Back in 1990, it wasn’t easy to locate a plate of pad Thai in Vermont, let alone an authentic taco. But there was one reliable place to find ethnic food — a humble street cart parked in front of Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier. Known as Bon Temps Gourmet, this nomadic kitchen focused on the cuisine of a different country each week. It served as the weekday promotional tool for owner Gretchen Saries’ catering company of the same name.
Today Saries, now 46, recalls how legislators — including then Lieutenant Governor Howard Dean — flocked to her mobile eatery. Since then, the little ethnic-mélange business has fluctuated but endured — and even (briefly) gone to Washington.
In 2005, Senator Leahy asked Saries and her business and life partner Greg Labarthe to help plan the first annual Taste of Vermont event to be held in the Russell Senate Caucus Room next door to the Capitol — familiar to many as the site of the Anita Hill hearings. Besides cooking farm-to-table Vermont dishes for the 400-strong group, Saries and Labarthe worked on promoting small, lesser-known artisan producers such as Lazy Lady Farm, filling an 18-foot-long table with Green Mountain cheeses.
“I literally spent five hours just plating all the cheese,” groans Labarthe. Luckily for the rest of us, Bon Temps now provides a version of that inside-the-Beltway banquet scaled down for private parties, where they employ cheese experts to guide guests in pairing curds and wine.
The popularity of Saries’ business with politicos is no accident. Originally from Chicago (she helped campaign for McGovern at age 9), she started out as an avid home cook with a palate seasoned by extensive international travel — she’d even labored in kitchens in Greece after college. But her day jobs, primarily as a political field activist, centered on public affairs rather than cuisine.
When her travels landed her in Vermont in 1986, the lifelong foodie identified a dearth of global flavor. Saries recalls thinking, If I want my ethnic food, I need to make it.
Figuring that others might be craving the same exotic fare, she founded Bon Temps in 1990. Its early success spurred her to hire help: a grill master by the name of Greg Labarthe, a Middlesex native who’d worked in bakeshops since age 16 but hadn’t fully committed himself to a life in the kitchen. As he worked with Saries, Labarthe’s passion for baking, cutting meat, and crafting beer and vinegar grew. He decided to pursue a culinary degree, and graduated from Montpelier’s New England Culinary Institute in 1996.
Besides being an ace in the kitchen, Labarthe, now 37, fit Saries’ relationship requirements: “No Republicans and no nonfoodies.” They wed in 2000.
By that time, Labarthe was working as sous-chef at A Single Pebble in Barre; he later became chef-de-cuisine under executive chef Steve Bogart and followed the restaurant to Burlington. Meanwhile, unable to resist the draw of politics, Saries joined Sen. Patrick Leahy’s team as the community and economic development liaison. For a while, neither spouse had enough energy to consider Bon Temps Gourmet more than a part-time pursuit.
When Saries’ father passed away five years ago and her mother decided to split her time between Worcester and the Midwest, the cooking couple added a wing to their big, red Cape Cod-style home to accommodate the new tenant, and to expand Bon Temps. The addition included a professional kitchen complete with walk-in refrigeration and a handcrafted sink thrown by a Montréal-dwelling friend. It was finally the right moment for Saries to pursue her culinary ambitions full time.
But Saries’ mother, who spends a quarter of the year in her antique-filled Vermont apartment, isn’t the only one enjoying the renovations. The rest of the year a portion of the new wing, with picturesque, high-beamed ceilings and the vibe of an Adirondack camp, becomes a bed-and-breakfast.
Whether it’s for their guests or clients, Labarthe and Saries are whizzes at whipping up customized, multicourse “closed-door dinners” served around their large wooden table. Says Saries, “We try to keep people around the table as long as possible. We feel that people don’t spend enough time around the dinner table.”
To design menus that will make busy people stay put, the pair conduct detailed consultations with their clients, which range from businesses hosting retreats to families celebrating college graduations. Labarthe has been known to concoct Chinese banquets complete with Sichuan rabbit, house-barbecued pork and as many as 10 other courses, most of which are spiced with his homemade smoked chili oil. For less adventurous eaters, there’s comfort food such as house-smoked pork tenderloin braised in Labarthe’s home-brewed beer with sautéed spaetzle and oyster mushrooms. Dessert might be a dark chocolate and caramel tart topped with fleur de sel.
