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Vermont spa beckons, but first, to the kitchen

Kerri Bouffard of the New England Culinary Institute leads a class at The Essex, where Butler’s offers gourmet fare.
Kerri Bouffard of the New England Culinary Institute leads a class at The Essex, where Butler’s offers gourmet fare.
By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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ESSEX, Vt. - French bistro. That’s what we would be tackling, a dinner starting with an appetizer of chardonnay-steamed mussels, then moving to steak au poivre, potatoes in truffle oil, sauteed chanterelles, and cherry tomatoes tossed in garlic and olive oil with tiny pattypan squash. The finale would be a fresh berry tart on a bed of lemon curd with apricot glaze.

My inclination was to nibble at each luscious ingredient rather than study its properties, but this was no restaurant. It was a classroom, and we were the students, at least until the lesson was over and we could dig in.

Eating, after all, was the whole idea.

It was the food that had lured my partner, Joe, and me to The Essex, New England’s first (and so far only) full-service culinary resort. What else would people come for? Quite a bit, as we would discover at the reception desk: golf, hiking, fly-fishing, tennis, a workout room, hot air balloon rides, rock climbing, rope courses, zip-lining, swimming, and bicycling. Or guests could zone out on a massage table. It seemed like any other resort, but Jim Glanville, the manager, disagreed.

“If you were taking a guided fly-fishing trip at our resort, you might have that same on-water experience anywhere in the country,’’ he said. “However, for us, this will be accompanied by a gourmet riverside lunch. . . . Or you might take a hot air balloon ride with a resort in Arizona, but for us it might be a sunrise hot air balloon experience with your own private chef in the basket preparing an omelet.’’

The Essex does all this - for a price. Even the cooking classes can be by special order. If we wanted to learn how to make a crepe, say, they would organize a customized crepe-making workshop.

Our class didn’t begin until 4 p.m., so we decided to explore. The Essex is a neo-Colonial complex horseshoed around a flower garden and pond. Built in 1989, when it was called The Inn at Essex, it became a wedding venue, but was better known as a learning lab for the New England Culinary Institute, whose students staffed its two restaurants, the formal (and top-rated) Butler’s, and the Tavern, a casual gathering spot. Though only 10 miles from Burlington, the resort has an out-of-the-way location, with a shopping mall the only nearby attraction.

To solve the isolation problem, the owners added a $6 million indoor pool and spa complex, making the resort its own attraction. The kitchen still buzzes with NECI instructors, but they cook instead of teach, and the student swarm is gone.

Reminders of food radiate from every alcove. Instead of jewelry and scarves, the gift shop sells cookbooks, aprons, and upscale kitchen tools. Photos of garlic and watercress hang from the walls, and glass cabinets display cakes and desserts. We found a little whisk attached to the door of our room, which was spacious, with a Jacuzzi, a gas fireplace, a seating area with good reading lamps, and a 14-page in-room menu. The windows looked out onto an organic garden with a scarecrow dressed up in chef’s whites, complete with toque.

Never one to cook when he can eat out, Joe skipped the class and made for the Tavern. I joined three others, Darlene and Steve Ferran and their son Adam, in the aptly-named “culinary theater,’’ a stainless steel demo kitchen with a handsomely-set table for five. Our instructor, executive chef Peter Pryor, put us to work. Darlene and Adam cut up herbs and vegetables, I zested a lemon, and Steve whisked the eggs. Though a vacationing student on this day, Steve runs the Omni Royal hotel in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

As Pryor turned on the flames, we peppered him with questions. Did he abhor prep work, having worked as “chef tournant,’’ a relief chef who can run any station, at New York’s Tavern on the Green? (He finds it meditative.) Did he ever use a garlic press? (He just mashes the cloves with the side of a knife). We learned about chinoises, black lava salts, and grass-fed Scottish Highland cattle. It contains less fat, he said, and the “earthy flavor comes right through.’’

Pryor pulled the steaks out and set them to searing, tossed the tomato-squash mixture with a jerk of the pan, and stirred the cognac-veal reduction, which, like the tart pastry and the filleted potatoes warming in the oven, had been pre-prepared. Curious guests paused at the window to watch. One food lover went by a few times, hesitated, then sauntered in.

“Man! You guys are killing me,’’ he said, sniffing the air. “Can we eat dinner here?’’

Darlene explained that it was a class, reminding me of something Glanville had said earlier about the resort’s clientele. They generally fall into two categories, he said: the health and wellness set, who pick at the spa menu and work out in the gym, and the hedonists.

Determined to prove myself the former, I resolved to visit the treadmill and pool. Tomorrow. Our dinner was ready, and I couldn’t wait. By the time I got to the tart, I imagined myself in the pool, resting on the water’s surface like a bloated seal.

The next morning the spa complex was blissfully empty, but by the time we returned to the pool, lap swimmers filled the lanes. We retreated to the workout room, testing the treadmill and stationary bicycle.

Joe’s Tavern meal the night before had been good, but not special. I, on the other hand, had yet to break out of my French bistro reverie. Though not a beef eater, I had made an exception for this grass-fed variety, and was glad I did.

The best part of the class was watching Pryor bring it all together, arranging each colorful component on the plate: a slab here, a dribble there, a swirl of sauce on each side, and on top, a frond of parsley placed just so.

The lessons sank in later: Quality ingredients are everything; there’s no such thing as too much butter; and it doesn’t hurt to have a pro do the cooking.

Diane E. Foulds can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

related

If You Go

The Essex Resort & Spa

70 Essex Way

Essex Junction, Vt.

800-727-4295

www.vtculinaryresort.com

Rooms $169-$579. Cooking classes range from $40-$110 per person, and usually include eating the meal. To see the class schedule, go to the website and click on “dining.”