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Grilling the Chef: Guild Tavern's Phillip Clayton

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Phillip Clayton at the Burlington Farmers Market - OLIVER PARINI
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  • Phillip Clayton at the Burlington Farmers Market

Chef: Phillip Clayton
Age: 34
Restaurant: Guild Tavern (executive chef; also chef-partner at the Farmhouse Group)
Location: South Burlington
restaurant age: three years
Cuisine type: farm-to-table
Training: bachelor's in hospitality and restaurant management and associate's degree in culinary arts, New England Culinary Institute
Select experience: line cook, Savoy Restaurant and Martini Bar, Asheville, N.C. (2004); sous chef, Trattoria Delia, Burlington (2006-2008); sous chef, Hen of the Wood, Waterbury (2008-2010); executive chef, the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Burlington
What's on the menu? buckwheat tagliatelle; dry-aged, bone-in rib eye for two

Phillip Clayton is waiting for his new pasta dish to catch on. It begins with a tangle of nutty, housemade buckwheat tagliatelle. To this, the chef adds charred bitter greens, cubed potatoes and wild mushrooms, which he salt-cured, brined and tossed in aromatic spices before plunging them into olive oil to preserve. The pasta is a riff on pizzoccheri, a dish native to northern Italy, and it's been on Guild Tavern's menu for about a week.

Don't be fooled by the building's sprawling wayside location on Williston Road — inside is a temple to local cattle and the fields that feed them. Dining room guests are parishioners at a nightly ritual that opens with the briny pop of an oyster and continues through the evening, wafting through the dining room in scented swirls of wood smoke and savory herbs.

The restaurant is, at its heart, a steak house, though Clayton is as concerned with vegetables as he is with meats. Pulling from coolers stuffed with produce pickled, fermented, sauced and canned at the height of its summer freshness, Clayton and his staff stretch warm-weather flavors well into the winter.

The bill of fare changes with the season. Earlier this month, Clayton and staff unveiled their fall spread, which includes an autumnal soup in which celeriac commingles with sunchokes. The creamy, nut-brown tuber isn't from any of the local farms that now cultivate it but from nearby wild soil, delivered by a forager.

Among local fooderati, the restaurant is favored for handling quality ingredients with care and nuance; for its impeccable cocktails and well-chosen wine list; and for its supper, which marries innovative modern cuisine with chophouse classics.

In the conversation below, Clayton opens up about dining trends, farm friends and kitchen pet peeves.

SEVEN DAYS: Where did you grow up, and how did your family eat back then?

PHILLIP CLAYTON: I grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., and when I look back on it, I had a really great food experience growing up. My dad was as southern as they come, and my mom is from a Polish family. Her grandparents immigrated to the states, and they weren't far removed from their homeland and its traditions and cuisine. Living in the South, my mom was a huge gardener. She was really into canning and preserving, so I had this awesome mix of homegrown, fresh and preserved foods and really classic southern food — tons of pulled pork. Then we had the Polish food, especially around the holidays: pierogi, kielbasa, latkes and braised cabbage. And Mexican food is really big down there. That was a big part of what I ate when I was younger, and was ultimately part of the influence and inspiration for El Cortijo [Taqueria Y Cantina, in Burlington].

SD: As a kid, were there foods you wouldn't eat?

PC: Oddly enough, I was creeped out by fish. Now, things that come from the ocean are some of my favorite foods to eat and cook. And beets. My mom would make them for herself because none of the rest of us would eat them. Now I use beets gratuitously — they're one of my favorite vegetables.

SD: What's the last thing you ate?

PC: I had an egg taco before I left the house today. Jericho Settlers Farm egg and a corn tortilla and some salsa my wife and I made and canned. Tacos are a big-time staple.

SD: What dishes are selling really well at the restaurant right now?

