When Craig Tresser and Eric Warnstedt conceived their plan to open Hen of the Wood restaurant, their idea was to utilize local ingredients from the farms, fields, and waters of Vermont. You’d think that, considering the vast resources Vermont offers, it would be easy, but it wasn’t. Impressing the foodie “flatlanders” visiting Stowe was accomplished, but convincing locals to pay a little more for entrees than they are used to paying elsewhere was perhaps their biggest challenge. We spoke with Eric Warnstedt about his culinary upbringing, and the challenges he’s faced opening an award-winning restaurant in Waterbury, Vermont.
NERI: Before we talk about your restaurant, Hen of the Wood, tell us about your culinary background, and what chefs did/do you look up to?
Eric: I am 32, and I went to Culinary School at Johnson & Wales after college. I guess that means I have been cooking for about 10 years or so. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale but spent a lot of time vacationing in the North Carolina mountains which I feel set the stage for me for food that is authentic and has a sense of place. I look up to Tom Douglas of Dalhia Lounge, Seattle, Cory Schrieber at Wildwood in Portland, Oregon, Sam Hayward at Fore Street in Portland Maine, and Martin Picard at Au Pied De Cochon in Montreal.
NERI: What restaurants in the area, or in other areas, did you look toward for inspiration before opening yours?
Eric: There really isn’t much going on around here that is inspirational, that’s why we begged and borrowed for this place. Our place is far from perfect, and a lot of restaurants are doing their best just to get by up here. The private restaurants aren’t funded all that well so it seems that people keep things pretty ‘safe’. Hopefully we are setting some small stage for future restaurants that are trying to keep up with the national scene and keeping things fresh. I think what is going on in Portland, Maine is pretty inspirational, especially in terms of a region. In terms of local inspiration, Jeremy Silanksy of American Flatbread; it may just be pizza but it is constantly evolving and their ethic solid. Jason Guilisano of the Green Cup café; everything you imagine a cafe in Vermont to be. He only serves dinner 2 days a week but it is the best food in the area by far, and the breakfast which is 6 days a week is to die for.
NERI: Tell us about the history of Hen of the Wood’s location, was it a restaurant before you opened?
Eric: Hen of the Wood was previously occupied by a restaurant call the Mist Grill. Thanks to all of their hard work we were able to walk into a functioning work space; that is only way we could have afforded to do it. The building itself is about 200 years old, and the rock walls are original.
NERI: Did you have any particular challenges or difficulties with choosing an old grist mill as a restaurant location architecturally or otherwise?
Eric: In terms of challenges, we just wanted a restaurant; the challenges are coming up now that we have been here for awhile and we know what we are doing. We don’t own the building and it will never be for sale, it is a little too small and expansion isn’t an option here.
NERI: When you opened in the fall of 2005 did you have difficulty gaining recognition, or were you busy from day one?
Eric: We definitely weren’t busy from day one, although we did generate a lot of buzz. Our ethics about sourcing are stronger than anyone else we know so it made for good stories I guess. We are in a small town and our prices are high for the area - we needed people from all around dining with us for it to work - that did take a little while.
NERI: You seem to have found some good suppliers, had you created these relationships in days past?
Eric: Farmers are pushing the scene as opposed to the chefs. The product is here, it’s just extremely expensive and you have to be willing to change things on the menu a lot. For instance, we usually have lamb on all week long yet it will be racks for a few days, shanks for few, loin chops for a few. Winding Brook Farm has been a great source lately for chicken, veal, pork & lamb. It’s not that working with local food is challenging it is just wicked expensive! If I worked for someone else I would have been fired for my food cost, but for now while we are young and idealistic we are going to see how long we can keep it up. We can’t charge enough for a local grass fed ribeye. In Boston or NYC it would be over $40 but here it’s ‘how much can we really charge? $30 maybe $33?’ Breaking the $30 dollar mark has been tough for us; we want locals to be here for more than just anniversaries and to understand what we are doing and that we have to charge this if a grass fed ribeye is what you are looking for.
NERI: Can you name a few suppliers who you feel deserve special recognition in bringing quality ingredients into your kitchen?
Eric: Vermont’s cheesemakers are the most unique contribution to the culinary world. Authur Meade of Winding Brook Farm and John Klepps of LaPlatte River Angus Farm have truly been our biggest allies for proteins. At certain times there are as many as 4 proteins just from Winding Brook alone. Laplatte supplies our short ribs, he was the first person up here who understood that I wanted a long bone cut of shortribs. It is the one dish on the menu that has pretty much been on everyday since we opened, the shortribs have sort of become something that we are known for, which is nice but we really arent that kind of restaurant. The idea is for things to always be changing, yet every week without even making an order we get an enourmous banana box full of shortribs, they are gorgeous. Occasionally he throws a ribeye or some hangers in there and it is by far the nicest beef I have ever tasted. Woodcreek farm supplies almost all our steaks, all grass fed. The quality varies but that is something you just have to deal with; everyone seems to still be working out the kinks about how to make this work.
