Over the years, Jeff Egan worked his way up to the role of executive chef, but he doesn’t let the toque go to his head. He prefers “Jeff” to “Chef Egan” (don’t even think about calling him “Chef Jeff”), and, when asked about his accomplishments running the kitchens at the Cliff House and The Bee’s Knees, he talks about his crew instead.
“I’m just one person,” Egan says. “My job is to put together a team [of people] who believe in themselves: My role is just to empower people.”
It’s no surprise that he comes from a background in community organizing. For years, Egan worked as an environmental activist in Canada, spending his time trying to save forests and wildlife from destruction.
But even before he became an activist, Egan was a foodie. When he was growing up in Massachusetts, his family sat down to dinner every night, and Egan could often be found helping his mom make her famous apple cake. “I didn’t like the apple cake, but I liked the batter,” he recalls. “I later realized that [the batter] was full of rum.”
At the newly renovated The Bee’s Knees, Egan is building on owner Sharon Deitz’s well-loved favorites. “The [restaurant’s] classics have been influenced by every person who has cooked in the kitchen, and by the community,” he explains. “It’s a community-built restaurant: They’ve created the space, created the menu with their feedback, created the feel.”
And right now, community members are digging his simple-yet-elegant localvore cuisine, from cinnamon-raisin-bread baked French toast with walnut-honey butter to daily dinner specials.
Since The Bee’s Knees just celebrated its grand reopening, we decided to put Jeff Egan on the grill.
How did your family eat when you were growing up?
I’m grateful for my mum’s desire to see new things and experience the world. I had a pomegranate at age 9, and tried a mango before everybody else.
My dad’s family is meat and potatoes, and one day my mum looked at him and said, “If you want to eat meat and potatoes, you cook.” He came around. A peak experience in my life was eating lobster and steamers [with my family] on Cape Cod after surreptitiously making a hole in the sand and making a fire, which was against the law. That informed my cooking more than anything else: the pleasure of very simple food. I’ll probably never beat those meals. The hospitality and welcoming and the warmth that define food — I really thank my family for that.
Back then, were there any foods you just detested?
Baked apples, but I’ve come around on those. I didn’t like Boston baked brown bread with raisins in it, but anything else, I pretty much jumped into it. I can’t think of anything else I just didn’t like, although I can picture myself trying to hide the peas under the plate.
Name three foods that make life worth living.
What’s the weirdest dish you’ve tried?
It doesn’t seem weird to me now, but I spent two months in Honduras on an exchange program and had mondongo, a Latin American tripe soup.
As a 17-year-old, opening a can of tripe soup and seeing this honeycomb thing pour out in my plate, and having the whole family go “Mmm-mm,” was strange, but “when in Rome.” Even if it’s out of my experience, I’ll always jump in and try something. I haven’t eaten [mondongo] again. With all the nasty bits, it’s super labor intensive to get it right.
When you have time to cook at home, what do you make?
The new entrées at The Bee’s Knees are how I cook at home, but maybe a little more stripped down. The last meal Jess [Graham, his girlfriend] and I made, we just picked up some semolina and made pasta — it’s an activity we can do together that we enjoy. We made it with Italian parsley, red onions and Vermont Butter & Cheese feta; a simple bottle of wine.
Being able to sit down and eat in a chair in my house is just nice.
What foods are always in your pantry?
Sriracha [Thai hot sauce]; at this time of year, beets; I have some apple butter that we made in fall in the freezer; bacon. I started making bacon recently.
Imagine you have an all-expenses-paid trip to any country you want to eat in. Where do you go?
I would go to the Basque region in Spain; there’s a slice of Celtic culture there. It’s this really funky, cider-driven, crazy food culture.
You can cook for anybody, alive or dead. Whom do you choose, and what would you make?
I would probably cook for my grandmother and grandfather, my mum’s father and mother. And probably for my dad’s father and mother, because I never got to meet my dad’s mom, but I got to know both my mom’s parents.
I’d probably cook lobsters and steamers on the beach in Cape Cod. I would love to be able to sit down with my grandmother — who I was very close to — and share that things have worked out the way they should. It’s nice to cook with people and for people that you love.
Any disaster stories?
At the Cliff House, the dinner series was a constant challenge. We’d throw stuff on menus we didn’t know how to make, and we put them on so we would learn how to make them. I’m not a pastry chef, and I’d take on stuff like ice cream that wouldn’t set up in time.
There was the one where we had guinea hen and rabbit at the same time, and when we’d plated them, we realized they were both white. That was a disaster. We try and laugh about it now. The thing is not to let the whole culinary team come crashing down over something that’s happening right then. Once we had to take a Sno-Cat up to do inventory and it broke down. I’m in clogs, Brian [Clark, Cliff House general manager] is in loafers, and we’re walking up the mountain. Being down at street level makes it easier at times.
Which two cookbooks should every home cook own?
Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking — we’ll call that one book. It’s such a work of love and beautifully conveys thought-out stuff in detail. Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand.
If you weren’t a chef, what would your job be?
I’d probably be one of the things I’ve been in the past: either a documentary photographer or an environmental activist.
I came to cheffing because I burned out as an environmental activist. It was high cost: If you screwed up, you lost 1000 acres of primeval forest. If you screw up at a restaurant, it’s a meal. The common thread in all my work is high energy, engaging with the natural world, being in the moment.
Name a local restaurant that you patronize.
I grew up eating diner food, in Lowell, Mass. Sunday morning was eating a plate of French toast on green melamine.
Name a few local products you eat at home.
Any cheese from Bonnieview Farm; Misty Knoll [poultry]; Boyden beef I use in the restaurant and eat at home as well; local dairy; [meat from] Winding Brook Farm. I always have Cold Hollow cider — it’s sort of a liquid meal; Vermont Coffee [Company’s] dark roast; and Pete’s Greens, because Jess and I have the share.
What is something every restaurant patron should know but doesn’t?
My attitude toward patrons is that they’re why I’m here. I’m just grateful that they come in, and they may not know that. The rest of the team and I are here to be of service.
I don’t exist as a chef if there aren’t guests, and I’m happy they come to this restaurant. I don’t do anything I don’t love.
Can you tell me a fact about you that might surprise people?
I used to be a hippie. People will be, like, “What?” I used to go to Rainbow gatherings and all that kind of stuff.
What are your hobbies?
Mountain biking, skiing and hanging out with my girlfriend, who has been very patient. I’m feeling really blessed to live in a place where I can put on backcountry skis and ski Mount Elmore. And barbecuing.
Do you have a favorite food that you’d consider a guilty pleasure?
Personally, I don’t do guilt — I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and I know what guilt can do — but the thing everybody shakes their head at is microwave burgers from Cumberland Farms.
Restaurant: The Bee’s Knees
Restaurant Age: 5
Cuisine type: Neighborhood casual focused on Vermont ingredients.
Training: 12 years in kitchens; “being lucky to work with really good chefs over the years.”
Selected experience: Apprentice at the Fairmont Hotel, Toronto (1998-1999); cook at a tree-planting camp, Northern Alberta (2002); Chef de Cuisine, Cliff House at Stowe Mountain Resort, Stowe (2006-2008); Executive Chef, Vermont Discovery Cruises, Burlington (2008). What’s on the menu: baked French toast, seitan cheese-steak, Blair’s chicken goat cheese pot pie; Winding Brook Farm pork loin with spinach, corn spoon bread, crispy shallots, and maple sweet-and-sour sauce.
It's awesome to see this sort of mentality and food progress being pursued in Middlebury.