Much of a chef's work lies in balancing competing demands: Order ample ingredients to satisfy your nightly cover counts while ensuring there's little or nothing left over. Create menus that are approachable yet interesting. Keep costs in check, but don't spend too little, or your guests will fail to see the value in their meal. And, of course, there's the be-all and end-all: Make food that sells.
That balancing act is familiar to chef Sean Patrick Morrison, who took the reins at Plate in Stowe last April, replacing chef Aaron Martin, who had led the kitchen since its opening in 2014. When Morrison took over, he had to build his menu around certain requests: Don't mess with the veggie burger (he didn't); leave the vegan hearts-of-palm "crab cakes" alone (he did).
But he was also hired to put a fresh spin on the restaurant's California-style cookery.
"I try to touch on all the different cultures in California, while using as much of Vermont as I can," Morrison told Seven Days last week. "Why can't I do a [Vietnamese-style] pho that showcases radishes from [Wolcott's] Sandiwood Farm and mustard greens from Naked Acre Farm [in Hyde Park] with a broth using mushrooms my forager brought me?" he went on. "It's not so much about having avocado in everything."
Morrison talked with us about seasonality, hipster line cooks and the joy of eating Haribo Gold-Bears.
SEVEN DAYS: Where did you grow up, and how did your family eat back then?
SEAN PATRICK MORRISON: I grew up outside of Boston, in Woburn, [Mass.] We were a typical blue-collar Boston family — my dad worked, my mom worked. Weekly dinners were planned out, so it was mac and cheese on Monday, fish sticks on Tuesday, roast chicken on Wednesday.
But, at a very young age, I knew this was what I wanted to do. My dad was a big bookworm, and we'd go to Barnes & Noble on weekends. I'd just camp out in the cookbook section. I'd spend hours flipping through cookbooks, not really understanding anything, just looking at the pictures. It was like, You can eat rabbit? That's cool. "Mom, can we eat rabbit?"
SD: What did you have for breakfast today?
SPM: My 1-year-old really likes Cheerios. So, when I'm feeding him breakfast, he's feeding me Cheerios back. But, being a chef, breakfast is usually an afterthought. Sometimes I'll go to Waterbury for an egg sandwich at Hender's Bake Shop [& Café] — [owner] Jess [Wright]'s egg sandwiches are like crack.
SD: How do you marry the roles of chef and father when feeding your boy?
SPM: We're really lucky with our son. He'll try anything, and if he doesn't like it, he'll let us know. We'll try it again a few days later, and if he doesn't like it again, we're like, OK, cool. My wife took him to Bluebird Barbecue the other day, and it was the first time he'd had slow-roasted pork. He just housed it. When it was time to leave, he cried because he wanted more pork. One of my most joyful moments as a parent was the first time he had bacon. Just the look on his face ... He gets super giggly when I'll pull out the home-cured bacon, like, Oh, yeah, that's coming my way.
SD: Tell me a bit about your menu-planning process.
SPM: I'm a big believer in having my farmers and foragers dictating to me what I should have on the menu, as opposed to me telling them what I want to have ready at a certain time. Spring kind of starts with the sap running. Then we have late spring with ramps and fiddleheads and the first mushrooms. Then leafy greens, small fruits and vegetables in early summer. As you get toward the late summer, there's this mix of summer and fall at the same time. So it's figuring how to utilize delicata squash at the same time as a green zebra [tomato].
SD: What are a few of your staple, year-round ingredients?
SPM: Some form of a mushroom, whether it's a plain button mushroom or something my forager brought in. I like to utilize mushrooms in a lot of different ways. I also like lemon and thyme — so, using lemon peel and thyme when basting a duck breast. If you get the caramelizing right, you get this thing that's a little nutty, and it's just so, so good. I sneak a lot of fish sauce into dishes. I like the way it can manipulate a flavor profile without anyone knowing you used it.
SD: What's on your agenda for spring?
SPM: We're kind of just starting to talk about spring changes right now. But I'm going to be putting on a great new steak tataki dish, that's for certain. I am also really excited to be doing one or two dinners up at Sandiwood, and to do a couple pop-ups and outside dinners over the course of summer and into the fall.
SD: Anything fun you're experimenting with right now?
SPM: I'm trying to explore different ways to make new flavors from root vegetables — so, whether it's coal-roasting beets or ash-brining celery root or hot-smoking carrots to make a carrot gravlax kind of thing. It's that time of year when that's really all you have to play with. It's one thing to do a beet salad, but if you can do it where some are pickled-roasted and some are shaved and some are roasted on embers with orange peel, then it's more interesting.
SD: Any ingredients that are just too played out?
SPM: I'd like to see people move away from microgreens and mini this and toy-box that. Use garnishes and ingredients that make sense. Why stop the growth of a squash because you want a [tiny] toy-box squash? There's a place for micro beets, but I ate a bowl of clam chowder the other day, and it had micro arugula on it. Why did you just waste money putting that into hot soup when it doesn't play anything into the texture or flavor?
SD: What are your best-loved cookbooks?
SPM: The books that are going into the ground with me would be [The] Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz [and Peter Kaminsky] and Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child — [my copy] is signed by her, and it was my grandmother's. So there's all my grandmother's weird little notes in the margins. Also, it's not a cookbook, but [Leda] Meredith's Northeast Foraging [120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles From Beach Plums to Wineberries]. It's the most comprehensive, and it breaks it down practically county by county. And, of course, for pretty much every cook in my generation, the bible was and always will be The French Laundry Cookbook.
SD: What's on the kitchen radio?
SPM: We call ourselves the Island of Misfit Cooks. So my morning prep guy, Andrew, will have anything from Bad Brains to Bad Religion. Then my sauté guy, Ryan, comes in, and it's Black Star and Mos Def. And I have a grill guy who's into the [Grateful] Dead and Phish. It's really all over the place.
SD: Any kitchen pet peeves?
SPM: I always tell my cooks to live by the seven Ps: Proper prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance. So you're constantly thinking ahead. Also: organization and communication. It's one thing to have backups for your backup's backups, but I want labels with sublabels, and sublabels for the sublabels. We go through a lot of kitchen tape.
Another big pet peeve of mine — and something I had a hard time with as a young cook — was asking for help before you need it. So, being able to recognize when you're about to get into the shits. I've had cooks with really fancy handmade knife rolls and exquisite tattoos all over their forearms and the right haircut, but they were never organized or prepared. I hate hipster cooks.
SD: It's Sunday night, and you're relaxing over a drink. Where and what are you drinking?
SPM: I'm home. Depending on the week, it's either two fingers of Lagavulin 16[-year-old Scotch] with an ice cube, or I'm splitting a bottle of [sour ale from] Backacre [Beermakers in Weston] with my wife. I like to consider myself a beer geek, and I get the love affair with Heady Topper, but I'm a bigger fan of sours.
SD: When you're not working, any hobbies?
SPM: Fly-fishing — or fishing in general. And my hammock and I are inseparable in the summer.
SD: Any edible guilty pleasures?
SPM: Gummy candy. I'm a sucker for Haribo gummy bears and Welch's Fruit Snacks. It's a sad, sad addiction.