegetables at the Hatchery, a Ludlow diner owned by his father, Frank Sr., when he was still in middle school. His dad had managed Seward Family Restaurant in Rutland before buying the diner with a $55,000 handshake loan from a local bank, Pace said.

"You had to get over the fact that your dad was your boss at home and at work," Pace said. "Once we figured that out, it all worked out."

About a decade later, while making pizza and sautéing shrimp at bustling Burlington restaurant Sweet Tomatoes, he came to recognize that his father, who'd shown him the basics of restaurant work, was a superior line cook.

"All those skill sets clicked when I cooked at Sweet Tomatoes," Pace said. "I knew I wanted to be a cook."

Long was busing tables there. She and Pace started a friendship that would transform from buddies to roommates to life partners. They've been living together since 2006.

"We have such a long, crazy history," she said.

They each left Burlington for a time, starting with Pace, who moved to San Francisco in 1995 to attend the California Culinary Academy. He chose the city for its renowned restaurants, but its status as home of the Grateful Dead was a bonus.

From left: Evan Green, Lahi Ibrahim and Frank Pace - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • From left: Evan Green, Lahi Ibrahim and Frank Pace

A week after his arrival in San Francisco, on August 9, the band's singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, died at a drug rehabilitation center. It was just two months after the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan had played in Highgate. Pace, along with a visiting Long and another Vermont friend, attended a tribute for Garcia that was held at Polo Field in Golden Gate Park.

"They played Dead shows from the vault," Pace recalled. "I was pretty high."

Pace graduated from the culinary academy and lived in San Francisco for almost eight years, most of that time in an apartment above the revered Zuni Café, known for its roast chicken. His culinary experience included working at the acclaimed French restaurant Alain Rondelli and at the Essex Supper Club, which received a positive review in the San Francisco Examiner.

By the end of his years in San Francisco, Pace was "running hard," he said, and knew that he had to get home to try to stop drinking and using drugs. A friend gave him money for a train ticket in the winter of 2002.

"I left San Francisco a sous chef with a hard-core drug and alcohol problem I was trying to escape," Pace said. Partying wasn't fun anymore, and using had become "a necessity."

The five-day train ride across the country wasn't the best start to a booze-free life. Pace hung out in the smoking car, he said, where "everybody partied."

In Vermont, Pace got a job as a stonemason, hoping the physical work would help him get sober. It didn't. Over the next half dozen years, he held a succession of chef jobs, including at Three Tomatoes in Burlington (the new incarnation of Sweet Tomatoes), Nico's Cucina in Williston and Smokejacks in Burlington.

"When I moved back here, I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn't an addict and alcoholic. I was holding down jobs, buying houses, stuff like that," Pace said. "I spent six years back here struggling internally, hiding it."




'That path is for your steps alone'

Frank Pace and Marnie Long in San Francisco in the summer of 1995 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Frank Pace and Marnie Long in San Francisco in the summer of 1995

In San Francisco, Pace had developed an appreciation for sourcing ingredients from local farms, a practice that Bay Area restaurants embraced long before it became fashionable in the East. Back in Vermont, he was pleased to see a growing number of local vegetable farms and other diversified producers — and to use their food in his cooking.

In 2005, Pace became chef at Smokejacks, an early farm-to-table restaurant on Church Street. He took over the kitchen from Eric Warnstedt, who moved on to open Hen of the Wood in Waterbury.

Eric Seitz, owner of Pitchfork Farm in Burlington's Intervale, remembers walking into the basement kitchen of Smokejacks in the summer of 2006. It was his first year of farming, and he was eager to shop his vegetables to restaurants. He carried a toy box filled with baby summer squash, eggplants, purple peppers, tomatoes and artichokes.

"There was this human who was larger than life, snapping at everyone," Seitz recalled of Pace. "But no one was afraid of the guy."

Pace looked at Seitz's vegetables and asked for a crate of each so he could run a special that night featuring Pitchfork produce. Seitz went back to his farm, harvested the vegetables and delivered them to the restaurant that afternoon. In the evening, Seitz and his girlfriend ate dinner at Smokejacks. Pace comped their meals and noted Pitchfork Farm on the menu among the sources of his ingredients.

It was the first time Seitz ever saw "Pitchfork Farm" printed on a restaurant menu. He's been selling vegetables to Pace pretty much ever since — including at Shelburne Supermarket, where Pace worked as produce manager after he left Smokejacks.

The job offered a break from the pressures of running a kitchen. Yet Pace continued to struggle with substance use and knew that he needed help.

