Pad Thai with kale, quesadillas filled with macaroni and cheese and nachos topped with raw, sushi-grade tuna. What do these unconventional combinations have in common? They’ve all found a home on the menu of one of Fairlee’s new eateries, Samurai Soul Food.
Owned by Kelden Smith and managed by John Hessler, the restaurant, which is housed in the former 5 Oh! Pizzeria on Route 5, aims to draw both Fairlee residents and passersby with an eclectic mix of flavors.
“A lot of what we do is based around what we love,” Hessler said in an interview last week.
Though both Hessler and Smith have experience at fine restaurants, Hessler said they don’t crave fancy food. What they do want are things like fried chicken and Chinese food, he said.
This is the first time either of the two chefs, who met while working at Worthy Burger in South Royalton, have worked for themselves, and they are enjoying the chance to try out flavor combinations that might have seemed too wacky elsewhere.
“At other restaurants, guys like (us) would get edited,” Hessler said in an interview inside the 37-seat restaurant last week.
The pakoras are “not remotely authentic,” Hessler said. They started as a mistake and while they would traditionally be served with a yogurt sauce, Smith and Hessler serve them with a homemade French onion dip.
“We make it as close (as possible) to the stuff you can find in a can,” Smith said.
Conversations about recipes often begin with the phrase: “You know what would be good on that?” Hessler said.
Smith, a Hanover native, and Hessler, originally from South Burlington, Vt., met while working at Worthy Burger. They have cooked at a variety of restaurants in the Upper Valley and beyond.
Smith, who now lives in Hartland, started out washing dishes for his mother, Lynn Smith, at Cafe La Fraise — which was in what is now a Coldwell Banker real estate office on West Wheelock Street in Hanover — as a teenager before beginning his career at the Hanover Inn. He also worked for a time at Carpenter and Main in Norwich. Later, he spent time in restaurants in Maine and North Carolina and was lead chef in Bank of America’s corporate dining room in D.C.
Hessler, who now lives in Wilder, worked his way up as a “saute guy” on Block Island in Rhode Island. He ran a barbeque joint in Virginia and worked on the Maine coast. He came to the Upper Valley to work as a sous-chef at Simon Pierce. He later did stints at Worthy Kitchen in Woodstock, the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph, Aloha Camp in Fairlee, the Woodstock Inn and the Canoe Club in Hanover.
They say their skills (and weaknesses) complement each other. Smith, who is “more classically trained,” is a “good preparer of food,” while Hessler is fast and knows how to get plates out when there’s a rush.
“I’ve cooked in a restaurant on fire,” Hessler said.
The atmosphere they’ve tried to create is similiar to that of the Black Krim, a small farm-to-table restaurant.
“Going to dinner there is like going to dinner at a really cool girl’s (apartment),” Hessler said.
Samurai is bright and colorful during the day with south-facing windows. Christmas lights greet patrons at the door. Inside, a dragon hangs from the ceiling and Tibetan prayer flags edge the room. The men, now in their 40s, describe themselves as former Deadheads. Old vinyl record covers adorn the walls of the bathrooms.
At this point in their careers, they’re done traveling — Smith has driven across the country 14 times, he said — but they’re not afraid to take risks in the kitchen. If a menu item doesn’t work, they’ll come back the next day and try something different, Hessler said.
“Our mistakes make us great,” he said.
They pulled things together relatively quickly, leaving their jobs at Worthy Burger in late November and opening their doors in Fairlee in mid-January, tackling the challenges of starting a business — a first for them both — one at a time, including forming an LLC, opening a bank account and getting insurance.
At first, they operated on a bring-your-own-beverage basis because they had yet to obtain their liquor license.
Now, they offer some unconventional cocktails. The five finger death punch includes Pinot Grigio, house-made fruit punch, seltzer and sriracha hot sauce. They also have some local brews and Bud Light, which is a key ingredient in their sake bomb.
They have yet to advertise because their simple “chicken and beer” sign and word-of-mouth advertising has brought in enough customers to get them off to a good start.
“We’re doing about as much as we can handle,” Hessler said.
Their ideas are still evolving. Their initial vision was for a food truck, offering a bucket of chicken and sesame noodles for people on their way home from work. But Hessler, who worked at Aloha Camp, a summer camp for girls on nearby Lake Morey, heard about the vacancy and knew that Fairlee’s convenience off Interstate 91, proximity to local farms such as Crossroad Farm in Post Mills and the close-knit community could make it a good location.
The model they’ve landed on offers a “date night for families,” Hessler said. And it gives people a chance to see their neighbors in a relaxed setting, he said.
Depending how things go, Smith and Hessler would like to buy the property, which is currently owned by Crystal Johnson and Mark Fifield, who also own the neighboring, popular summertime ice cream place, Whippi Dip. The purchase could allow Smith and Hessler to add more seating and space for a band on the back, perhaps taking advantage of the scenic qualities of the nearby river.
Their vision, if successful, could expand beyond Fairlee.
“If this goes well, we could open up one of these in any town in Vermont,” Hessler said.
In the meantime, they’re focused on making the restaurant work. The process is tiring — 14 hours a day, six days a week — but it’s also invigorating, Hessler said.
“Smart money would have said stay” at Worthy Burger, but they’re enjoying the challenge and the freedom of being on their own, Hessler said.
“It either works or it doesn’t,” he said.
They’re currently brainstorming a grand opening of sorts (Black tie? Reggae?). Updates will be posted on their Facebook page.
Lou’s Veterans Open ‘Lunchbox’ in Fairlee
Also new to Fairlee is The Lunchbox Deli and Cafe in the former Subway off Route 5. Operated by Amber Sharon and Shawn Nelson — both formerly of Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery — the Lunchbox opened in January, just before Samurai Soul Food.
Sharon and Nelson, who live in Orford, have two young daughters who attend the nearby Samuel Morey Elementary School. The concept of the 10-seat restaurant is to offer takeout meals in convenient lunchboxes for kids to bring to school or grab afterward, or for adults to take to work, Sharon said in a phone interview last week.
The two spent many years working for other people: Nelson started as a line cook at Lou’s and over his nearly 20 years there worked up to manage the restaurant. Sharon, who was at Lou’s for 11 years, started as a server and grew to manage the catering department.
They were ready to “break out and do it on our own” and they’ve “jumped in full force,” Sharon said.
The menu includes pastries, muffins and donuts for breakfast, and soups, salads, quiche, and cold and hot sandwiches for lunch. They have daily specials.
“So far it’s been really great,” Sharon said of the community’s response.
Hours and specials can be found online on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.