WALPOLE, N. H. -- In the last decade, a lot has happened to this once-sleepy New England town. At one point, people thought it wasn't close enough to Interstate 91 to attract tourists. You came here if you lived here. That is, until filmmaker Ken Burns set up shop in the early 1990s. Larry and Paula Burdick also moved to the town at around the same time, opening L. A. Burdick Chocolate, a stylish shop with an outpost in Harvard Square in Cambridge. Burdick's array of handmade sweets soon had a cult following nationwide.
Three years ago, the chocolate maker and the filmmaker got together and decided that what the town needed was a beautiful restaurant. They moved the popular chocolate shop -- it had a cafe at this point -- across Main Street to larger premises and opened a restaurant. A local chef took charge at the stove, and he's still there. But the owners were looking for another chef -- someone with just the right fit -- to run the kitchen. They put an ad on the Internet.
"I'm a Luddite," says Michael Ehlenfeldt, 37, who would never be doing computer searches -- for anything -- on his own. A friend saw the ad. "Small country restaurant looking for a chef to do a French theme with potential for a charcuterie," remembers Ehlenfeldt, who was sous chef of Hamersley's Bistro in the South End at the time and perfectly content. He called "just for fun." Now Ehlenfeldt and his wife of three years, Cynthia, 43, are chef and general manager, respectively, of L. A. Burdick. They've been there for almost 10 weeks.
"So far, so good," says the chef. He loves dealing with the local farmers. Twelve supply him cheese; three bring produce. "I'm trying to be mostly French-influenced and use as much local product as I can." The Burdicks told the Ehlenfeldts "to run the restaurant as if it's your own," so that's what they do, says the chef. It is a storefront establishment with lots of light, kraft paper on the tables, and many brown and tan accents. The only other color is white.
"The potential here is tremendous," says Michael Ehlenfeldt. "That's what drove us to do it." He cooks lunch and dinner almost daily, plus Sunday brunch. He might roast cod and offer it with oyster mushrooms and a sorrel sauce. His grilled skirt steak is garnished with new potatoes and asparagus. "My style isn't real crazy and super inventive," he says. "I try to take a few simple ingredients and make them as well as I can. I like flavors to be clean and fresh and bright."
As for life in Walpole, the chef and manager don't really know what it's like. They're working 75-hour weeks, so they only get out when they're driving to and from the house they bought in Charlestown, N. H., 13 miles north.
As it happens, their rides in the country occur in the middle of the night.
SHERYL JULIANL. A. Burdick is at 47 Main St. (Route 12), Walpole Center, Walpole, N.H., 603-756-9058.