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Grilling the Chef

Caleb Barber, Osteria Pane e Salute, Woodstock


Published June 11, 2008 at 5:58 a.m.

Caleb Barber
  • Caleb Barber

Chef Caleb Barber and wine expert and food writer Deirdre Heekin may run a tiny establishment - their restaurant in Woodstock seats just 26 - but the tastes that emerge from their kitchen are anything but diminutive. Think trout with orange, rosemary and raisins; thin-crust pizza topped with sausage, olives and arugula; and homemade walnut gelato.

The couple's passionately crafted cookbook, Pane e Salute: Food and Love in Italy and Vermont, is an homage to both fine food and romance. Their cuisine has garnered accolades in The Boston Globe, Bon Appetit, Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine. For two years straight, Barber and Heekin have been invited to prepare a wine-tasting dinner for guests at the renowned James Beard House in New York.

As a youngster in Brattleboro, Barber didn't dream of being a chef. "When you're growing up, you don't think about food as a source of work," he points out. "You just eat it."

For him, it was more about pliés than soufflés. After studying philosophy at Middlebury College, Barber leapt into a career in modern dance, as did fellow student Heekin. "One of the reasons I looked for work at a restaurant was that there was flexibility that allowed me to continue dancing," Barber recalls.

The couple studied at New York's Erick Hawkins Dance, and even formed their own troupe back in Middlebury. But eventually they decided to start a business, and wanted that business to be food-related. A yearlong honeymoon in Italy gave them a serious yen for the ultra-fresh local cuisine.

"At some point, I think it was after we had moved back from Italy and we were living in Middlebury, we realized that we had to eat at least two meals a day for the rest of our lives," Barber says. "Our time in Italy had made us appreciate how much pleasure could come from that. It would be borderline tragic if we couldn't enjoy our meals every day . . . It seemed so elemental to us." They opened a bakery, which then morphed into an award-winning eatery.

Barber and Heekin's success hinges on more than the food itself: "We definitely try to cultivate an atmosphere in our restaurant," Barber says. "Of course, we have things in the restaurant that might evoke Italian-ness, but it's more about a feeling and a kind of attention, something less specific than artifacts."

The Pane e Salute menu makes us hungry just reading it, so we decided to grill Caleb Barber about his food philosophy.

How did your family eat when you were growing up?

Simply and well: I would say it was simple, homemade farm cooking. Mom collected cookbooks and read cookbooks and would do new things. It was always good.

We had a family dinner almost every night. Except Sunday night was "every-man-for-himself" night. On Sunday I ate a lot of fried-egg sandwiches and hamburgers.

My mom has always been a gardener; she grew up on a farm in New Hampshire . . . and we had a vegetable garden when we were growing up; everybody had one. I certainly appreciated what came out of it, but I didn't like being in it. My mom gets a pretty good kick out of the fact that we're building gardens at the house to grow vegetables for the restaurant.

Back then, were there any foods you just detested?

Brussels sprouts. In fact, I had a signed declaration, witnessed by my brother and mother, stating that I could not be made to eat Brussels sprouts until further notice, which was not forthcoming. My mom found this document in a box of my papers somewhere, and it's now framed in my kitchen at home.

How do you feel about Brussels sprouts nowadays?

I love Brussels sprouts.

Name three foods that make life worth living.

Cheese, wine - I definitely subscribe to the Old World attitude that wine is part of the food - and guanciale [cured pig's jowls]. We've got a couple of cheeks curing right now.

What's the weirdest dish you've tried?

Huh. The things I've eaten, I really don't think of as strange. [Certain edibles] are more esoteric, but for some people, it's just food.

When you have time to cook at home, what do you make?

I like to make Indian food. I like to make, sometimes, Chinese-style food. I like creating dinner on those nights when we haven't really planned everything at all, and you just kind of dig through the pantry and refrigerator and pull out stuff, and you realize that you have everything to make such and such, and that's what you make.

Speaking of pantries, what items are always in yours?

I've been lamenting the state of my own pantry lately. Beans, like chickpeas or cannellini; coconut milk; stuffed grape leaves. Maybe a good canned pâté of some kind. Crushed tomatoes, definitely; curry paste; cornmeal; sardines for snacks and anchovies for cooking. That's pretty good.

Imagine you have an all-expenses-paid trip to any country you want to eat in. Where do you go?

I think Japan. What I want to experience there is eating in some of the older restaurant establishments, some of which are several hundred years old and still in the same building. I want to experience the tradition.

You can cook for anybody, dead or alive. Whom do you choose?

Jacques Pépin.

Why Jacques?

Because we had to cook once for Julia Child: She came to Pane e Salute back in the day for lunch.

She was fairly infirm by that time and was in a wheelchair [and came] with her nephew and his wife - they were in town for a wedding. They'd driven by, seen the sign, and turned around and come back. Lunch had cleared out and there was nobody eating.

We had this young guy who was cooking lunch for us at the time. He started off baking with me in the morning, and we taught him how to do the lunch menu and make soup. So, in fact, I waited on Julia, and this young guy Nate cooked them lunch. I didn't say anything to him; I just told him, "One last table," and he rolled his eyes.

I knew exactly what she was going to order. On our lunch menu, we've always had roasted chicken with roasted potatoes and salad. According to her writing, that is her favorite meal: The classic meal that she turns to when she's been away from home and wants to feel that she has arrived at home.

And that's exactly what she ordered. So I'm picking up the plates, and everything looks perfect, and I say to him: "Nate, you just cooked lunch for Julia Child." He knew who she was and understood that something had just happened.

We saved the credit card receipt with her signature. We've had a couple of movie people, TV people, but they don't compare.

Ah, so cooking for Pépin would kind of complete the set. Moving on . . . Is there a piece of equipment you can't live without?

I guess it just comes down to a good, sharp chef knife. Everything else you can just learn to adjust to and control. If you have a crummy pan, you just learn to control the heat.

Which two cookbooks should every home cook own?

James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. It's just such a great introduction to the basics that it's like a $29.95 culinary institute home cooking course.

And then, I would say, any cookbook that really calls to you, whether it's an ethnic cookbook or a cookbook by a particular author about a particular place. Something that gets you fired up about cooking when you read it.

My favorite cookbook is a doorstop of a cookbook. It's a regional Italian cookbook and it's just got all the regions and all of these old, basic preparations. For me, those would probably be the two.

If you weren't a chef, what would your job be?

Um, I wish I could say ball player. I did go to a Vermont Expos try-out once, just to see what that was like.

What position?

Outfield. But really, I think I'd be a coach for runners; probably track races, middle and short distance.

What's your favorite thing about cooking in Vermont right now?

I would say the increasingly holistic attitude towards our food in this state.

Name a local restaurant that you patronize.

Local is pretty big for us, because when we go out to eat, we're willing to go a long distance. We like to go to the Barnard Inn. When we're on our way to Montréal, we like to stop at