Sean Buchanan walked out of the 10-course Vermont Fresh Network dinner at the Basin Harbor Club after the quail stuffed with beef heart but before the Sicilian-style rabbit with pappardelle noodles. Was there something wrong with the food? Not at all. Buchanan, who was at the dinner on behalf of his employer, Wood Creek Farm in Bridport, gave a brief spiel about the glories of grass-fed beef, blew a kiss to the crowd, and then jetted for a very important date. He dashed from Vergennes to Burlington's Fletcher Allen Health Care to visit his wife, Jess, and their daughter, Sophia, not yet 24 hours old.
Foodie folks who know Buchanan may wonder if he's learned the secret of teleportation, or at least how to fly. He works full-time at Wood Creek as the "sales and marketing guy," hosts a television show called "Feast in the Making" that airs on Vermont Public Television, attends pretty much every gastronomic event in the area, and somehow manages to hang out with his family as well. Buchanan even volunteers his time as a liaison between the farmers who grow Vermont's best fruits and veggies and the restaurants that can make the most of them. "My biggest weakness is that I want to do everything for everybody," Buchanan admits.
It's no wonder that, at the recent Vermont Fresh Network Forum, the Vermont Department of Agriculture gave him an award for his efforts in promoting local produce. "There's nothing better than finding a way to connect people. That's what gives me the most satisfaction in life," Buchanan says.
Regardless of his hectic schedule, the athletic-looking 32-year-old always greets his numerous culinary acquaintances with an impish grin on his face.
Buchanan's love affair with fresh local products began during his childhood as an army brat in Germany, he says. "We were always way into food . . . lobster, cherries, whatever was in season." But he never intended to work with food for a living. After earning a degree from Virginia Tech in environmental science, he spent some time "doing biochem" before moving out to Colorado to be a rock-climbing, hiking and ski bum. He supported those habits by waiting tables, but then the kitchen was thrust upon him.
"I was only cooking because they were out of cooks," Buchanan recalls. At first, he worked behind the line at the super-high-volume Grand Lake Lodge: "I was terrible . . . I didn't understand salt, I didn't understand how to cook. But luckily enough, there were strong guys to carry me," he says, laughing.
Next, he experimented with menu development as the executive chef at an Irish pub. "It was 'turn and burn' style," says Buchanan, "but the owner and his wife were open to letting us try new things." He brought in lobster tails and fresh-stuffed pastas and, in the process, helped increase the check average from $15 per person to $45.
With a firm handle on the basics, Buchanan did another season at Grand Lake as the sous chef, and that's when his localvore instincts really started kicking in. "We were getting produce from a farm called Morales Farms. She [farmer Carol Morales] had the best, sugary-sweet asparagus," he remembers. But she'd occasionally drop off stuff that was out of the ordinary. "She would start bringing random stuff, like a case of wild raspberries and gooseberries and say, 'Can you use these?'" Buchanan says. "And I did. I made pan-seared dry scallops with gooseberry and raspberry coulis." A prankster co-worker entered the dish in the restaurant's computer as "scallops Frankenberry." The impetus behind the fruity experiment? "If it's in season, you should really try to utilize it in a productive way," Buchanan posits.
The chef had met his future wife Jess at 10-cent-wing night, and they relocated to Austin, Texas, so she could get a graduate degree in special education. The hip college town was a bit of a shock to someone used to the slower pace of ski resorts. "At that point, I thought I was a hot chef and could do anything, but suddenly I was making salads at a restaurant not many people went to . . . It was a really big change to be in a place where the labor pool was endless, and you're a dime a dozen," says Buchanan. But the painful lesson wasn't overlooked. "It taught me a lot about who I was . . . and I realized I wasn't better than anybody else . . . I'm still cocky, but just not as cocky," he says slyly, "so you can imagine how horrible it was before."
Once Jess had her degree in hand, the young couple opted to come to Vermont, both for the up-and-coming food scene and the progressive schools. Buchanan jumped right into a job at the Basin Harbor Club, then took a position as executive chef at the struggling Middlebury Inn. There, he brought in a slew of local cheeses, elk from Red Rock Elk Ranch, Misty Knoll chicken and beef from Wood Creek.