On the veggie end - Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens has pretty much been our primary farmer. He also has a CSA in which Hen of the Wood is the pick up spot if you are a member. He grows all of the basics along with multiple, more unique varieties. He has an amazing root storage program that gives us vegetables 12 months of the year, which you can imagine is pretty unique.
NERI: When fall foliage and the ski season is over, do you see a large drop-off in business? What is the percentage of local business to tourist customers?
Eric: We definitely serve more tourists that we imagined but we have been extremely lucky with the tourists we receive. Lots of real foodies from Boston, Manhattan, and Philly. It has been a welcome surprise. When foodies are in town and staying at local resorts and B&B’s they are sent here to see what Vermont food is all about. The concierges and innkeepers have been extremely kind to us. It sounds weird but I think they are proud to show off what we are doing. Stowe is 10 miles from here and filled with restaurants, yet during the high times we are filled with Stowe tourists and second-home owners, which has been really gratifying.
The Stowe community itself has become our biggest draw of regulars, which is a nice clientèle to have. We do something different on Monday nights; Chalkboard Menu Monday which has been a big draw with locals. It’s more of a bistro night, lots of wine and cheese specials, tartines, things like that. Nothing is over 20 dollars, we offer lots of sides and have a little Jazz duo play. It’s like a whole different restaurant on Mondays, which is nice because it’s as if there is another restaurant in town.
We are a pretty small place so during the high times we turn a lot of people away, and during the slow times, since we are small, it doesn’t seem to hurt as bad. It really kills us to have to turn away locals during high tourist season, especially people who have been supportive in the past.
NERI: Does your menu change and how often? Tell us what some of your most popular dishes are and why?
Eric: Menus are printed daily, usually the changes are subtle. We never do a complete overhaul, it just constantly evolves. The eponymous Hen of the Woods mushroom appetizer is always the best selling starter. It changes ‘set ups’ but whichever one it is it sells like crazy. I mentioned the short ribs - BIG hit with most people.
NERI: Tell us about your cheese selections and how popular have they become with your customers
Eric: I mentioned earlier my support of Vermont cheese; customers love it. Especially larger parties - they almost always start out with a cheese plate. We offer the cheese menu at the beginning of the night and the end of the night. One day I won’t be line cook 6 days a week and I will able to devote more time to the ever-changing cheese world. For now it is a 12 to 15 item cheese list that changes with the seasons with the exception of a few year round favorites.
NERI: Your wine list is both extensive, and has been called a relative bargain. Tell us about your selections, were you making sure you stayed within the budgets of the year-round customers?
Eric: The list is all North American. We felt that since our space is limited (our list is only 60 items long) and because of the style of our food it makes more sense to focus on those special spots in North America that are producing great wines and try to show a range of styles within the varietal. For instance Pinot Noir; we try to show top examples from Oregon, Sonoma and the Central Coast. Chardonnay; oaky and buttery or stainless steel fermented. High-end California Cabs vs. the beautiful Bordeaux blends in Washington State, and so on. We try to keep it evolving as well and keep the servers well informed since it is small list. They are able to discuss most bottles intelligently. Our higher-end wine is a bargain in terms of most restaurants. We don’t have any ‘junk’ on the menu and the glass pours are all great wines. Too many restaurants, especially around here, have glass pours that are just everyday supermarket wine - which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just cheap and boring!
NERI: Are both yourself and Craig equal co-owners and chefs? How did you meet, and how long have you been planning a restaurant of your own?
Eric: Craig and I are equal owners. Hen of the Wood is a culmination of my past experience and when I couldn’t raise enough money I asked Craig if he would like to be involved. There aren’t too many people that I trust more than him. Craig was my grill cook at two other restaurants in which I was the sous chef and then became my sous chef when I was chef. The food is mine although Craig has become more involved in the restaurant world since the Hen of the Wood undertaking. We work together six days a week, 12 hours a day and have yet to throw anything at each other.
NERI: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working in the kitchen?
Eric: Not in the kitchen?? My hobbies have slipped away over the past two years. I get outside when I can, I only have one day off so I usually have to get my shit together mentally and try to connect with the people that I used to hang out with. My parents appreciate the Sunday phone call as well. I go out to dinner every Sunday which is nice, and try to see some music. If I could snowboard one day a week I would be happy. I have been known to drive to Portland just to have dinner at Forestreet, dessert at 555 and then drive home. Same thing with Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.
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