PC: Beef, in general. We buy really high-quality Vermont beef from LaPlatte [River Angus Farm], and the response is sometimes overwhelming. I'm amazed by how many steaks we sell. And we do an amazing burger — we have this wood grill, and that just really completes the burger. I'm also doing some butternut squash fritters, with sorghum and crème fraîche, juniper mulled cider, and fried sage. It's almost like a little doughnut, creamy and crispy.

SD: How about trends you're really into — or wish would catch on?

PC: Wild foods have always been present in finer cooking, but in the last few years the appreciation for and familiarity with wild foods has become a prevalent trend. Guests' willingness to experience them has grown along with it, so people are more open-minded.

Also, fermentations are such a great way to explore foods and new flavors, and to make local produce last into the winter. That's always our goal on the back burner: What can we buy now when it's available, and how far can we stretch it? Months ago, we bought an enormous quantity of tomatoes from Jericho [Settlers Farm] and made this fantastic tomato jam. It's on a burger at the Farmhouse and on the cheese boards. So preservation is really hot right now.

It's great to see that kind of a trend become popular, because it keeps old traditions alive. Mom tells me stories of the sauerkraut my grandpa would make and how it stunk up the whole house, but they were putting up the cabbage they'd grown in their garden. I like that personal connection.

SD: Any trends you're really sick of?

PC: Under-descriptive, cryptic, intentionally hard-to-understand menu writing. Too many restaurants and chefs try too hard to make their dishes sound cool. And smoked bluefish pâté. Just let it die already. 

SD: What's always in your walk-in cooler, regardless of season?

PC: Root vegetables. The farms we work with do an amazing job of growing just enough quantity to last the winter. The winter supply will be just dwindling as summer crops start to become available. And lots and lots of herbs. I can't get enough herbs in any dish. And Vermont cheeses — we always have five to 10 artisan local cheeses. We use them in dishes, on cheeseboards and at the weddings we cater.

SD: Let's talk fall: Which of-the-moment ingredients do you look forward to?

PC: Delicata squash is definitely a favorite. And kale is available all year, but I love what happens to kale in the fall. With a touch of frost, it gets sweeter. The plants are happy in fall, and when plants are happy, the product is at its best. And heirloom apples. When apples are in peak season and you're cooking with these heirloom varieties, it's just so interesting and fun and cool. And the hard cheeses — summer is sheep and goat's milk production season. So cheeses that take a long time to age start to come available now — Twig Farm's [Goat] Tomme and Coomersdale from Bonnieview Farm.

SD: You work with a ton of farmers. Any particularly inspiring relationships?

PC: James and Sara Donegan — their farm is Trillium Hill Farm. I've known Sara for more than a decade, and their produce is just so amazing and perfect. They've been totally integral to the quality of our end product. It's that kind of classic view: If you have the right ingredients, all you have to do is prepare them correctly, and those flavors are going to shine.

And throughout the history of the Farmhouse Group, Jericho Settlers Farm has been a very important sourcing partner. And Pitchfork Farm — we've bought untold quantities of greens from them. And LaPlatte, definitely the best beef I've ever had in my life. And fantastic chicken from Adams [Family Farm], and getting fish from Ethan Wood. I could go on all day. But a lot of these relationships have gone beyond customer relationships.

SD: Working farm-to-table, do you have a favorite season for cooking?

PC: I love that we have these distinct seasons. September is a great time to cook — you still have some summer produce, and a lot of the fall stuff is just coming in, so you get this amazing mix of products that you think of as being from separate seasons. And I think of it as spring, but really in Vermont it's early summer, when all the green stuff starts to reappear. It's kind of like the rebirth of produce and your menu and your thought process. You think you can't cook another turnip, and then ramps appear.

SD: The weekend was slow, and you have extra produce to move early in the week. You need a new special, but no ideas come. Where do you go for inspiration?

PC: I look to my staff for new and exciting ideas and energy. The other chefs, these young people, are excited and aspiring to great things; and also my front-of-the-house staff. You keep that conversation going, and you get a much better result. And there are some awesome cooking shows in Netflix — the Chef's Table and Mind of a Chef series. Getting those in-depth glimpses at how some of these chefs work is really inspirational. It makes you challenge yourself when you see the absolute pinnacle of what food can be.

