Feel Good Food
At the Waitsfield farmers’ market, in the early hours of a hazy Vermont summer’s day, Gerry Nooney and I are shopping. It is only 9:00 a.m., but already the sun is high and the air is hot, and despite the fact that the mountains of Sugarbush and Mad River Glen tower above us, winter seems a vague promise, like a debt to be repaid at some distant point in time.
But even with sweat beading on his expansive brow, even with plans for an afternoon bike ride, Nooney, the executive chef at Sugarbush’s vaunted Timbers Restaurant and the 2010 Vermont Chef of the Year, knows that winter will soon arrive. And with winter, his restaurant will fill with hungry skiers and riders whose appetites have been stoked by the day’s play. His guests will demand good food, of course, and Nooney will be only too happy to comply. But increasingly, the guests will expect something more of the master chef: They’ll ask that he utilize ingredients produced in the region by local farmers. In fact, those farmers are now scrambling to fill a surge in demand for food grown locally and with respect for the environment and community.
So Nooney comes to the market, both to shop (he has to eat, after all, and on this very afternoon, he’ll be serving a wedding party) and to visit with his vendors. “The most important part of all this is creating relationships,” he tells me, as we wait in line at the stand of Waitsfield vegetable farmer David Hartshorn. Nooney is clutching a bunch of carrots and eyeballing the blueberries with a look that borders on lust. “I need to make that connection with the people producing the food. I need to be able to say to David, ‘You know, Dave, what I really need from you is this.…’ ”
For Nooney, who in his 50 years has never had a paying job that didn’t include cooking, developing and nurturing these connections has been both the greatest challenge and greatest reward in his quest to source more ingredients from his friends and neighbors in the Mad River Valley. “I’ll be honest with you, some farmers are freakin’ weirdos. They tend to be individualists and antisocial. Of course, they probably think the same about me.”
Weird or not, Nooney and his local farmers are educating each other: Nooney is learning what’s possible in Vermont’s short growing season, and the farmers are learning how best to meet the demands of a master chef and his customers, whose expectations have been set by a globalized food system that ships food literally around the world. “You can’t get away from 40 years of agribusiness in one year,” says Nooney, as we stroll through the market, past tables laden with vegetables and cheese, fresh-baked bread and coolers of meat. “People have been taught that food should be cheap, that they should have strawberries in January. Somehow we have to unlearn these expectations.”
That unlearning, in part, is the job of Meghan Sheradin, the executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, an organization that both facilitates communication between farmers and chefs, and certifies that member restaurants are indeed purchasing directly from local food producers. “The industrial food system really doesn’t reflect or respect region or season. And ski resort chefs are doubly challenged, because the bulk of their customers are visiting during the winter.” Still, says Sheradin, “People’s expectations are changing. They are beginning to understand that there’s not always going to be strip steak with fresh greens on the menu.”
Despite the challenge of seasonality, Sheradin thinks Vermont resort and ski town chefs have an ace in their apron pocket: the connection to landscape every skier and rider feels on the mountain. “People come to the Vermont mountains to immerse themselves in a very regional experience, and ski resorts help them make that connection. It is totally logical to carry that through to food.”
Some resorts aren’t merely serving local food; they’re actually growing it, and in the process educating area children about the source of their nourishment. At Jay Peak, an innovative summer camp operated in conjunction with the Green Mountain Farm-to-School program brings kids to the resort for a week of gardening, cooking and even some mountain resort play time. “Every parent knows how difficult it can be to get kids to eat fresh food, especially if it’s not something they’re accustomed to,” says GMFTS Founder and Executive Director Katherine Sims. “But when they’re involved with actually growing and preparing the food, they’re much more likely to try it.” And, says Sims, if they eat it for a week at Jay Peak, they just might acquire a taste for it.
Which is exactly what Chris Lassy, the executive chef at Jay’s Tram Haus Lodge, is noticing with his older guests. “People are beginning to understand that there really is a difference between a tomato that’s been shipped 2,000 miles and a tomato that was picked five minutes ago,” says Lassy. To Lassy, a 28-year-old who regularly racks up 60-days of skiing on the mountain each winter, this awareness is key to broadening the acceptance of meals produced with local foods, which, he’s quick to admit, often carry a higher price tag. “Price is still a major issue for some people, but I think the mainstream consciousness is shifting, and people are realizing that just because a certain food has a low price tag doesn’t mean it’s ‘cheap.’ ”
To help keep costs down while still meeting the restaurant’s bottom line, Lassy has learned to utilize ingredients that in the past might have gone to waste. “I’ll take all the vegetable trimmings and make soup stock. Or take the trim from a Wood Creek Farm tenderloin and make it into tartare. It’s not that difficult; you just have to think a little.”
Jamie Nelson, chef at the Cottage at Stowe Mountain Resort, concurs. “The key is being flexible and creative,” says Nelson, whose idea of “creative” includes stalking the forests of Stowe in search of wild mushrooms and ginger. “I like to forage, and I’ve got all my secret spots.” It helps that Nelson, who is 36 and a seventh-generation Vermonter, grew up in nearby Waterbury Center, and knows the region like few others.
For the ingredients he can’t find in the woods, Nelson stays in constant contact with local farmers and Black River Produce, a Springfield, Vt.-based distributor that specializes in local fruits and vegetables. Still, says Nelson, the closer to home, the better. “People just love to hear how their food came from a farm that’s six miles down the road. You can just see their eyes light up. They love to hear stories about the farmers, and they really appreciate the quality.”
Back at the Waitsfield farmers’ market, over by Hadley Gaylord’s stand, Gerry Nooney is explaining to one of Hadley’s customers how to think about cooking the sirloin steak that was raised barely a mile down Route 100. “Cook it slow,” he says, “so the fibers sort of melt together.” He laces the thick fingers of his hands together to illustrate his point. “Then you sear it at the end. It’s like backwards grilling!”
Nooney’s enthusiasm for helping people connect to their food is palpable and contagious. And it has helped Vermont farmers well beyond the Mad River Valley. Indeed, two years ago, Nooney developed a signature chowder recipe that utilizes Vermont-produced potatoes and cream; Ski Vermont Farmhouse Chowder is now available at ski resorts throughout the state. “The biggest cafeterias in the state are ski area cafeterias, so the impact and potential is huge,” he says, beaming. “We can do things that benefit everyone from the farmers, to the resort owners, to the customers. This is a no-lose situation.”
Of course, Gerry Nooney isn’t the only ski area chef utilizing local ingredients; from Jay Peak to Mount Snow, chefs both on and off the mountain are making connections with local producers and then turning those connections into meals for their customers. In the process, they are helping redefine the way we eat, making nourishing, local foods into a catalyst for vibrant localized economies that help sustain the Vermont landscape and its people.
Still, for Gerry Nooney, the decision to incorporate local ingredients into his menu isn’t entirely altruistic. For one, he’s lived in the Mad River Valley for nearly half his life, and has no intention of leaving. By purchasing locally, he’s not just supporting local farmers: He’s supporting his neighbors. But there’s yet another factor that compels Chef Nooney to seek his ingredients in his backyard. “You know, angry chefs make angry food,” he tells me as we wander away from Hadley Gaylord’s stand. “Using good ingredients from my neighbors makes me happy. And I think happy food tastes better.”
-Ben HewittSee All Food and Land Articles