St. Johnsbury received sad news this afternoon: Elements Food and Spirit, that oasis of creative local fare in a renovated mill building along the Passumpsic River, will close at the end of the year.
Even though the news may hit hardest in the Northeast Kingdom, Elements' reach was statewide. I used to live 45 minutes south of St. J., and the first time I stumbled into Elements, I felt as if I had discovered hidden treasure. I took a seat at the long zinc bar and partook in a glass of steely Chablis and smoked trout-and-apple cakes that were transportive. I returned many times in the ensuing years to munch on fiddlheads, wild mushrooms or other wildcrafted goodies from chef Ryan O'Malley, Elements' original and longtime chef — or just to hang out and listen to live music.
When the two couples who own Elements — Florence and Keith Chamberlin, and Martin and Kate Bertolini — opened in 2003, they wanted to bring elegant, well-crafted food and wine to this Northeast Kingdom burg. All had other jobs outside of Elements, though, and only intended to run the place for a few years before handing it off to someone else. "While we’ve had serious inquiries from a number of parties, we have not been able to close a deal to date. We need to move on," writes Florence Chamberlin in today's announcement, alluding to "the very real demands of our day jobs."
Martin Bertolini is a builder, and Kate has worked as a guardian ad litem. Keith Chamberlin works as the director of marketing and communications at Lyndon State College. For this busy crew, establishing Elements was clearly an act of culinary passion. "We felt like the area needed something like this [at the time]," says Kate Bertolini. "A lot has happened since then. Eight or nine restaurants have opened in town. We had the recession. With the economy we tried to change with the times a little bit, but it didn't work."
Throughout their run, the crew at Elements tried to counter the impression that they were a fine-dining restaurant in an area that couldn't support it. "It's a different cultural sensibility than in Burlington, Boston or Hanover," said Keith Chamberlin last week, when I interviewed him for another story. "When we opened, people said, ‘Fine dining, fine dining, fine dining.’ We were always squeamish about that perception."
Elements picked up accolades in national magazines, but as the economy lagged, the interior and menu became less formal. “We got away from the fussy appetizer-and-entrée model and offered a little bit more variety in the way people think about dining — for instance, if they wanted to graze more,” said Chamberin.
Today, they told the staff of their decision. "It's awful for us. We've got the best staff ever. We're going into our ninth year and we have some of our original employees. This is like losing a family," says Kate Bertolini. The owners are holding out hope that a buyer will step forward in the 11th hour. Until then, they'll keep their chins up and their food flowing. Says Kate Bertolini, "We'll take it one day at a time."
Photo by Matthew Thorsen