It's a Thursday evening, and the wraparound bar at Two Brothers Tavern is packed elbow-to-elbow. On the televisions mounted above the bar, the Patriots are up against the Texans. A group of college kids shares a basket of fries and a platter of loaded nachos. Nearby, a few middle-aged men decompress over Bud Lights and the nightly special, $2.50 pints of Narragansett. Over by a window seat, friends are meeting for a nice dinner out: wine, rock shrimp risotto and a tomato salad made with 10 assorted Vermont heirlooms. The bartender whizzes past 24 taps of draft beer and cider to pour a tasting flight for an out-of-town beer lover.
The audience at Two Brothers Tavern is as varied as tonight's soup options: cheddar ale or fresh market gazpacho.
The popular Middlebury pub is so called for its founders, local siblings Holmes and Beal Jacobs. Matt Corrente, the executive chef since summer 2015, first joined the restaurant's team as a student at Middlebury College. After graduating in 2006, he went on to train at a culinary institute in New York City and then to cook in some established fine-dining restaurants.
In Vermont, Corrente was one of the lead chefs at Burlington's late, great Pistou, which was nominated for a James Beard Award before closing its doors in 2014. He then spent two years as the executive chef of Bluebird Restaurant Group before coming full circle to head the kitchen at Two Brothers.
Over drafts of Lost Nation Brewing's House Pale Ale, Seven Days bellied up to the bar with Corrente to talk oysters, the restaurant world and how to incorporate fine dining into a cherished neighborhood tavern.
SEVEN DAYS: You've gained a lot of ground in your professional cooking life. What are the core moments of your culinary training?
MATT CORRENTE: It started 10 years ago in Middlebury. I was a student at Middlebury College and took a job on the side working front-of-the-house at Two Brothers Tavern. I was premed and an art major. I thought I wanted to be an oral surgeon and pull people's teeth for a living.
After college, the whole dental-school thing fizzled out. I knew what I really wanted to do was go to cooking school. So I moved to New York City and went to the [Institute of Culinary Education]. In 2008, I got an internship through the school at Café Boulud [owned by famed French restaurateur Daniel Boulud]. After the internship, I was hired to work full time [on the line] at Bar Boulud in Lincoln Center. I was there for three years; it was definitely the most fundamental part of my culinary education.
SD: You also worked at Craigie on Main in Boston under Tony Maws, one of the most notable chefs in the country. What was the lifestyle like at these upscale institutions?
MC: [At Bar Boulud], it's extremely busy. It was a sprint. It's proximity to Lincoln Center and all the shows ... there were just these massive rushes of people. It taught me how to do huge covers of very upscale, fine-dining food.
[At Craigie on Main], there was a practical exam to get the job. The chef brought you a piece of protein and said, "Here. You have half an hour. Make me dinner." You can use anything in the kitchen, but you don't even know where the salt is. It's a sink-or-swim kind of thing. I cooked skate with chanterelle mushrooms and beef demi-glace. That got me to the fish station.
Craigie on Main was the hardest job I've had. It was a grind. It was 80 to 100 hours a week. And there was the physical and mental abuse known to be found from a real hard-ass chef, a chef who rules with an iron fist. It was the first time I worked in that kind of environment. But I learned a lot of great lessons there — including how not to treat people.
SD: What brought you back to Vermont?
MC: Maji Chien and Max Mackinnon came to visit and asked me to join the kitchen team at Max's new restaurant, Pistou. Maji was a friend from Middlebury College and Two Brothers. So I headed to Burlington to join the Pistou team. That was a fun adventure, while it lasted.
SD: Pistou gained a lot of attention, both locally and nationally, during its two years as one of Burlington's premier restaurants. But less than a year after its James Beard nomination, it closed. What worked about Pistou, and what didn't?
MC: The great thing about Pistou was that it was fun to use all of these premium ingredients — expensive vinegars, foie gras, spices that were top-of-the-line. What worked was, we had food for the adventurous diner. Someone may go to an Italian restaurant knowing that they can always get the spaghetti and meatballs. We didn't do that at Pistou. We would cook a menu that we wrote that day, keep it for a couple days, and then throw out and start all over. But it's not just about these fun culinary pursuits, really; you have to figure out how to run a sustaining business, as well.
