At his home on pastoral Gilead Brook Road in Bethel, Tom Bivins keeps pigs — two Tamworth and two Tam-worth-Berkshire-cross piglets, to be exact. He expects to add four more piglets in the coming weeks, he says, tightening a screw on the house he’s building for the chicks added to his menagerie two weeks before.
But Bivins, executive chef of the New England Culinary Institute, isn’t your average rustic homesteader. His yard boasts a wood-fired clay oven, its beehive-shaped doors salvaged from the historic Boston home next door to Paul Revere’s. His new chicks, Rhode Island reds and whites and a pair of fluffy black silkies, were a birthday gift from Bivins’ husband, Bennett Law. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, great,’” Bivins says, rolling his eyes. “But they’re a fun project.”
The chicks did siphon his time away from another summer endeavor: building a smokehouse. Bivins was planning to bring NECI students over to help him make bacon from the piglets, which he will slaughter in November. Right now, though, he’s preoccupied with his chicken house. “Here’s the gay part: It had to match the house,” he jokes. It does. Perfectly.
These days, most top chefs in Vermont adhere to a fairly strict localvore lifestyle, but few do it on the same level as Bivins. As president of the Vermont Fresh Network and faculty advisor to the Slow Food NECI Convivium, he has taken leaps in ensuring the sustainability of NECI’s academic programs. Local diners are likely to know him as the architect of the popular farm-to-table dinner menu at NECI’s Montpelier restaurant, Main Street Grill & Bar.
Bivins graduated from NECI in 1990 and started working at Shelburne Farms just as the Vermont Fresh Network was being established. “I really fell in love with the idea of a working landscape,” he says. Bivins proceeded to bring that philosophy home and everywhere he worked. The Pitcher Inn and The Old Tavern at Grafton were stops before he returned to his alma mater as an instructor in 2003.
And in 2002, when the couple got their civil union, Bivins moved into Law’s 1842 house and added “gentleman farmer” to his various culinary titles. Law, now vice president of transformation and web strategies at National Life in Montpelier, had already lived there for 23 years and was no slouch in the kitchen himself. Popular in the community for his annual community pig roast, Law brags about his butchering skills — he dispatches pigs with a vertical incision, he says, not the horizontal ones local farmers used before he came to town.
Law says it was Bivins’ skills in the kitchen that seduced him. “Early on, after we first started going together,” he recalls, he opened up the fridge at “Bivins’ home in Warren and declared, ‘There’s nothing to eat in this house.’ There was a jar of mustard and some maraschino cherries.” But “somehow,” recalls Law, “he made an exquisite meal that night. It’s a gift he has.”
For his part, Bivins says, he was just enthralled to have “the hot guy I’d been stalking for two years” at his home. Bivins first cooked for Law in 1997 at a Vermont People With AIDS Coalition event Law was hosting. He cooked at another of Law’s events, this one for Vermont CARES, before he worked up the guts to ask out his crush. Because of confusion with another chef named Tom, Law thought Bivins was a straight divorcé, but the mix-up was short lived. Last October, they were legally married, precisely seven years and six months after their civil union.
By then, Bivins had hit his professional stride. In 2004, he became NECI’s executive chef — just a year after joining the faculty. Though he has no formal background in education, he says he’s always believed that part of being a good chef is passing one’s skills to others.
In 2009, Bivins brought his expertise in homegrown cooking to Main Street Grill & Bar. When he introduced the farm-to-table dinner menu, he says, some longtime customers balked at the prospect of trading their fish and chips for market fish of the day with gnocchi, wild mushrooms, spring onions and nettle-butter sauce.
But Bivins hopes to train diners to eat more creative fare and spend their dollars supporting local farms. His involvement with Slow Food led him to another brainstorm for the Main Street Grill: a menu of Mediterranean small plates that has been available in the downstairs lounge since last fall.
Bivins says he fell in love with the “specific, piquant” foods that he sampled in and around Italy when he attended Slow Food’s Terra Madre summits there with the NECI delegation. His own diverse menu includes traditional tapas dishes, but also Middle-Eastern-style chicken wings, Italian gnocchi and a Provençal goat-cheese galette.
To raise money to send NECI’s representatives — one chef and one student — to the Terra Madre conferences, which are known as the UN of sustainable food, Bivins and his students have concocted another creative dining option. Their series of monthly dinners at Chef’s Table, NECI’s private dining room, has already showcased the students’ savvy with pork and sustainable seafood. This Friday, they’ll serve vegan fare.
A meat-free meal may seem like an odd project for a chef who says he finishes his pigs on hazelnuts for “a tannic flavor.” Not at all, says Bivins. He describes recent dinners he and Law have enjoyed at home — lightly buttered and salted baked potatoes, for instance, or heritage tomatoes with just salt and olive oil. (The couple’s garden includes varieties called Striped Roman, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Julia Child and Isis Candy.)
Bivins says they like the stripped-down fare for simplicity’s sake and wellness reasons. He’s 48. Law, whom Bivins calls “much better looking and much older,” is 51. Bivins’ mother and her Pomeranian, Max, also moved in from his native Louisiana last year.
If Bivins is concerned about feeding the aging population at home, he’s also set on educating his students, all 450 of whom must take basic nutrition classes to graduate. Bivins hopes in the near future to add classes on cooking for seniors. “The future of food is going to be around folks getting older and living in group settings,” he says.
Bivins is always working to keep courses up to date and students on trend. With a degree in communications from Louisiana State University, he has the know-how to teach them to produce their own food media like budding Anthony Bourdains — the focus of a recently added course. In a product-development class, students recently partnered with Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery to make a smoky, seaweed-flavored spread for celebrity chef Eric Ripert to use at Le Bernardin. Bivins also plans to add molecular gastronomy classes and expanded instruction in charcuterie and meat-cutting skills.
While some would say he’s transformed NECI into a less staid institution, the school’s founder, Maître Cuisinier de France Michel LeBorgne, says Bivins is just carrying the torch that LeBorgne lit 30 years ago. “I think he really reached to the community and has done so much for the farmer. He’s the man,” LeBorgne says.
For his part, Bivins sees himself as more a counselor than an administrator. “Chefs are really cooks, priests, psychologists and bail bondsmen,” he says. As a gay man, he notes, he is often approached by gay male students who have received unwanted advances from women, a problem he himself often had in kitchens. “I think students need someone to talk to about getting hit on by women a lot or being harassed by their male peers,” he says. “We work hard to make sure that NECI is a very diversity-friendly place for people of different religions, races and sexualities. We even have students in the midst of gender reassignment.”
Bivins is also instrumental in helping adults in the community as secretary of the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont, which he started with Law in 2006. The couple founded the organization as a response to a “Take Back Vermont” sign that’s still visible near their home. “There seemed to be an overall feeling that the gay community was taking stuff,” Law says. “I felt the need to remind Vermonters of the contributions LGBT people make to our state.”
The Gay & Lesbian Fund does just that by allowing people to contribute to charities under its auspices. An individual name on a theater program or in a newsletter doesn’t mark the contributor as gay, but the group’s name does. Fans of British sitcoms on Vermont Public Television have long seen the GLF as a sponsor. They may have caught members teaming up for the station’s pledge drives, too.
It’s that sense of community that Bivins says makes Vermont his ideal home. At the couple’s house, other Gilead Brook Road residents frequently stop by. An older lesbian drops in to greet Bivins’ mother. Neighborhood kids have named the piglets after candies.
“The idea is neighbors actually talking to their neighbors — not waving across the driveway and never getting to know who they live with,” Bivins says. Looking out over his gardens, he adds, “That’s what makes Vermont a great place, and a great place to be gay.”