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Skilled Hands: Simon Pearce Chef Says Success Is a Team Effort



Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Quechee — When Simon Pearce Restaurant Executive Chef Brian Gazda arrived at work at 9 on a recent morning to head up the lunch crew, the mirepoix was ready to be cooked.

Raw onions, carrots and celery had been deftly diced into small cubes, so uniform in size that a customer was overheard saying on an earlier occasion that the vegetables must have been frozen because they looked like they had been prepared by a machine.

“No, that’s just knife skills,” Gazda laughed that morning when hearing from a waitstaff member about the comment.

“We have very skilled people working here. They know what they’re doing, and that makes my job much easier. Basically, when we’re busy, what I do is back them up. I’m there if they need me,” he said.

Backup is a role he assumes only after customers start arriving for lunch and dinner. The rest of his day, which more often than not stretches beyond 12 hours, is spent pulling all the pieces of the menu together and managing the staff. He keeps track of what’s on hand and what needs to be ordered. He makes sure everything that can be made in advance is done and that every member of his 15-member team — the sous chefs, bakers, expediters, line and prep cooks and dish and pot washers — is on the job, organized and attending to assignments.

The key to being a successful executive chef at one of the biggest, busiest fine-dining restaurants in the Upper Valley boils down to one ingredient — teamwork, Gazda said.

“Every night, I make a special effort to go by and talk to each member of the team and thank them for doing a good job. They are critical to what we do.”

There’s further evidence of Gazda’s appreciation for the staff scrawled across the top of the prep kitchen’s white board, a place where crew members leave notes and get assignments:

“Thanks to all of you for an amazing (foliage) season,” it says.



On this rainy, fall, off-season Wednesday, Gazda is optimistic that the 145-seat restaurant overlooking the Ottauquechee River and a rushing spillway and waterfall will be full. The same day last year they did about 130 lunches. They were prepared for at least that number, but the executive chef was worried about the weather.

“We could be slow today. People might not want to get out in the rain,” Gazda said, noting that the confining cold drizzle might also make customers want to get out of the house and have lunch. “It’s sort of a guessing game.”

The time is crawling past 10 a.m. now in the downstairs prep kitchen where Gazda and others are working. The doors open for lunch at 11:30, but there’s an air of collected calm, a sense of readiness. Two large stockpots are quietly simmering on the back of a double-oven stove, surrounded by smaller pans containing sauces and soups for more immediate use. Once everything is ready, it will be carried up a flight of stairs to the line kitchen, where the food will be readied to be served.

Downstairs, David Weatherman, the baker, is finishing up his shift. The breads and desserts are prepared. Six maple sausage, leek and potato quiches , golden brown with fluted crusts, are ready to be cut into servings and taken up to the line kitchen. Gazda uses a chef’s knife to sweep the chopped onions from the cutting board into a small stainless steel serving pan, joining them with the carrots and celery that are already there.

When the restaurant gets unexpectedly busy, that’s when things get hectic, and the kitchen crew gets stretched thin.

“We’re running up and down the stairs trying to get the food out,” Gazda said. “It’s basically organized chaos, and we just try to stay five steps ahead of it.”



Gazda, 36, took over the kitchen at Simon Pearce Restaurant last year after more than 14 years of cooking experience at other restaurants.

He attended the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction, Vt., and in 2000, he was on the kitchen staff at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and spent five years under the tutelage of award-winning Boston chef Daniel Bruce, rising to the position of sous chef at Bruce’s Rowes Wharf restaurant.

In 2005, he became the executive chef at The Wentworth Inn in Jackson, N.H. He stayed until June of last year. That’s when he joined Simon Pearce, and started producing 400 to 600 meals a day, fare drawn from lunch and dinner menus that feature 19 different entrees, eight appetizers, seven salads and soups, dishes with locally produced ingredients that have to appeal to varied clientele with a wide range of tastes.

Long before the restaurant trend to use locally produced food and the farm-to-table programs swept the nation, chefs at Simon Pearce Restaurant, which opened its doors in 1983, have attempted to serve food made from products grown in Vermont and New Hampshire.

One of the first things Gazda discovered was how easy it is to find good farmers and food producers in Vermont who are willing to work with a restaurant.

“Vermont is well organized. Maybe it’s the lifestyle here, but we have farmers knocking on our door to sell us stuff. That’s a big change from having to scramble around to find what you need, like we did in New Hampshire.”

Gazda and restaurant manager Jerod Rockwell work with area farmers before planning to order what the restaurant will need for the season.

“We have to be on the same page with them before they plant. For example, we go through 40 cases of mesclun a week from Crossroads Farm (in Post Mills). That’s not something they could handle if they didn’t plan for it,” Rockwell said, noting that Crossroads is one of more than 20 area farmers and producers whose products are used by the restaurant and are part of the planning process.

Unlike smaller restaurants, where chefs might decide what to cook based on what’s fresh at the farmer’s markets that day or week, the menus at Simon Pearce have to be planned, dishes tested and sourced months in advance.

The restaurant also can’t be too radical with menu overhauls. Simon Pearce has long-standing customers who return to the area at certain times of the year and have fond memories of what they’ve eaten at the restaurant before and want it again.

Those customers expect some items to be as they remember them. For example, the Ballymaloe bread, a recipe from Simon Pearce’s mother, has been on the menu since the restaurant opened 31 years ago.

“We have to build our menu around what’s available in any season. The menu changes four times a year, (although there are daily specials). We’re trying to be different than other restaurants, but we have to serve some things that people expect,” Gazda said.

A t the same time the food has to be contemporary, local, consistent, seasonal and produced quickly and technically correct, Rockwell said.

“Brian’s food is approachable and not overly fluffy. He understands you don’t need to do a whole lot to let the items carry themselves.”

