Middlebrook Road, off Route 244 near Lake Fairlee, traces the path of its willow-lined namesake stream through a wildflower meadow. It passes several old dairy farms before climbing into the hills via stomach-wrenching curves.
In 2013, Adam Dosz left his job as a sous chef for prolific Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr and moved to a family property in Fairlee. He rustled up kitchen equipment and built dining-room tables, planted gardens and hired local kids to wait tables. And, in January 2014, Dosz opened Middlebrook Restaurant. The menu draws on his Hungarian and Italian heritage. Ingredients come from the restaurant's garden and a few nearby farms.
But the venue's story goes back about 20 years more.
In the early 1990s, Upper Valley food impresarios Michael O'Donnell and John Quimby had opened a restaurant — called the Middlebrook — where Dosz cooks today. It was one of a few local dinner spots to begin sourcing ingredients directly from farms. The restaurant's quaint setting and Quimby's fresh, seasonal cooking earned a devoted following of locals and summer residents in the nearby camps and lake houses. But the Middlebrook closed in 2004.
Meantime, several hundred miles to the south, Dosz was working his way up the food-industry ladder. As a high school kid in the '90s, he cut fish on the docks and at delis near his Chesapeake Bay home. Later, while working for a major meat and seafood distributor in Maryland, he visited factory farms and huge meatpacking facilities.
After the first Middlebrook closed, Dosz's family bought the property, which included 115 acres, a historic home and the restaurant's shell. Over the years, the expense and effort of maintaining the place became untenable for the family. Yet no one wanted to sell.
So Dosz hung up his big-city chef's jacket and moved to Fairlee. At the outset of Middlebrook's third summer in business, the chef stole a moment to chat with Seven Days about foggy-morning fishing, goat meat and the importance of garlic.
SEVEN DAYS: Where did you grow up, and how did your family eat back then?
ADAM DOSZ: Maryland. My father is Hungarian [and] a very good cook; he grew up in a small village, and he kind of brought Eastern European food to the family. My mother is half Italian. So that's what I grew up with. And, of course, living on the bay and being a fisherman, seafood was always a big thing to me. So I brought a lot of that into the family.
SD: As a kid, were there foods you didn't like?
AD: Not really. I would go to school with this brown paper bag that would smell like garlic, and all I wanted was to be that kid with the bologna sandwich. My father grew up in a really poor village in Hungary. So it was ingrained in us early on: We were required to finish our dinner. On the plus side, I tried a lot of things and learned to like things that some kids would have to put cheese on in order to eat. But now, I have family in Hungary and we butcher a pig every Christmas. They use the entire pig — they make head cheese and things, but I've never eaten brains. It's a little too personal, I guess.
SD: What did you have for breakfast today?
AD: Blueberries and some asparagus. And I had a piece of cake because yesterday was my birthday. I tried to get a couple vegetables in, but it was mainly cake.
SD: As a newcomer, how did you reintroduce Middlebrook to locals?
AD: I became friends with John Quimby, who was the chef [at the original Middlebrook]. That was the 1990s, before "farm-to-table" was a phrase. They were some of the first people to do that up here. I took that really seriously. It was part of my drive to do well.
Once I opened and word got around, I was kind of surprised by how excited people were. But, even now, people come in like, Oh, I had no idea you were open. It's a challenging thing to take on. Because we are kind of off the beaten path.
SD: What did you learn that first year as a restaurant owner?
AD: It was exciting and pretty stressful. Like with anything, it's a learning curve, but for the executive chefs I worked for, I don't know that I ever saw them touch a pan. The sous chefs oversee everything. So I had run large kitchens before, and I was confident in my experience.
But being in a place that's kind of a summer vacation spot, with people with summer lake houses — that was all new. It's the hardest I've ever worked, but it's the happiest I've ever been. If I put in 70 hours, it's for my family and myself and for the kids in the neighborhood. That feels a lot better than working for some guy who owns 10 restaurants.
SD: How do you weather the slow winter months?
AD: Originally, we [planned] to be open year-round, but that proved to be too much of an undertaking, and not just from a customer point of view. One of the biggest challenges has been staffing [in a rural area]. But I've found a good group of kids from the neighborhood who come home and work during summer break.
At the end of August, a lot of my staff leaves. It's just me in the kitchen, but we stay open [with limited hours] through the end of the year. New Year's is usually our last night. We'll do private events and Valentine's Day and things like that, but from January through mud season, there's not a lot of people around. And there's no staff, and the produce is all imported. So, for a lot of reasons, it doesn't make sense to [stay open].
SD: What's new at Middlebrook this season?
AD: We are starting a Thursday Pub Night. It's a stripped-down menu — everything is still sourced locally, but it's grass-fed burgers and fries and chicken wings. We built a wood-fired pizza oven, so we're doing pizzas. And we're having live music.