Fans of the old Capitol City cart will be happy to know that al fresco global treats are available a few times each summer. Twenty years ago, Saries bought a 1963 Airstream trailer. Now it serves as a reincarnation of her cart at key events, such as Montpelier’s Fourth of July celebration and the Vermont History Expo. As always, the vehicle changes its ethnic identity from week to week: Sometimes it’s a taco truck with turkey mole or smoked pork; sometimes an open-air Greek eatery serving lemon chicken and lamb souvlaki sandwiches; sometimes a Thai street cart with chicken satay sandwiches and cucumber salad or pad Thai.
The Airstream goes into storage for the winter, but Saries and Labarthe stay busy catering central Vermont events. Last Wednesday, preparations for Kellogg-Hubbard’s Evening at the Library on Friday were in full swing. The fundraiser is in its fourth year, and each time has showcased hors d’oeuvres from Bon Temps Gourmet.
On this occasion, Saries was making a plate of mini pastillas, the national dish of Morocco, which traditionally consist of phyllo filled with pigeons and eggs. Not at Bon Temps, where local chicken is the meat in the sweet and savory, cinnamon-scented pastry.
Saries calls her specialty “global soul food.” One example is a Spanish tapas classic that often appears at Bon Temps events: dates wrapped in Vermont Smoke & Cure bacon, lolling in roasted red pepper sauce.
Duck confit emerged from the oven, and Saries pulled it apart to put in phyllo cups with a tart orange-ginger cranberry sauce. She reserved the excess fat for the couple’s three cats.
As at many charity events, the pair didn’t stop at feeding the crowds — they also donated to the library’s silent auction. On the block was a cooking class in their professional kitchen with the top bidder choosing the focus, whether Italian cuisine, localvore fare or the dim sum delights Labarthe mastered at A Single Pebble.
How do Saries and Labarthe develop their world of recipes? Saries refers to dining out as “research and development,” noting that she’s never without her trusty restaurant log to record new tastes worth sharing with clients.
And, of course, they still get their passports stamped regularly. On a recent trip to Argentina, cooking classes helped the couple hone their chimichurri recipe. They served it at the Kellogg-Hubbard fundraiser with spiced mint replacing the usual parsley in the garlicky sauce, atop ribbons of medium-rare lamb.
When there isn’t time to hop on a plane, Saries and Labarthe hightail it across the border. The pair is so mad about Montréal that they’ve translated their trips into another career sideline.
“It drives us crazy that people in Vermont aren’t acclimated to Montréal,” says Saries. She and Labarthe fill their minibus with up to six clients for daylong neighborhood tours in which they share their finds — culinary and otherwise — with Vermonters shy about getting to know the city. One key stop: Jean Talon Market, which Saries calls “one of the best places in the world.” She adds, “If I were religious, it would be my church.”
Gypsy music is among the couple’s top nonculinary pleasures. A favorite tour stop is Le Café Sarajevo on rue Clark, a Bosnian hot spot that dishes up cevapi and a rocking band of Bulgarian plumbers who, Saries says, are guaranteed to get patrons dancing on the tables.
On one occasion, the couple led a special Montréal tour designed to teach Vermont farmers to make old-world-style sausages and charcuterie from their animals. The farmers met an octogenarian Hungarian butcher with kitchen hygiene that would make the health inspector blush. But they were fascinated to see unique sausages and terrines made by a young Portuguese man named Fernando.
Though Saries and Labarthe admit that they always return from Canada with a carful of designer olive oils and spices for their business, they’re steadfast members of the Vermont Fresh Network, and name Hollister Hill and Worcester Woods Farms as their top providers. Saries is also a board member of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and has taken it upon herself to aid in making farms and community centers usable as catering facilities. To boost local agriculture, Bon Temps has assisted agricultural operations such as Cloudland Farm in Pomfret with hosting on-site events.
The days when Saries’ cart was a Montpelier landmark are over … and with them, the days when ethnic cuisine in Vermont was a rarity. But the biz is still going strong. Though their cuisine spans the globe, the owners of Bon Temps Gourmet spend most of their days on smaller back-road voyages. With gigs reaching all the way from Bennington to the Northeast Kingdom, they say their favorite part of the job is exploring their own state.
“The gazetteer is a key part of our tool kit,” says Labarthe. Adds Saries, “Every day is a beautiful drive to the office.”