It arrived in the form of a card with a phone number for a rehab center in New Hampshire. A friend gave the card to Long, who passed it on to Pace. He made the call.

"I told them where I was at," he said.

To start the program, Pace had to be clean.

"I detoxed on the couch here for three days," he said. Then he got a ride to New Hampshire.

Pace spent a month in the spring of 2008 at the New Hampshire center and then moved into a sober house in Burlington's South End. He lived there four months before returning to the house in the Old North End that he and Long had moved into on Independence Day 2006.

"I had to do work, and I have not suffered since," Pace said. "I live a life of freedom now."




'Get out the pans'

August First - FILE: OLIVER PARNINI
  • File: Oliver Parnini
  • August First

In recovery, Pace returned to work at Shelburne Supermarket, this time as a meat cutter. That specialty would be his focus for the next phase of his career. After late-night restaurant work, the routine daytime hours and the opportunity to gain expertise as a butcher aided his recovery, Pace said.

Pace moved on to Healthy Living Market & Café in South Burlington in 2009 and served as meat manager there for about four years. The market still uses his sausage recipe, employs his value-added methods of using the whole animal, and adheres to product and sourcing standards he implemented, according to co-owner and chief operating officer Nina Lesser-Goldsmith.

"Before Frank, we didn't really have a sophisticated meat department," she said. "He brought that respect for the animal, that excitement for why you would buy a whole animal from a farmer and honor it.

"He's all love and joy," she continued. "He brought the love of food."

Beyond that, she's personally grateful to him for catering her 2010 wedding. Pace roasted a Jericho Settlers Farm hog for the occasion.

"We have endless love for Frank," Lesser-Goldsmith said.

Pace went on to work for the Farmhouse Group, where he was master butcher-chef at the Guild Commissary in Winooski. But cooking in the group's restaurants helped him realize that he wanted to return to the kitchen full time, he said. His break from restaurants was over.

Frank Pace and catering crew at the 2010 wedding of Nina Lesser-Goldsmith - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy Of Shem Roose
  • Frank Pace and catering crew at the 2010 wedding of Nina Lesser-Goldsmith

In 2015, Pace found a place as chef at the Spot in Burlington. He ran the restaurant's sober kitchen, an unofficial program that offers steady jobs and a supportive atmosphere to people who need it, many of whom are in recovery.

Pace also cooked on the line at Buono Appetito, a now-defunct Italian restaurant on Shelburne Road. But he was looking to open a place of his own.

Russ Scully, owner of the Spot, connected Pace with the owners of the Pine Street space that had previously housed South End Kitchen, Pace said. He and Long opened the Great Northern there, beside Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, on Mother's Day weekend 2017.

The restaurant's kitchen produced creative, high-end dishes such as roasted quail and baby octopus on miso-roasted fennel, along with unassuming eats for the neighboring brewery's taproom. The first dish Pace created for Zero Gravity was a Coney dog — a hot dog with chili.

While the restaurant and the taproom remain separate business entities, in January 2022 they became a single gathering place: Zero Gravity Beer Hall.

The cooks there call each other "chef" regardless of their position. They described Pace's kitchen as characterized by teamwork that works — and superclean stations. Dishwashers make $18 an hour, and Pace wishes he could pay them more.

"We, as restaurant owners, have to absolutely put the employees first," he said.

The new arrangement with Zero Gravity made it possible for Pace and Long to buy August First, Long said.

"Our team is trained and dedicated and knowledgeable," she said. "We have a really tight ship with our crew at the Great Northern. That allows Frank and I this chance."

The owners and founders of August First, wife-and-husband partners Jodi Whalen and Phil Merrick, approached Pace and Long about buying their bakery-café about a year ago.

"It was critical that we found someone who would take our baby, this lovely place that we created, and honor what it's all about," Whalen said. She singled out Pace for his skills as a chef and mentor, noting his kindness.

Pace's overarching approach to food and work hasn't changed over the course of his career, he said. Namely, "trying to find products as close to [home] as possible, working as hard as possible and trying to have a good time."

Despite the industry's notorious reputation, having a good time in the restaurant business doesn't have to mean partying, Pace noted. It's about enjoying the work and the people you do it with.

Known for his culinary talent, work ethic and generous spirit, Pace earns praise from chefs, coworkers, customers and Long, who calls him a "natural teacher" in the kitchen.