When the restaurant truly shines, Gazda said, is during the wine dinner series, when a fixed price, multi-course meal is paired with wines presented by a vintner. The dinners are limited to 75 or 100 people.

“That’s when we can be more creative and focused on the food, and experiment with matching flavors and tastes,” he said.



“OK. Looks like we’re ready,” Gazda said.

“We’ll be there in five minutes,” he tells Rockwell, who has popped in to see if Gazda and the sous chefs Armando Donato and Kyle Scott are ready for a meeting with the front house staff to explain today’s lunch specials.

In the upstairs line kitchen, there’s an enhanced sense of urgency. Gazda tastes the sauce, a rich, velvety beef gravy. He wears clear plastic gloves and uses a clean plastic spoon to dip into the sauce — in an earlier time, chefs just used their fingers to taste. In one swift, efficient movement, he throws the spoon into the trash, adds a bit of salt to the sauce and stirs. He repeats the tasting and adds more salt. The third time, he’s satisfied.

Meanwhile, Donato sautees a spoonful of mirepoix with clarified butter over high heat, expertly tossing the vegetables until they’re just crisp. The chefs are ready to plate up the lunch special entree, Gazda’s take on shepherd’s pie, a standard on the Simon Pearce menu.

In the middle of the rectangular white plate, Donato places an oval-shaped serving of cheddar mash ed potatoes, then the mirepoix to one side and on the other, two fork-tender boneless short ribs of beef topped with a modest amount of sauce. Gazda adds a minuscule sprig of thyme to the potatoes and a light sprinkling of chopped parsley to the plate. The presentation is photogenic and ready to be presented to the staff. They have to sell it to the customers.

“Taste it with your eyes,” Gazda told them, pointing to the finished plate. “Taste it with your eyes.”

Before the doors open, Donato has moved on to the next day. He’s holding a refrigerator pan full of mahi mahi filets. He and Gazda discuss what to do with them and the portion sizes.

“I’m thinking tacos,” Donato says.

They agree, fish tacos, pickled red onion, queso fresco chili vinaigrette and dirty rice. Donato will start on it after the customers leave.

On that cold, rainy Wednesday, the restaurant did 124 lunches.

Here are some recipes from the Simon Pearce Restaurant:

Simon Pearce 
Tomato Chutney

The recipe for this condiment came from Simon Pearce’s grandfather’s cook in London. The chutney was a staple in the Pearce house in Ireland. At the restaurant, the chutney is a local favorite and is perfect to be served with any savory foods or meat, especially chicken or rack of lamb.

Makes 12 quarts or 50 servings.

Ingredients:

7 to 8 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped

1 pound yellow onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, minced

3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and chopped

2 to 3 pounds dark brown sugar

2 pints cider vinegar

3 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

3 teaspoons ground black pepper

3 teaspoons allspice

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in a 12-quart stockpot. Bring to a boil over moderate heat and cook, stirring occasionally for 1 hour.

Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for approximately 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until chutney is thickened.

Simon Pearce 
House Vinaigrette

Gaz da recommends Simon Pearce house vinaigrette with the restaurant’s field-greens salad with warm goat cheese, below.

Ingredients

Makes 2 cups:

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup malt vinegar

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1½ cups olive oil

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Add first six ingredients in a blender and pulse to combine. While the blender is running, slowly stream in the olive oil until well combined. Add parsley and pulse for 10 seconds, or until the vinaigrette is creamy, smooth and green in color.

Field-Greens Salad 
With Warm Goat Cheese

Gaz da suggests using Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. goat cheese or the highest-quality local goat cheese you can find in area stores. At the Simon Pearce Restaurant, the chefs use panko — Japanese bread crumbs — for the cheese coating because they are lighter than most available bread crumbs. Be sure to make the vinaigrette ahead of time. This dish is great on its own or as a starter to any main course.

Ingredients:

Serves 4

4-ounce log of goat cheese

½ cup panko bread crumbs

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon fresh or dried thyme

1 teaspoon fresh or dried parsley

½ teaspoon minced garlic

Cut the goat cheese into four even slices and set aside. Combine bread crumbs, melted butter, herbs, and garlic. Using your hands, press the herb-crumb mixture onto all sides of each cheese slice. Place cheese slices in a single layer on a small baking tray, brown under a broiler, and set aside.

Mixed field greens for four

Simon Pearce house vinaigrette

Vine-ripe cherry tomatoes

Cucumber slices or endive spears

In a mixing bowl, toss the field greens with vinaigrette to taste.

Place greens on a chilled plate.

Place warm goat cheese on the salad.

Slice tomatoes in half and place around the salad greens.

Set the cucumber slices or endive spears on the salad.



Wine Pairing: With a pinot gris from Oregon or an Italian prosecco, this is a perfect fall lunch.

Freekeh

Gazda is featuring a new grain, freekeh, on the restaurant’s fall menu — toasted Middle Eastern wheat that is high in fiber and can substitute for quinoa or rice. It is a perfect accompaniment to any hearty dish and can be tailored to your taste.

Ingredients:

2 cups freekeh (whole grain or cracked grain that is available locally and on line)

5 cups cold water

1 whole lemon

1 cinnamon stick

Olive oil (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Gazada suggests toasting freekeh first by spreading 2 cups on a ½-inch sheet tray and placing it in a 350 degree oven for about 12 to 15 minutes, un til it begins to smell like roasted nuts. Transfer the toasted freekeh into a large sauce pan with water, lemon, cinnamon, olive oil and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover the pan and lower the heat to a simmer for about 40 to 45 minutes (if using a cracked grain simmer only for 10 to 15 minutes).



In the Kitchen is a regular feature in the Valley News that features Upper Valley home cooks and restaurant chefs who want to share their love of food.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.