On February 6, as some of the best chefs in the world looked on, chef Michael Clauss of Burlington zipped around a tiny temporary kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. One minute he was slicing bright red radishes into perfect right triangles; the next, shredding pricey black truffles. Under the watchful eye of his former boss, Daniel Boulud, and an estimated 800 other chefs and foodies, Clauss was competing to represent the United States at the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France.
The grueling cooking session — and three hours of waiting for the judges’ decision — ended without a win for 35-year-old Clauss. But simply having been chosen for the competition places him among the nation’s elite up-and-coming chefs. So does his former position as executive chef of Daniel Boulud’s New York City Feast & Fêtes catering company and sous-chef at the restaurant Daniel.
So what’s Clauss doing in Burlington? Some locals may be surprised to learn that he’s heading the kitchen at The Daily Planet, a venerable downtown eatery known for its quirky comfort food and casual atmosphere.
Joe Perrotto of the Vermont Fresh Network and Jason Zuliani, co-owner of Dedalus Wine Shop, watched Clauss cook at the CIA as his competition sponsors. They and other Vermonters in attendance noted how incongruous it seemed to see the Planet, which has had its ups and downs over the years, listed alongside the other competitors’ acclaimed places of employment, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, The Modern in New York and the French Culinary Institute.
Is Clauss aiming to put the Planet in that company? No, and for good reason. There, four staffers squeeze around each other in the tiny kitchen. By contrast, at Daniel, nearly 20 chefs work nightly to oversee every detail.
Clauss, who moved to Vermont from New York for the “love of [his] life,” fiancée Alexa Bolanis, seems happy in his new position. “Kristi [Cook] and Copey [Houghton, the restaurant’s owners] gave me full rein in the kitchen … They trusted my talents and my professionalism, which I’m very grateful for,” Clauss says. “I love cooking this kind of food, comfort food with a twist to it.”
What kinds of new twists can Planet diners expect to find at their old standby? For one, Clauss serves oysters with a drizzle of lemongrass water instead of classic mignonette sauce. His mussels, juicy and plump, come in a bowl of buttery ginger-beer-laced broth, draped with braising greens and studded with bits of black garlic. The house-made veggie burger is dressed with mayonnaise mixed with shiso, an exotic member of the mint family.
“There are hints of the big city,” Clauss says of his menu. “Exposure to ingredients used in different ways. And we do a lot of stuff from scratch here, like making our own butter, sausages, smoking ham. Anything that’s pickled we do ourselves.”
Despite his pedigree — or perhaps because of it — reviews of the restaurant have been mixed since Clauss took over in January. On the Seven Nights website, patrons have complained that the Planet’s new food isn’t as exciting as they expected, given the chef’s credentials. And many have griped that the interval between ordering food and receiving it is way too long.
“It’s the Internet; it’s a public forum,” says Clauss with a shrug. “People can voice their opinions, and I don’t have a problem with it.” But what the naysayers aren’t taking into account, in his opinion, is how much the Planet has changed and how well the staff has handled the transition. “There are 22 new items on the menu,” he points out. “For an existing restaurant, that’s a huge change. We’ve hired a bunch of new staff [including sous chef Chris Miller] … and the restaurant is much busier than it used to be. On Friday and Saturday nights, we get slammed.” Overall, he says, “As a team, we’ve accomplished way more than I thought we would in the first month.”
Plus, Clauss suggests, his impressive résumé makes people gleeful about picking apart his food. “I think we’re under a bit of a microscope, given all the press we’ve been given and my background,” he says. “I think people are expecting a different atmosphere when they come in here. It’s a casual comfort-food restaurant. We’re not trying to change the image.”
Some local diners are happy the Planet isn’t suddenly going haute. Emily Spence, who works at the nearby Community College of Vermont and has been a regular for nearly 10 years is one of them. “It’s the place we get together after work to grab a drink,” she says. “I love to check out the new art on the walls.”
