A conversation with two of Montpelier’s best self-taught chefs

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Crystal Maderia, chef/owner of Kismet, and Mathew Bilodeau, head chef at the Black Door, to chat about their recent collaboration in the form of a series of seasonal tasting dinners. The first part of the interview appears in today’s Times-Argus. Here’s the rest…

What do you like about these dinners?
Mathew Bilodeau: It’s nice to work with someone else to have input, because you can get kind of lonely, putting together everything by yourself without any outside influence. It’s really great working with someone. I showed up with a menu with for the next dinner, and then after sitting down for a couple of hours with Crystal, it’s leaps and bounds better than it was—not that it wasn’t good to begin with, it just works really well. There’s so much food out there, so much to draw on, sometimes you forget that something even exists, and the other person is there to throw it back at you. It comes together well, and it’s fun, and this is why I cook.

Crystal Maderia: There’s a lot of sacrifices that you have to make if you’re working in a restaurant, if working with food is your skill and your craft. You have to make sacrifices when you make a menu because people will order whatever they want off the of menu and sometimes make combinations that I wouldn’t necessarily want them to make. Plus, you don’t get to have an interaction with them to see if they really truly enjoyed it, or how it could be better.
Also, I create menus for weddings and special events and I really enjoy that, but usually it’s on such a large scale—like for two hundred guests—that we lose a lot of the details of individual dishes. So having a small group that we can both interact with—we get to do it the way we want to do it.

What thoughts do you have for home cooks who are starting to embrace local foods?
Crystal: My answer is pretty simple. I think it’s easiest to just stay with those ingredients. Don’t try to be too complicated at first. Meat and vegetables are a great meal. A lot of people, especially in America, have forgotten that you don’t need to have bread or rice or pasta to make the base of a meal. Meat and vegetables alone, just those flavors by themselves, salt and pepper, some nice olive oil…

Mathew: …certainly simplicity, and as you learn the simple preparations of your vegetables, choosing your favorites, and then expanding. I could do celeriac ten ways. When you’re eating locally, there’s no compromise in freshness, there’s no compromise in quality—when you’re buying from people who care, it’s going to taste better. Take that in as a consumer, treat it for what it is, and expand on it later. Start in simplicity.

Crystal: Don’t underestimate the relationship between the consumer and the producer. The farmers know the best what to do with their food. Ask them.
And get proper utensils and tools. One good saute pan, a steamer. Every kitchen should have a cast iron skillet, I think.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the “Warmth in the Winter” menu series?
Crystal: Because it is during the holiday season, we’re wanting to bring in the feeling of celebration. We’re talking about the idea of gifts being translated into parcels, like food parcels of some sort, and finding what that means for each of the areas. Something exquisite for each of the areas, something really unique and special, a once-a-year sort of thing. We’ll use traditional cooking methods from each of the regions, so we might be using local ingredients but with a traditional preparation.

Mathew: I’ll be heavily influenced by the origin, the history, the reason why it’s special, why it’s part of a celebration dinner. Learning why that food is there, what course of history it took to become a special item, whether it be that the season is short or that with the arrival of someone from another country, this became a prominent flavor, and so on. It’s a college thesis (laugh).

Crystal: We’ll share stories and folklore, which is exciting for both of us because that’s what inspires us to learn new recipes and new ways of cooking.

Mathew: It’s a step away from the functionality of food. It’s so much more than that. It’s an experience.

Reservations are currently being accepted for the Warmth in the Winter dinners in November, December, and January. Dinners are $100 per person. Call Kismet at 223-8646 or check out the blog at kismetkitchen.com for more details.