It wasn’t an auspicious start. On Levi Carter’s first day as executive chef at the Clover House Restaurant, he thought “it looked like a burnt-out strip club or something,” recalls the chef. “I walk into the place. And I’m, like, Really, there’s a restaurant here?”
Carter had taken the job after a former New England Culinary Institute colleague — Brent Leary, now of Rustico’s — asked if he’d like to fill the executive-chef position Leary was vacating. Carter gave his two-week notice at the school in Essex, where he was teaching un- and underemployed locals the skills they’d need for kitchen jobs. But when he saw the Clover House, he wasn’t sure he had made the right decision.
Three years later, Carter has spruced up the reputation of the cave-like former dive bar. He says 80 percent of the dishes he sends out of his kitchen are the high-end specials he concocts each week. The other 20 percent are burgers, wings and other pub food.
Carter assures diners he doesn’t serve anything that he doesn’t personally crave. But really, who wants a burger with the brew when there’s Southern-fried quail or paella available? Even grizzled regulars, the chef says, have come around to enjoying some surprisingly haute cuisine.
Carter credits his boss, Clover House owner Doug Simms, with the success of this unconventional juxtaposition. “He’s really the best boss ever,” Carter says. “It’s kind of contagious when you have a good feeling about things.”
Good feelings were scarce in Carter’s early years. Shuttled between family members until he returned to live with an uncle in his native Vermont at age 14, Carter always thrived in the kitchen. His early travels took him as far away as Florida and the Caribbean, where he learned to love seafood. “When I was a little kid, I read the book Stone Soup and tried to make my own,” the chef remembers.
The same uncle got Carter a job washing dishes at his own workplace, the Vermont Pub & Brewery. Throughout high school, Carter worked 40-hour weeks at the pub, moving through the kitchen’s ranks and enjoying the “rock-star life” there far more than advanced algebra classes, he says.
Carter attended NECI with the help of government grants and scholarships, and the degree enabled him to land a job as a line cook at his favorite restaurant, A Single Pebble. “Turns out, cooking Chinese food is really hard, but stuff I learned there I’ll probably be cooking the rest of my life,” the chef says of being mentored by Single Pebble founder Steve Bogart.
Last summer, Carter left the Clover House for three months to answer a call of familial duty: He helped his aunt, JoAnne Paquette, start off right at her business, the Shelburne Steakhouse & Saloon. “My mother’s side of the family are a bunch of restaurant workers,” Carter says. “My brother, everyone works over there at the Steakhouse.” He pauses for effect. “That’s the main reason I don’t work there anymore.”
Back at his home base of three years, Carter can once again work on developing his own style, a unique combination of flavors he learned in warmer climes and down-home Colchester comfort food. To find out more about the man behind the menu at one of Vermont’s most idiosyncratic holes in the wall, we decided to grill Levi Carter.
Seven Days: How did your family eat when you were growing up?
Levi Carter: I grew up with different families and stuff, but most places it was a pretty standard American diet. For a while, I’d go to my grandma’s every night, and she’d make meatloaf or eggplant casserole — that kind of stuff. Green-bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions on top.
SD: Back then, were there any foods you thought were gross?
LC: I loved everything from the time I was a little kid. For my seventh birthday I asked to have escargots for dinner. Because of family problems, I spent five years living with my aunt on St. Croix. Seafood was just huge down there.
SD: Name three foods that make life worth living.
LC: Yellowfin tuna has got to be one of them. I’m a big fan of steak and pretty much any seafood or shellfish. That’s what I eat on a daily basis.
SD: Have you ever eaten something truly weird?
LC: Define weird. I’ve had pigs’ eyes at pig roasts, but I don’t see that as weird. At NECI, we ate pickled tongue.
On St. Croix, we ate doves. It’s a lot like quail. They grill it or roast it over a fire, then add a side of plantains. Delicious.
SD: What’s the last thing you ate?
LC: A Parmesan bagel from Costco. Actually, I highly recommend the bagels there.
SD: What foods are always in your pantry?
LC: I’ve always got a lot of food in my pantry at home, particularly different rices: arborio, brown rice, purple sticky rice. I’ve been on a big bulgur wheat kick lately, too.
SD: If you left Vermont, what local products would you miss most?
LC: It’s so boring, but cheese and maple syrup. No particular brand — whatever you can find at the farmers market you know will be excellent.
They also produce some really good strawberries in that tiny window that we grow them here. After I tried my first local strawberry when I was 18, I vowed never to eat another winter strawberry again. Driscoll’s just doesn’t cut it. Vermont does such a great job with all the produce they grow.
SD: If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
LC: Gordon Ramsay. I know he’s kind of a gimmicky chef, but I saw him do a skate-wing dish on TV the other day that looked pretty delicious.
SD: You’re trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?
LC: Anything seafood. I think it takes a lot more skill than slapping a piece of meat on a grill. Probably yellowfin tuna poached in kalamata vinegar or olive oil. Right now I’m pretty excited about the Portuguese-style grilled rainbow trout I’m running. It’s so simple — just a little sea salt, some lemon — but I love it.
SD: What’s the worst dish you’ve ever created?
LC: I’m not gonna lie. I did a chicken-liver mousse special last week that went over … not very well. It just didn’t sell. I think it was just the wrong audience.
I love making charcuterie. It’s, like, the cheapest thing on the planet to make. It’s meat byproducts, and all it takes is a little technique to make it delicious.
SD: What’s your favorite cookbook?
LC: Culinary Artistry [by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page]. It’s not exactly a cookbook. It’s got really good pairings and lists of the 10 best things to pair with different items. It’s what I use most often. It allows you to be more creative than just following a recipe.
The French Laundry Cookbook [by Thomas Keller] is beautiful, but you need a week and a whole team of chefs to make a sauce, then strain it 17 times, then throw it away and start over.
SD: Name a local restaurant that you patronize.
LC: I live in Bristol, so I go to the Bobcat every now and then. Even when it was in Barre, I was faithful to A Single Pebble. Their ma po tofu is like nothing else.
SD: What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
LC: By the time the music comes on, I’m out of here. We try to concentrate on what we’re doing. You’re not cooking if you’re playing around with the iPod.
SD: If you weren’t a chef, what would your job be?
LC: Something outdoors, for sure. Professional surfer, maybe. I guess that’s assuming I didn’t live in Vermont.
SD: What are your hobbies?
LC: I like fishing and gardening and playing with my 18-month-old daughter.
One of the main reasons I have a garden is the restaurant. Nothing is better than charging someone $9 for a tomato salad that didn’t cost me anything.
I always grow more tomatoes than I need to — they’ll get used in sauces and stuff. I also grow zucchini and use them together in ratatouille.
SD: What’s your most embarrassing favorite food?
LC: Chicken wings. Definitely chicken wings. The ones you get for free at T Bones in Colchester during happy hour. Really, any free cocktail samples.
SD: What do you think is the strangest thing about American food habits?
LC: Portion sizes. Everybody eats these really, really giant portions. I give people what they want at the restaurant, but I try to steer away from it myself. Not with much luck. I try to feed my daughter more meals a day but smaller portions.