The bad side of Pistou was that it wasn't really run as a lasting business. And now it doesn't exist anymore. To create a sustaining audience in Burlington was tough; it might have taken five years or so to have people really latch on. Meanwhile, you have to sustain [the customer] somehow. Tony Maws, for example, has a burger on his menu known as one of the best burgers in America. I'm not saying that Pistou should have had a burger, but it could have had a few core dishes — some consistent anchors — that would keep people coming back. As much as it was fun to play with the swanky ingredients, you have to think about the bottom line, as well.
SD: Vermont has a reputable concentration of artisans, farmers and makers, but Seven Days has written previously that the cost of running a farm-to-table restaurant in the state doesn't always coincide with the budgets of local restaurants or their patrons. As an experienced market-driven chef, what do you think is the future of farm-to-table in Vermont?
MC: It's a good question and a complicated answer. I think you have to go market by market, like Burlington versus Middlebury. It's all about culinary literacy and knowing your audience; it's about getting people up to speed with what you're trying to do. It's about having a customer base willing to pay a bit more for higher-quality ingredients. But at a place like Two Brothers Tavern, you don't go from being a nacho and wing joint to providing market-driven cuisine overnight.
SD: What are your personal goals for Two Brothers?
MC: I want to be the best restaurant in Middlebury. I want to be the spot where people want to go out to eat, whether they want oysters on the half shell, great market-driven specials or nachos. What I learned from fine dining is that consistency is paramount, and that remains the same here. You have to have consistency to be a great restaurant.
The first piece of that puzzle takes a ton of patience. Progressing to that level means starting from the bottom up: reinventing old recipes, setting up good systems within the kitchen, generating culinary talent in Vermont by teaching your cooks how to cook and taste and develop knife skills ... but all the while maintaining the idea of what it means to be a neighborhood tavern.
The next piece of the puzzle is controlling the culinary identity crisis of a place like Two Brothers Tavern. We're a lot of different things to a lot of different audiences. We're a popular college bar to a group of Middlebury College kids. We're a nice restaurant space for people to take themselves out to dinner. We're a lunch spot for tour buses. We're a place for someone to get a cheap beer after work, but we're also a beer destination for people who want to sample the great beers around Vermont. There's almost a schizophrenia about it — we wear a lot of different hats.
SD: So how do you do it?
MC: It's about high quality from bottom to top. Nothing here comes processed. We won't cut corners when it comes to making things from scratch. It's attention to detail, whether it's cooking a chicken wing or getting our oysters from Earth & Sea in Manchester. That's world-class fish coming in, which can be hard to come by in Vermont. Earth & Sea goes down to Boston every morning and brings our delivery back to the restaurant. That, while keeping the prices at a level where customers can afford them and menu descriptions where customers can understand them.
But progress here matches the progress of what people are learning to appreciate. Never in a million years did I think we'd be able to sell a couple hundred oysters every week during oyster nights. It's a food that may have been out of many people's comfort zones a couple months ago.
SD: What do you value about working at Two Brothers?
MC: After Bluebird, I was looking for a different quality of life in being a chef. As a chef, you spend tons of hours in the restaurant and then party on the off hours. At this stage of my career and my life, it made a lot of sense to step back from that. I wanted to move to a smaller town and settle down. My wife and I just bought a house. We're excited to put ourselves in the position to balance work and family.
Since Two Brothers is open 18 hours a day, seven days a week, it's up to me to decide how accessible I want to make that lifestyle. That's why you have to be a good teacher, as well. Unlike a fine-dining restaurant, you don't have 14 people to run your kitchen when you're gone. Maybe you have two. We also have an amazing core of regulars who are in day in and day out, who keep the electricity on. They prop us up as the neighborhood restaurant that we are. Because there's a huge difference between a destination restaurant and a real neighborhood restaurant. We're neighborhood all the way. We want [travelers] to be interested in what we're doing, too, but our bread and butter is the people around us.