On a recent afternoon at Zero Gravity, a Burlington couple out for good French fries shared an order on the couch by the fireplace. They recognized Pace when he emerged from the kitchen carrying a tumbler of seltzer with lemon juice. He took a short break and returned to work before Ken Russack and Janice Lara, cofounders of Sneakers Bistro in Winooski and then the Daily Planet in Burlington, had a chance to introduce themselves.

"I wanted to toast him," Lara, 71, said. "Restaurateurs, they keep going. It's for the love of it, not the money."




'Blooming like a red rose'

Louden (left) and Frank fishing in Arlington - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Louden (left) and Frank fishing in Arlington

Pace is up at 6:30 every morning to start his day with a 45-minute workout guided by an online trainer. The routine helps him maintain the discipline and rigor required to run his businesses, he said.

With his team of about 40 people between the Great Northern Kitchen and August First, Pace serves pastries and breakfast sandwiches starting at 7:30 a.m., soup and salads at lunchtime, and bar snacks and burgers until 9 p.m. Both restaurants are open seven days a week. In addition, his and Long's catering business prepares and serves food at 25 or so events a year, such as the Adventure Dinner in Goshen.

Pace's physical workout complements a spiritual practice, including daily meditation, that he described as key to his sobriety.

"If I'm not fit spiritually and mentally and physically, I'm not going to be a useful manager, and I'm not going to be a good person," he said. "That's the key. Everything else is a gift."

On Pace's first day off in three weeks, a Saturday in early March, he, Long and their kids planned to throw together a dinner with cauliflower and spaghetti squash. Sitting at his kitchen table drinking a can of seltzer, Pace reflected on his first few weeks at August First.

"It feels really good," Pace said. "I'm just going to work there: clean the coolers, put the food away, make the specials."

If this moment looks to outsiders like a pinnacle of Pace's career — after three decades in the industry — Long suggests that his true fulfillment came with sobriety and the life they've built as a family.

When Long, now 46, met Pace, she was a 19-year-old graduate of South Burlington High School and a violinist soon to begin studies at the University of Vermont. Now the couple's oldest child, Louden (middle name: Garcia), is 11, and Louisa is 9.

Louisa was a baby when her parents got married at Bread & Butter Farm in South Burlington. Winooski's Misery Loves Co. catered the caterers' summer party. The feast included roast corn, a lot of meat cooked over wood and a bit of symmetry: Pace and Long had catered the wedding of Misery owners Laura Wade and Aaron Josinsky a few years earlier.

Pace will mark 14 sober years on April 19.

"A person could be successful but going down in flames internally," Long said. "I feel like, for Frank, success has been a healthy life, where he's honest and a part of his community."

Pace, in turn, said he's grateful to take on a new venture.

Frank Pace at Blueberry Hill Inn - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Frank Pace at Blueberry Hill Inn

"I've been given so many chances in life," he said. "These are opportunities now that I need to take very seriously and mindfully because of the people that I'm gifted to work with."

Since Pace and Long purchased August First, he's been making egg sandwiches and bánh mì at the café. He added a sausage roll (with optional kimchi) to the menu and served a beef stew special similar to the meal in the cauldron in Goshen. He said he appreciates August First's "chill" atmosphere and beautiful French baking equipment.

As Pace learns about the café from general manager Elizabeth Trostel, he's excited by the "synergy" between August First and the Great Northern. He and Long plan to host community events at August First, such as poetry readings and storytelling nights.

"It's going to evolve into our own place," Pace said. "But it's a lot of fun being there now and just working."

Long likes the distinct atmosphere of the two places: the morning coffee crowd at the café and the buzz of the popular taproom. "I'm in love with August First," she said. "And being a new owner, I'm just tickled."

Daughter Louisa is excited to do a little busing at August First, helping out the way her dad did at the Hatchery when he was not much older than she is. Louden lends a hand with cleaning at the Great Northern loading dock. The kids' involvement is gratifying to Long and Pace, whose business partnership Long likened to a marriage.

"The commitment is there. The struggles are there," she said. "The triumphs are also there."

The little potted sedums on August First's tables and the maple biscuit recipe were part of the deal. So were the framed Bread and Puppet Theater prints hanging by the door — and the bakery, whose staff kicks into action at 4:30 a.m.

The spirit of the restaurant's name also passes to the new owners. "August First" is the title of a poem by Hayden Carruth about a brook, a geranium and time passing. It's about work, and a husband and wife growing older and stronger together.

"Another day's work," Carruth wrote, "another evening's done."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Now He's Cooking | Fourteen years sober, chef Frank Pace juggles two busy Burlington eateries"