And Spence doesn’t want to have to dress up to do it. “[The Planet] feels comfortable, and the quality of the food is really fresh and good,” she says. “I’m not going for micro-portion five-course meals that are really high end.”
“Hearing about the new chef coming, I didn’t expect the Planet to be a different place,” she says. “I expected it to feel the same, and for the chef to put his mark on it.” And as far as she’s concerned, Clauss has “definitely been successful.”
Spence describes Clauss’ menu as offering “a lot of things [that] are more appealing [than before]… There’s stuff that looks good to me that I wouldn’t normally try.” So far, she’s enjoyed the olive-cured tuna appetizer, a snazzy riff on a Niçoise salad that comes with chickpeas, roasted pepper, arugula and quail egg. The pork loin entrée with homemade daikon sauerkraut was another hit. Now Spence is looking forward to trying a dish of polenta with Cabot clothbound cheddar, a seitan crackling and honey crisp apple.
Brian Colfax, a financial analyst at the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, agrees with Spence’s assessment. For years, he says, the Planet was his “burger and beer joint” of choice. “I almost never ate the entrées,” he recollects. But a few years back, the service drove him away: “I felt like it dropped off ... I stopped going there.”
Curiosity — and a personal connection — brought Colfax back. “I read about the new chef, and it was a kid I went to high school with,” he says.
At that school in Vernon, N.J., Clauss and Colfax had neighboring lockers, though they weren’t particularly close. “He was a regular guy,” Colfax recalls. “I seem to remember that he was a pretty good artist. He didn’t have any ego.”
Last week, Colfax returned to the Planet for the first time in several years. This time around, he was intrigued enough by the entrées to eschew his usual burger. “We had the gnocchi with duck confit. That was ridiculously good. I was blown away,” he says. “I’m not a huge lamb fan, but I thought the lamb sausage [served with rigatoni, broccolini, Parmesan and sage cream] was delicious.” Next time, if it’s still on the menu, he’ll order the popular “Sloppy Joe,” tender Boyden Farm short-rib meat in a sweet barbecue sauce on toasted foccacia.
Sitting in the bar of the Planet with a cup of coffee, five days after his rock-star moment at the Bocuse d’Or USA, Clauss admits, “As a competitor, it’s always a little disappointing when you don’t win.”
But his loss could be the Planet’s gain. A month and a half into Clauss’ tenure, the kitchen is already turning out perfectly seasoned food made with excellent local ingredients. Aside from the occasional lengthy wait, a critic’s only complaint might be that some of the well-executed fare on the menu is a touch ordinary. The broiled veal chop with mashed sweet potatoes, Seckel pear slices and maple butter is delicious but unsurprising. The house-made fries are entirely commonplace.
That small complaint may soon be a thing of the past. Now that Bocuse d’Or USA is over and his kitchen staff has coalesced, Clauss is preparing to make a few changes to the menu and, most importantly, to offer more daily specials. “We have five or six a night, and I’d like to do more once we get a little more comfortable with the menu,” he says. “I’ve been working hard to offer seafood you can’t get anywhere else, like St. Lawrence smelts.” Local lamb sweetbreads and rabbit have shown up as meat specials. “We’re trying to get exotic things, because specials should be special,” Clauss says.
The chef’s enthusiasm about his new job could be a good omen for the Planet’s future. “I think the quality of the products we’re [using] is as good as any restaurant in Vermont,” he says. “Everything about [the Planet] is fun.”
That includes its superhero connection. Though Clauss wasn’t hired for being faster than a speeding bullet, he shows himself game to tackle a threat to Metropolis’ safety during our interview, when he suddenly notices an unoccupied car rolling backward down Center Street toward busy College Street.
Without a pause, Clauss runs out the door of the bar, leaps into the moving vehicle and puts it in park. Then he jogs back inside to continue chatting. “Chefs have to pay attention to everything,” he says casually, and takes another sip of his coffee.