Grilling the Chef: Mike Orfan, Rustic Roots
The same question has been on a lot of diners’ minds lately at Rustic Roots: “What the hell is fennel bacon?”
The short answer is that it’s Canadian bacon coated in dried, ground peas. The longer answer is that the comparatively low-fat cured meat — and other specialties like it — is what brought chef-owner Mike Orfan to Vermont.
Frustrated with fine dining, the New Jersey charcuterie specialist bought the quiet Shelburne spot known as the Lemon Peel Café & Crêperie last fall, when he heard that previous owner Rob Scharf was looking to sell within two weeks. Orfan’s goal was to exercise his meaty skills somewhere like Vermont, where diners “have more of an understanding and more patience,” he says. That also means a love of local, which the chef shares with his new customers.
Orfan had already come close to moving to Vermont for a job at the planned Michael’s on the Hill-owned restaurant at Montpelier’s Black Door Bar & Bistro. After that fell through, he kept looking for the right time and place to bring his cuisine to the Green Mountains.
Since he made his quick decision to buy and left his longtime position as chef de cuisine at New Jersey’s Rat’s Restaurant, Orfan has slowly been remaking the “ladies-who-lunch” crêpe spot into a bastion of handcrafted, French-inflected brunch specialties.
Last weekend, Orfan completed the transformation from the Lemon Peel with a new name and new logo. The name Rustic Roots, he says, embodies the from-scratch ethos of his kitchen.
Orfan’s signature Rustic Breakfast is an edible expression of the ideas that brought him to Vermont. The aforementioned lean, smoky bacon is presented along with a sweet and earthy coffee-maple sausage, creamy scrambled eggs and a crisp, puffy popover spread with herbed butter.
Rustic Roots serves both breakfast and lunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and customers could be forgiven for wanting to wake up to the hickory-smoked-chicken sandwich. The firm poultry blends with bacon, bloomy Brie and sticky onion jam spread on both sides of thick slabs of lightly sweet, housemade focaccia. Even the salad that comes with it bursts with character in the form of lemon-Parmesan vinaigrette tossed with juicy local lettuce.
For now, meals are limited to breakfast and lunch. But in February, Orfan began hosting near-monthly dinners. The seven courses at April’s communally served Celebration of Spring, presented with Shelburne Vineyard, included galantine of rabbit, nettles and blackberry; and a lamb porterhouse with minted-pea purée and smoked-potato coins.
“People were hugging at the end of the dinner,” Orfan recalls. “From a chef’s point of view, that’s exactly what you want — to unite guests.”
Once he’s settled into the new menu that accompanies the new name, the chef will begin serving weekly small-plate dinners featuring charcuterie and other petite dishes paired with beer.
How will the meat master fare on our grill? We turned up the heat to find out.
SEVEN DAYS: How did your family eat when you were growing up?
MIKE ORFAN: I come from kind of a large family — I’m the oldest of four. We did a lot of easy food. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad was a chemist for Wrigley. He was traveling the world doing something important, I assume. Mom came from an even larger family, and she fell back on things that could feed all of us and [that] Dad could heat up when he got home, like pasta and baked dishes.
SD: Were you always a foodie?
MO: I always enjoyed eating as a kid, and I’ve always enjoyed the process of making [food]. I’ve always liked working with my hands. I have a mechanical mind, if you will. I enjoyed doing it and experimenting.
I think that [my dad] designed the bases for the [Wrigley] gum. We had so much gum in the house. He used to bring cool stuff from different countries — some other gum, like mango, that you didn’t see in America. Asians have a whole different palate than we do.
SD: Back then, were there any foods you thought were gross?
MO: The one thing I still can’t eat to this day is cornbread. It must have been some traumatic childhood experience. I don’t know if it’s a texture thing. I don’t know what it is.
SD: Name three foods that make life worth living.
MO: In their necessary order: gummy bears, sour cream and Snyder’s [of Hanover] mini twist pretzels. Usually I start with sweet and then say, “I want some salt,” then some more sweet. I dip the pretzels in sour cream — best shit ever. You’ve gotta try it, it’s so good!
SD: Have you ever eaten something truly weird?
MO: We had a chef [at Rat’s] who was very into Chinese. He had a Chinese girlfriend. We had a great, great Asian market nearby. When one of us would go to the market to get an ingredient like lotus, we’d have to come back from the market with something weird. The challenge always was bringing something back from the candy aisle: sweet fried shrimp, little miniature crabs with sugar on them. We played a lot in those days.
SD: What’s the last thing you ate?
MO: A very healthy piece of pizza and four or five Long Trails.
SD: What foods are always in your pantry?
MO: Since the move, my kitchen at home is nonexistent. I still have all of my stuff from my last house [in storage]. I have a lot of Asian ingredients, and for some reason they don’t expire, ever. Also Indian ingredients, like curries and stuff. When I cook at home, it’s usually something we can’t get locally. I guess comfort food. No big extravagance.
SD: Are there foods you miss from back in Jersey?
MO: I haven’t left the restaurant since November, so there’s a lot that I miss that I just haven’t discovered [in Vermont] yet.
I miss being able to go to a place and have a good burger and beer. Have a pint of Guinness or whatever their cellar beer is and just enjoy that. There’s nothing better than a well-made hamburger.
SD: You’re trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?
MO: If someone asks me to show off, it’s not a dish; it’s a charcuterie display. For Epicurean Palette [a New Jersey culinary benefit], it was pastrami, sausages, a whole suckling pig galantine, homemade mustard and jams. I put it out there, and people’s heads would explode — you don’t see that anywhere. That’s the kind of stuff I really like doing.
When I started at Rat’s, they had a farm. They had a bakery making our own bread; we were cutting our own meat.
As a culinarian coming up, that’s how I learned to butcher. The chef at the time would literally shoot deer from his toilet, then come in and say, “Mike, butcher this.” If you’ve got a big French American dude telling you to do it, you learn really quick.
SD: If money were no object, what kind of restaurant would you open?
MO: I would love to open up a place that was just a compound doing everything from seed to table: growing our own produce, making our own cheese, making our own meat. That would be awesome to oversee that.
If you don’t have the right people in place, though, you’re totally screwed. If money were no object, we’d do as many things as humanly possible from scratch.
SD: What’s your favorite beverage?
MO: Depends on the day. I’m a huge fan of coffee, and I like seltzer water. Then I love beer.
That’s one of the hobbies I wish I had more time for. It’s so cool to make beer. I did a little bit of it with one of my buddies. You have all the wheat you could want working in restaurants.
I have a few favorites. I miss my Yuengling. You can’t get it up here. I’m starting to really enjoy Long Trail, but I haven’t found a new favorite … a new go-to beer. I like the Fiddlehead up the road. I get a growler once a week.
SD: If you weren’t a chef, what would your job be?
MO: Probably a teacher. I originally did go to college for some education classes. I had one bitchy professor and said, “I never want to do this again.”
I thought I’d like to work with special-ed kids: kids with learning disabilities, kids who have to learn a different way, kids who can’t make things work.
In high school, I was in a study hall for eight people. They taught you a different way to think. I was very influenced by that teacher in high school. She would also write us hall passes to go get cigarettes at Cumberland Farms.
I could see myself retiring as a culinary-school teacher.