Few Vermont restaurants have garnered as much national attention as Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill in Waterbury. Writers for the New York Times, Food & Wine magazine and the now-defunct Gourmet have waxed eloquent about both the restaurant and its young chef-owner, Eric Warnstedt. For two years running, Warnstedt has been a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef Northeast” award.
We wanted to know how he feels about long hours, Vermont wines, anonymous restaurant critics and other issues. So we put him on the grill.
How did your family eat when you were growing up?
I grew up in South Florida, outside of Fort Lauderdale. We ate well and ate at the table every night, but it was never high end. We had fish sticks at home, but we went out for stone crab, and really great fruits were a big deal. I feel like we did better than most people.
Name three foods that make life worth living.
Stone crabs, raw oysters and raw oysters.
What’s the last thing you ate?
I had some scrambled eggs on toast with ramps and goat cheese.
What foods are always in your pantry?
I don’t eat at home that much, but I always have a block of cheese, Vermont Smoke and Cure Pepperoni, a couple different kinds of mustard, eggs and lots of booze. The cheese and pepperoni are good late-night snacks with mustard.
Describe your best meal.
I’m pretty steady with what I like — I don’t have a lot of highs and lows — but one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory, probably the best thing in the last few years, was a lamb trio at The Green Cup [in Waitsfield].
What’s your favorite cookbook?
I look at cookbooks for inspiration; I don’t really cook out of them. My favorite book is probably Michael’s on the Hill more.
What’s your favorite beverage?
I really like a good latte, and I drink wine more than I drink beer, unless I’m at The Alchemist. Lately, lean, crisp white wine is what I’m leaning toward. I’ve been drinking a lot of Austrian riesling, and it’s definitely one of my new favorite things. What’s great is the dryness of them.
What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
We have a pretty enormous iPod. It has everything from random cheesy stuff to the most crazy, out-there jazz you can imagine.
If you weren’t a chef, what would your job be?
If time and money and space were no concern? Probably a marine biologist, or something like that.
Can you describe your eating habits?
I don’t eat “healthy,” but I don’t eat a lot of [junk food], either. I have a good amount of sweets at the restaurant, and I think my fat intake is more than it should be. I find myself eating enough calories throughout the day without sitting down and having a meal. There’s been all this play with animal livers and things cooked in fat and then fried, like headcheese croquettes. They don’t sell very well, but we eat them.
How do you feel about anonymous restaurant reviews?
They should be constructive and should help businesses out. For people to go on [the Internet] late at night and rip people apart does nobody any good. I was disappointed when Bluebird Tavern opened with a really talented team, and they had to wake up every morning and read all that crap about [themselves]. In a region that’s so small, I think it might have a detrimental effect on businesses to have to fight for it right off the bat. People should give them a little more time.
If we professionals read something that we don’t think is true, we can laugh it off and sort of make fun of [the writers], but [citizen critics] can have a significant impact on a restaurant.
Any personal experiences with critics you want to share?
There’s a person [on the 7 Nights website] who came in here and said the soup would be better if it had a lone basil leaf on top. And she said that our gnocchi made her long for the gnudi at The Spotted Pig in New York. They’re completely different things. That’s like saying, “This chocolate bar makes me want an apple.”
I drink out of a glass Saratoga water bottle at work. And another woman said she saw the chef drinking out of a bottle of wine while he was cooking.
Which kinds of Vermont ingredients just aren’t as good as their counterparts from farther away?
I think wine is the big one, although there’s some really good stuff going on [at Vermont vineyards]. We’ve gone from a handful of decent/mediocre wines to a handful of decent/mediocre wines plus a handful of tasty stuff. For what we have to work with here, it’s pretty outstanding.
The cult of personality around chefs has been growing nationwide — and in Vermont. Is that good or bad?
Anything that brings food to the forefront is a positive thing.
How do you make sure the restaurant runs smoothly on your nights off?
One of the challenges in this region is finding a professional kitchen staff — there are only a few restaurants in the area that have that — but I have a small, awesome staff. Starting about a year ago, I’ve actually been able to not be here every night. But I assure you, if you don’t see me there that night, I was there earlier in the day.
How do you like having an open kitchen?
I love it, especially being a small business owner. We’re an expensive place, and people don’t come here often, so being able to put a face to a name is very important. That’s half the reason I work in Vermont.
And anyway, once the restaurant has people in it and the music’s on, even though we’re right there, who knows what we could be doing?
You use great ingredients and great technique, but your plates are fairly simple. Why?
The restaurant has a small, antiquated kitchen, so if we want to have a menu that has more than four options, it has to stay simple. From a personal standpoint, the longer I cook, the more I want something simple on the plate. It’s what I’m looking for and what the restaurant allows.
If the kitchen was bigger, we’d tweak things to be a little more unique, but there are other people out there who can rewrite the book on how to cook food. I’m more concerned with the Earth and the environment than with haute cuisine.
I know you were hoping to open a restaurant in Chittenden County. Is that still an option?
We’ve had a lot of really nice people wanting to help us out, but nothing has clicked perfectly. There’s currently a project we’re hoping to work on in this area. The longer I’m in Waterbury, the more I’m looking to stay in this region and hope that people travel to us. It seems right that I live and work in the same place … Unless the guys at Redstone want to help us out with the armory building [on Main Street in Burlington].
Are you raising your daughter to be a foodie?
I’d like her to have a really strong respect for where food comes from, and for the natural world. She’s 2 and a half and she does really well: She loves cheese and crêpes and all kinds of other good stuff. She loves salami. But I’m afraid when she grows up she’ll just want chicken wings and cheap beer after being surrounded by our elitist crap.
Is it tough to be a chef and a family man?
My work hours are longer than average. The first few years, it was 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week. Now it’s typical hard restaurant work — acceptable and livable. A few days off a week is a lifesaver.
Other restaurants here are seeing that it’s the way to go. The best thing is for everybody to have two days off in a row: We shouldn’t have to be martyrs for the food industry.
A lot of my friends have heard me whine and complain, but I don’t think I could ever go work for somebody else again. We eat and drink like kings, we have a subculture of people who respect each other, and the hard work is made up for during the high times. I couldn’t ask for really anything more.
Restaurant: Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill
Restaurant age: “It’ll be 5 years in October, which is crazy!”
Cuisine type: “We call it ‘seasonal American,’ but only when people ask. Nothing seems to fit quite right, but that’s the closest. What is American food, anyway?”
Training: Graduated from the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in 1999.
Selected experience: Line cook at Shelburne Farms (summers of ’99-’01); sous chef, then executive chef at Smokejacks, Burlington (’01-’03; ’04-’05); sous chef at The Kitchen Table Bistro, Richmond (’03-’04).
What’s on the menu? “We print the menu every day, but it doesn’t go through a full overhaul. You’ll almost always see certain proteins — Winding Brook Farm pork loin, LaBelle Farm duck breast, LaPlatte [River Angus] Farm short ribs — but with different setups and veg. Things change regularly, especially the appetizers, but fried oysters and hen-of-the-wood [mushroom] toast have been on the menu for ages.”