- Oliver Parini
- Sandi Earle
Before Sandi Earle became the executive chef of Champlain College, she cooked at McDonald's, sliced meat at a bygone deli in the Old North End, managed the kitchen at the old Ground Round Grill & Bar, and worked the line at the Windjammer's Upper Deck Pub.
She has baked biscotti and banana bread for Burlington coffee shops, produced 1,000 cookies at a time and made a memorable ravioli dinner for comedian Lily Tomlin backstage at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.
These days, Earle can often be found at her computer in an office behind the Champlain College dining hall. Gone are the days when she flipped burgers and baked muffins. The 54-year-old chef manages a staff of 60 who serve about 3,000 meals per day to students, faculty and staff at the dining hall on South Willard Street. (The public is welcome, too.)
"I love the community of people here," Earle said. "I have a lot of students that I'm connected with. You fall in love with people, and that's what it's all about."
The pocket of her chef's jacket holds a pen for writing down plans and a meat thermometer for quality control. Earle can tell at a glance if food has been sitting on the cafeteria line for more than 10 minutes. If it has, it's tossed in the compost.
"You may be making something as basic as chicken nuggets, but they better be fresh, hot and crispy," Earle said. "Food doesn't have to be pretentious. It just has to be well made."
Her recent project is as unpretentious as it is delightful. Earle is the author of My 30-Year Love Affair With Food in Vermont: Queen City Brewery Edition, a cookbook whose recipes all contain beer made at the Pine Street brewery. The first in a planned series, the book took its inspiration from an event that Earle attended at the Essex Resort & Spa in the summer of 2015.
At the party's beer garden that day, Earle tasted a porter brewed by QCB. It was the first time she'd had one of the Burlington brewery's beers. "I didn't go to any other booth," she said. "I tried the porter and thought, This tastes like chocolate and coffee. Oh, my God, this is so awesome. This would be really cool in chocolate fudge cake."
Earle learned that the brewmaster, Paul Hale, was married to Ellen Zeman, an administrator at Champlain College. Soon Earle was hanging out at the South End brewery, "because it was a cool place with cool people," she said.
Once she'd created a cake recipe with the porter that satisfied her, Earle began to experiment with other beers. In her Fairfax kitchen, and occasionally at Champlain with student guinea pigs, she set to work crafting more recipes.
Earle's recipe for mussels with fennel and garlic incorporates QCB's South End Lager. Her ice cream gets its banana flavor from Dunkelweizen. Vienna Lager adds zing to the honey-barbecue sauce on her grilled chicken. And Gregarious Scotch Ale — brewed by Hale from a beer recipe originally created by the late Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub & Brewery — is key to Earle's turkey chili.
The brewery changes its beers regularly, so not every brew Earle used in her cookbook is in QCB's current 14-beer lineup. Still, her recipes showcase the range of the brewery's offerings. "We're good at making beers," Hale said. "But to have somebody come in and make recipes is really cool. It's kind of an honor."
When she had accumulated about two dozen recipes, Earle decided to turn them into a book — a virtually all-Champlain endeavor. Editor Tiffany Harbrecht works in the college's marketing department, photographer Mike Jacobs is media equipment coordinator and designer Emma Reed is a senior who will graduate this month. Proceeds from the book benefit a local nonprofit, the Vermont Family Network.
The one person involved in the cookbook production who is not affiliated with Champlain is editor Jane Milizia. The longtime former proofreader at the Burlington Free Press was one of the first friends Earle made after she moved to Burlington in 1984 with her former husband, Roy St. Pierre.
Earle, then 21, arrived from Watertown, N.Y., a graduate of a vo-tech culinary program. The couple moved to Vermont for Roy to take a job as a manager at Howard Johnson's in South Burlington. (Earle still speaks lovingly of the food there: "You know what to expect and what to look forward to," she said.)
They lived on Archibald Street, trading a big house in western New York that they had rented for $75 a month for a tiny apartment that cost $450 a month. Settling into her new home, Earle found herself "pregnant, barefoot and buying bagels at the co-op," she recalled.
"I loved that place," she said of the original Onion River Co-op. "I loved the squeaky floor. It smelled like herbs and fresh-baked bread and beeswax."
Earle met Milizia, now 88, at Cake Top, a neighborhood baking-supply store the latter owned. The two struck up a friendship, and, with guidance and inspiration from Milizia, Earle began to make candies and other confections in her apartment. As demand for her sweets grew, she named the fledgling business Sandi's Candies.
Earle supplemented her small business with work in area restaurants. "You just got to get in there and do what needs to be done: empty the grease traps, clean the fryolator," she said. And cook. But restaurant work — days, nights, weekends — became less tenable with three small children, and Earle's focus shifted to her own baking and cooking business.
By 1994, she and Roy had moved to South Burlington and started a catering company called St. Pierre Catering. They initially ran it out of their home, where Earle baked in an oven above her range. Later, St. Pierre Catering moved to Pines Senior Living Community, also in South Burlington, where the couple had use of the kitchen and a storage area in exchange for cooking five meals a week for the residents.
Carl Patton, a manager at Chicken Charlie's in South Burlington, was an employee of St. Pierre Catering. Now 61, he has worked in Burlington-area kitchens since he was 13.
"Sandi was the Martha Stewart of baking, and I learned so much from her," Patton said. "She taught me very explicitly."
The catering gigs came to include concert work, cooking for bands that performed in Burlington. The members of Widespread Panic were the first rockers St. Pierre Catering fed. The job, as Earle recalled, involved not so much cooking as shopping at Costco to meet the demands of the band's 12-page rider — a document that listed four cases of green Gatorade, among other requirements.
"We never want to do this again!" Earle remembered thinking.
But more music jobs followed, including catering for Lyle Lovett when he performed at the Flynn in the mid-1990s. Earle baked three cookies shaped like penguins for Lovett, in recognition of his song "Penguins," and left them on a plate in his dressing room.
As she recalled, Lovett came to her before the show with a penguin cookie cupped in his hand and asked, "Did you make this for me?"
Yes, she told him.
"That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done," he replied. That night, from the Flynn stage, the singer dedicated "Penguins" to her, Earle said.
The next year, when Lovett performed at Bolton Valley ski area, Earle baked 100 penguin cookies for the crew, with a special gift box of a dozen cookies for the singer.
For Tomlin's show at the Flynn, Earle prepared homemade ravioli and salad in the green room. Earle's daughter Cathy, then 11, was with her that evening. Tomlin asked if the two of them would join her for the meal, so the three ate together.
"That was cool," Earle said.
Patton was on the St. Pierre crew in August 2004 when the caterers worked the packed, muddy Phish concerts in Coventry.
"It was mud like crazy," he recalled. "I don't know how those hippies did it, but they had a good time. And we fed 'em."
By then, Earle was working for Sodexo — first at the University of Vermont, then at Champlain — and running her catering business on weekends, during school vacations and in her off-hours. She closed that business a decade ago, a few years after her divorce from Roy. Since then, Earle has remarried and earned her bachelor's degree from Champlain.
Now Earle is starting work on a second cookbook in her 30-Year Love Affair series. This one will feature 100 recipes from Vermont chefs — appetizers to desserts — each using a local ingredient. Proceeds of that book will benefit the culinary education program at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.
"I fell in love with Vermont," Earle said. "I got totally integrated into the culture."
The cookbooks are a way to give back, she said.