Written by Carrie Abels
Chef Eric Warnstedt would rather switch to an entirely different line of work than run a restaurant that’s not committed to local food. At 38 years old, he’s been cooking since he was 21, always at restaurants that skew local – “so there’s simply never been another option.”
“Nowadays it’s pretty easy to buy anything from the global pantry and get it sent here,” he says, “but that’s not very challenging or interesting to me.”
What’s challenging and interesting to Warnstedt – chef and co-owner at Hen of the Wood restaurant in Waterbury and Burlington – is working with the 50-or-so local and regional suppliers to his kitchen: farms, creameries, breweries, bakeries…even the tables at Hen of the Wood are made locally.
He loves the partnerships he builds with places such as Fresh Tracks Game Farm, Wood Mountain Fish, Hill Farmstead Brewery and many others, listing his suppliers as “friends” on his website. To be sure, coordinating to make sure all of their raw ingredients make it to his kitchen on time is challenging, he says, but the biggest challenge when buying local? Keeping his prices low enough to attract customers, high enough to make a profit, and fair enough to support his suppliers.
“At the end of the day, the toughest thing is cost, and that has to be transferred to the customer,” he says. “I can definitely say that we have a much smaller profit margin than Outback Steakhouse or Applebee’s.”
And his food is just the opposite of what you’d find there. It’s been described as luscious, velvety, brilliant, even challenging. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote that his experience at the Hen generated feelings of “satisfaction, fulfillment, culinary pleasure and near-joy.” Recognizing Warnstedt’s achievements, the James Beard Foundation made him either a semi-finalist or a nominee for Best Chef in the Northeast in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The tactile and rustic nature of Hen of the Wood’s food is even reflected in photographs found on the restaurant’s website. Recently there was a photo of a freshly felled deer strewn over the back of a mountain bike. There was also an image of two pigs hanging by their hocks, ready to be skinned and butchered.
Warnstedt says that when you serve a lot of local food – which tends to be seasonal – you have to change your menu a lot. “It’s tough to stay motivated in terms of menu planning,” he admits. Still, his 9-year-old Waterbury restaurant (co-owned with William McNeil) opened a Burlington satellite in 2013, adjacent to the Hotel Vermont – which presumably means that Warnstedt has to do even more menu planning now.
Hen of the Wood, so emblematic of the pastoral farm-to-table movement in Vermont, may go as far as a restaurant can to showcase the state’s bounty. For some people, the commitment to local may be a revelation. For Warnstedt, who has lived in Vermont since 1999, it’s just what is.
“For a lot of people here, this is just the way we live our lives normally,” he says – though not all of us can cook like the folks at Hen of the Wood.