It's a little less expensive than the other nights. Like the ground beef — we grind our own, but it's cheaper than filet or whatever. I have customers who say they wish they could eat here more, but it's pricey. I couldn't eat at a place like this often, so it was a chance to offer something to the community for a lower price, to make it more casual and have a local band play. Plus, we wanted to use the pizza oven.
SD: Do you have a favorite season for cooking?
AD: My favorite time of year is spring, when I'm planting. As far as harvesting and cooking, I love when the berries come in and when our broccoli and potatoes come in. I grew a ton of heirloom garlic this year, and I'm getting scapes now. That's a tough question to answer, because every few weeks there's something to look forward to.
SD: What do you grow that's specific to the restaurant?
AD: We use a lot of broccolini and Brussels sprouts, so I grow a lot of those. Fingerling and multicolor potatoes and carrots, which I'm just starting to pick now. And fava beans and French beans, which aren't ready yet.
I have an entire garden [of] potatoes, garlic and carrots, and another with spinach and tomatoes and peppers and beets and squash. And a little garden of blueberry trees and sour cherries — those are starting now. It's all stuff I like and that we use.
SD: What are a few of your staple, year-round ingredients?
AD: Vermont has great cheesemakers and we use lots of cheese year-round. And potatoes and garlic and carrots. And lettuces that I grow inside when I can't grow them outside.
SD: Any particular farms you'd like to give a shout-out?
AD: Crossroad Farm is down the street from us — they really have fantastic produce. And Rabbit Patch Farm in Bradford. It's a small operation, but they raise goats, and that's where I've gotten my goat meat. I'm a big fan of goat. For some reason in this country it's not very big or well-known, but I think it's fantastic. They have their goats hanging out with their dogs and the rest of the family. The better life you give an animal, the better the meat will be.
SD: Any ingredient or cooking style that you're super into right now?
AD: My latest kick, though it's not a new one, is smoking fish and charcuterie and sausages. I love doing that. You can play with it so much — season it any way you want. There are basic ingredients like salt or sugar — or, in my case, maple syrup — that you have to put in, but, outside of that, the sky is the limit. So that's fun to play with.
SD: Tell me about the little market adjacent to the restaurant.
AD: That's opening [for the season] on July 2. We'll have lots of prepared foods and salads, and we sell some of our produce and breads and sweets. On July 3, we're doing a big cookout with salads and burgers and smoked meats and stuff. We'll have a live band outside. And I'm going to put on a really big fireworks show. I'm pretty excited for that.
SD: What are some of your best-loved cookbooks?
AD: Of the newer ones, I like this cookbook called Jerusalem [by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi]. It's by an Israeli guy and a Palestinian guy, so that's interesting from a social point of view. But it's about the foods of that area, and I've been really into that lately. But before that I was reading about cheesemaking. We have our cookbooks on display for our customers in the restaurant. I'll often browse them and grab one.
SD: What's on the kitchen radio?
AD: Right now it's Tom Petty. Can't go wrong with Tom Petty!
SD: Any kitchen pet peeves?
AD: When people wash things, if they don't dry it fully, that would be a pet peeve of mine. I hate picking up something that still has water on it. And not closing the door. I really hate flies, so whenever people come in, I'm quick to have them close the door. But that's about it. As far as chefs go, I'm a pretty mellow guy. There's no yelling in my kitchen — I just don't see a need for it.
SD: To borrow a question from Vanity Fair: What is your greatest extravagance — in food or life in general?
AD: It doesn't sound very indulgent, but fishing. I make myself get up early in the morning and go. It's not so much about catching a fish; it's a very therapeutic, tranquil early-morning thing. With the fog on the lake and it's quiet ... it's not a financial indulgence, but it's something I do often and feel like I need to do. That and gardening.
SD: It's Sunday night, and you're relaxing over a drink. Where and what are you drinking?
AD: Probably on my couch, probably drinking a fruit smoothie.
SD: Go-to special occasion dinner destination?
AD: I wish I could say I had one, but I haven't had the time. I'm not just the chef: I do all the gardening; I mow the lawn. My partner, Melissa, ran the front of the house, but this season she's working on [another] project. So I'm taking on much of that. We eat extremely well, but it's rare that I get to sit down and have someone bring me food.
SD: When you're not working, any hobbies?
AD: I write music. That and fishing are my two biggest hobbies.
SD: Any edible guilty pleasures?
AD: Funyuns. I used to have a problem with Funyuns. I'd buy a large bag, and it was always in my car. I haven't eaten them in a while, but I still love them. And gummy colas. That's been my latest. I love those!
SD: What's one food you couldn't live without?
AD: Garlic. And black or green pepper. That's the essence of everything I do with food. I get the freshest food possible and add a little bit of those, and a few other things. It'd be hard to live without garlic.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Renaissance Man"