Despite Buchanan's elation at updating and improving the Inn's cuisine, days were long and stressful. "There was a lot of buzz about it [the food], but it didn't fill the restaurant every single night . . . the volume was always inconsistent," he claims. After two years, Buchanan began searching for a more traditional 9-to-5. Luckily, Chip Morgan of Wood Creek, whom he'd met when he began buying the farm's meat for the inn, was looking for a smooth operator to talk up his beef.
At Wood Creek, Buchanan has his work cut out for him. "We hope to one day be as accessible as Misty Knoll," he says. And slowly but surely, the intensely flavored, dry-aged ground beef is showing up in local restaurants.
It's exciting that Vermont foodies can sink their teeth into delicious, homegrown burgers in more and more places. But just as exciting is the exposure local restaurants and growers are getting via "Feast in the Making," which scored a write-up in The Montréal Gazette last Saturday. Author Denise Duguay demonstrated the show's potential to boost tourism, suggesting that Montréalers check out "Feast" for "some very good ideas for what to eat in Vermont and where to find it."
But Buchanan isn't posturing like the Green Mountain Rachael Ray just yet. He declares with typical understatement that the first season of "Feast" is "a watchable show . . . people can sit through 30 minutes and not pull out their hair and say, 'Public television sucks.'"
For all his modesty, Buchanan's telegenic ease helps keep the show from dragging. During a special episode that aired last week, he spent some time at The Lake-View Restaurant on Shelburne Road, where Chef David Hugo, also of the Starry Night Café, prepared a veggie potpie with fiddleheads and pheasant's back mushrooms. As Hugo chopped and stirred, Buchanan pattered. When Hugo dropped some onions into an oil-coated pan, he asked if the pan was already hot. As the fiddleheads came into play, he explained to the audience that the green curls are young ferns, which led to a discussion about foraging.
To a foodie, such points are pretty elementary. But Buchanan believes in clarifying them for those not in the know. "I think that's what's really important in food programming," he says. "Sometimes we get too chef-y."
He's not crazy about insider lingo at restaurants, either. "So many people feel like idiots when they read some frou-frou menu," Buchanan explains. "It's great to do sous-vide chicken, but on the menu, it should say 'boil in a bag.'" That might be taking common language a bit too far, but Buchanan's populist ideals are refreshing.
And even with seven years of cooking experience under his belt, he admits to learning a few things every time he tapes a new show. For example, he was startled when he saw Hugo using apple blossoms to garnish a side salad. "I asked, 'Don't those things kill you?'" he says. Hugo assured him the flowers aren't toxic. "I guess that was just one of those things my mom told me," Buchanan says sheepishly. Perhaps Mom was just trying to protect her apple crop from the budding chef.
Right now, the second season of "Feast in the Making" is on the rocks. Explains Buchanan, "The show was underwritten with a rural development grant from the USDA, but VPT lost that grant last year. Unfortunately, it's very money-based right now. We need about $70,000 of underwriting to do 10 more episodes." Given Buchanan's accomplished salesmanship and unbridled exuberance, though, the chances the show will pull through seem pretty good.
In the meantime, he takes the occasional breather to spend time with his family. On a recent evening at home in Addison, Buchanan moved easily from his open kitchen with its stainless-steel fridge to the scenic deck, as he cooked up potato-zucchini fritters with a garlicky topping and grilled some Wood Creek steaks. Proving that he can think on his feet just as well off-camera as on, he whipped up an improvised dessert with ingredients provided by a guest.
In Buchanan's nimble hands, a bag of cherries, a chocolate bar, maple-glazed nuts and some goat cheese were transformed into warm cherry-and-goat-cheese-stuffed crêpes topped with melted chocolate and chopped nuts. Sophia looked on, too young to covet the concoction - but when she's older, this kid's lunchboxes may just be the envy of the playground.