SD: What items on the current menu most reflect you as a chef?
MC: The menu, like the restaurant, caters to a diverse audience. You have things that have been on the menu for over a decade, and they're untouchable. Some of the dishes that we still have on the menu I wouldn't be caught dead sticking my name on. Santa Fe Tortellini is a great example of that. It's been on the menu since I started working here eight years ago. It's heavy cream, housemade salsa, Swiss cheese tortellini and Cajun blackened chicken. So you've got Italian pasta and cheese from Switzerland, with a sauce that somehow evokes a sense of New Mexico, and Cajun seasoning. It's a mishmash, but people love it.
Something like the rock shrimp risotto isn't something that would be found on the Two Brothers menu before, and I'm happy to have it stay. The fries are a great example, too: We buy the potatoes, wash them, cut them by hand and fry them twice. No cutting corners.
SD: If you were going to cook anything for dinner for yourself and your wife tonight, what would it be?
MC: We usually do a big thing on Sundays and Mondays when we have two days off together — that's a proper weekend, another lifestyle change that wouldn't be common in the fine-dining world. Both of us work in the food business. [Caroline Corrente is a trained pastry chef and a baker at Otter Creek Bakery, two doors down from Two Brothers Tavern.] We do a lot of fresh pasta at home. She's a baker, so maybe she'll make a great loaf of bread if I make a braised-meat dish. Or I'll do savory, and she'll make dessert. It's awesome having a pastry-chef wife.
SD: Any plans to team up in the future?
MC: That's the plan. In some ways, I'd love to pick up where Pistou left off. Hopefully, by the time we get around to it, Middlebury will be ready for it. We just bought a house, so we're not going anywhere.
SD: What is one of your biggest lessons learned in fine dining? How about at Two Brothers?
MC: From fine dining, that food should look as good as it tastes. I love the idea of plating and presentation — that's a lot of my studio art training as well. I love beautiful food. From Two Brothers, I learned to know your audience and your market. You have to know your workers and your customers well.
SD: If you could eat anywhere in the world tonight, where would it be?
MC: I'd like to eat at Alinea [chef Grant Achatz's three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago]. I love to eat at top-tier, best-in-the-world restaurants. Some people like to buy concert tickets or go to big sporting events. I like to eat at fancy restaurants.
SD: What are a few of your most nostalgic foods?
MC: Lasagna has followed me around for most of my childhood. My dad's Italian. It's traditional lasagna with the handmade pasta, Bolognese, béchamel. And there's a Polish dish called kotlety — it's like a meatloaf or meat patty cooked in a pan with some butter. I asked for it every year on my birthday. My mom would make it — her dad, my grandpa, is Polish.
SD: What are your favorite places to eat in Vermont?
MC: I love SoLo Farm & Table [in South Londonderry]. They're doing incredible work there. I love Misery Loves Co. [in Winooski]. I love to eat at [Burlington's] ArtsRiot, as well. George [Lambertson, executive chef] and I worked together at Pistou and had a good time together in the kitchen.
SD: What does Vermont do well in terms of food and drink? What does Vermont need to improve upon?
MC: Our farmers and artisans are world-class. And you see that when you travel the world and find top restaurants serving Vermont cheese. The food scene in Vermont is great, because anything you need, it'll give you. Want to learn artisanal cheesemaking? Vermont can provide that. Want to partner directly with a farmer to grow something for you? Vermont can provide that, too. That's another thing about Vermont: You have friendly farmers that are hardworking, generous and full of gratitude. As a chef, it's up to me to foster those relationships.
One thing I would love to see is a farmers market delivery network. We have the Vermont Fresh Network, which is a wonderful network of people, but getting a middleman with a refrigerated truck to deliver farmers market products to restaurants would be amazing. It's not as idyllic as meandering through the farmers market like you see on [the Netflix series] "Chef's Table," but you can amplify access to local ingredients by creating a delivery mechanism.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Manhattan to Middlebury"