SD: Do you cook at home?

PC: My wife does most of the cooking at home — luckily, she's an excellent cook. We have a young daughter, so buying the best-quality ingredients and cooking the best-possible food we can as adults, that became an even higher priority once she started eating real food. I eat a ton of tacos, at all times of the day with all kinds of fillings. And we're pretty busy people, so a lot of times there'll be some mayonnaise-based thing that we can spread on a cracker. And we stock up on pimiento every time we go south to see family. Red Clay Gourmet pimiento cheese with roasted jalapeños.

SD: What's in your home pantry?

PC: Lentils, local eggs. We don't eat a lot of meat at home, but when we do, I like it to be really high quality. And our own vegetables — my wife is a huge gardener, so we're always eating our own stuff.

SD: What are your best-loved cookbooks?

PC: Two books from Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a great encyclopedia, and Vegetable Literacy. She's a chef from the older Chez Panisse era. And A Platter of Figs [and Other Recipes, by David Tanis], I think Eric [Warnstedt] gave me that one when I left Hen of the Wood. So there's some sentimental value there, but I love David Tanis' style. He knows how to cook, and he likes simple food, and that speaks to me in a strong way.

SD: What's on the kitchen radio?

PC: My kitchen staff determines the musical mix, and it's a remarkable array of music. One of my sous chefs can't get enough Steve Winwood radio on Pandora, and there's a fair amount of hip-hop. We had this guy who would play this — I don't know, trip-hop or something. It was the same beat over and over for, like, three hours, and it would drive everyone crazy. And every once in a while, I'll throw on Waylon Jennings to mix it up. I just love that old country.

SD: Kitchen pet peeves?

PC: When cooks have a messy station, it drives me crazy. Stepping over trash instead of picking it up makes my blood boil, and punching through plastic wrap rather than taking it off. And the other thing is intentional compromise — when someone makes something and knows it's not right and proceeds with it anyway.

SD: To borrow a question from Vanity Fair: What is your greatest extravagance — in food or life in general?

PC: Foie gras — my love of foie gras is boundless. I don't cook with it a lot, and I don't eat it all that frequently. But if I'm eating in a great restaurant, I won't pass it up under any circumstances. And old bourbon. The depth you can get out of well-aged bourbon is just so interesting.

SD: It's Sunday night, and you're relaxing over a drink. Where and what are you drinking?

PC: I'm drinking a Negroni, but where I am varies. I absolutely love that drink, and it's such a standard recipe, you can really go anywhere; it'll be great. Sometimes it's at the Guild bar, sometimes the Hen of the Wood Burlington bar. Sometimes home. Last weekend, we were at this great place in Montréal.

SD: Go-to occasion dinner destination?

PC: Portland, Maine, is our family getaway destination. There are a lot of exciting new restaurants — Central Provisions or Eventide Oyster Co., but I love Fore Street [Restaurant]. There's just something so classic and modern about that place. When we opened Guild, I wanted to bring some of that to Burlington.

SD: What about when you're not working — any hobbies?

PC: I run for exercise, and it's a good stress reliever. If I get a run in the morning, my temperament and mind-set are always so much better during the workday. It's a really stark, remarkable difference. I love to snowboard, I love camping and doing really fun things for and with my daughter — giving her a really great experience. She's 2 and a half, so the entire world is really amazing to her right now.

SD: Guilty pleasure?

PC: Candy. If candy is in my house, I can't resist it. And my wife buys a fair amount of candy. I ask her not to, but she does it anyway. Salted-peanut-caramel ice cream from Talenti [Gelato e Sorbetto]. I wish it didn't exist, honestly.

SD: What's one food you couldn't live without?

PC: Can I say tacos again?

The original print version of this article was headlined "Endless Summer"

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