This weekend I took an extended three day weekend trip with my family to Vermont. We haven’t had the opportunity to take our usual week or longer family trip this year so going up north to visit Burlington, Vermont and the surrounding towns looked like a fun way to kick back and relax before summer’s end.
Forty years ago, my mother came from Honduras to study on an academic scholarship to Vermont College, located in Montpelier. While a student, she met my father a professor at Norwich University and the rest as they say is history. My sister and I of course are evidence of that.
Since we were going to be passing by Montpelier on our way up to Burlington I thought it would be fun to combine a visit to the New England Culinary Institute, also known as NECI for short, while also visiting what was the campus of her college which no longer exists, and how now become part of NECI and other institutions such as the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both of my parents were eager to visit the small town to relive old memories and retell old stories that are part of our family’s history. While touring the Institute we could also eat at the school run restaurant in town and the one on Church Street in Burlington. She was really excited by this and so I called the number on the NECI web site to get information about tours, the school and the restaurant and also to do some research to see if her dorm was still there.
When I called the number I asked the woman on the phone about tours. She politely informed me that there weren’t tours of the school available and that it would best to seek out students on campus to talk to them about their experience. This didn’t seem right to me. What kind of sales pitch was this? I didn’t want to spend a lot of our vacation time on a treasure hunt for buildings and students. She also was unfamiliar with the specific dorm I was looking for, which as it turns out was part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, 100 yards from the New England Culinary Institute admission building. I began to wonder where the call center for the toll free number I had called was located. The school wasn’t that big was it? She also corrected me when I mentioned my intention of wanting to eat at the Institute’s restaurant in Burlington. Apparently that had closed down a couple of years ago too, but she was eager to point out the truly fabulous food at the Main Street Bar & Grill, the restaurant run by the Institute and its students. The loss of their flagship restaurant was not a good sign especially in the fast growing city.
Saturday we arrived and within a few minutes of driving around we found my mother’s old dorm and her room. That was easy. We walked around campus and viewed some of the buildings owned by NECI while also viewing some of the buildings that belonged to other institutions. My mother was excited and happy and we were all getting hungry. It was time to eat.
We made the short drive down the hill to the Main Street Bar & Grill. We had been here before many years before to eat and had a pleasurable experience although on that trip we didn’t actually drive around Montpelier as we had this time.
After a short wait for an outside patio seat we sat down and ordered our meal. Our waiter, Joshua, a student was friendly and welcoming and overall did a great job especially given the fact that he was a culinary student and only serving as part of the curriculum rotation. This is pretty much where my praise ends. Overall everyone felt that the food was pretty good but really under-seasoned. I had flashbacks to the basics cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where Chef Angie told us that new cooks generally are afraid of using too much salt and usually under-season their food. Was this day one of the rotation I wondered? The dressing on my salad lacked taste as did the other components of my dishes. The dessert was in fact the best part of the meal which is fortunate because it is the last impression a restaurant gets to make on a customer, but also unfortunate as my aspirations involve the culinary program and not the baking and pastry program.
Plating was another thing I noted. While we were only eating lunch, I was expecting more for presentation. My appetizer and main dish appeared as two distinct dishes while the dessert was already melted and lacked color. While not at the heart of culinary training, this is something that is important to me; a well plated dish evokes emotion and clues you into what you are about to taste. As far as showing off technique and skill, this just wasn’t doing it for me.
I asked our server about touring the facilities. He kindly informed us that we could walk to the back of the restaurant and through the back door to view classrooms and the rest of the facility. Once we were back there I was let down again, looking at the small drab classrooms. They just didn’t look inviting, and in contrast to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts they were completely removed from the cooking setting entirely. While having an on site restaurant is a plus for any culinary school the complete separation from the classroom and kitchen didn’t feel appropriate. I also wondered where the rest of the school was. Was that the wrong question to be asking? Was this all there was?
After finishing our meal, we left to walk down the street and get a sense of the town. My parents walked and noted how much things had changed and how the area had grown and modernized. I saw a town only slightly more populated than where I grew up, a stark contrast from living in Boston, a world class city with neighborhoods and numerous cultural culinary influences and establishments. We visited the student run baker, La Brioche and sampled some of their baked goods and pastries. Delicious. Another home run for the baking and pastry program.
The New England Culinary Institute was the school were famed Alton Brown matriculated. I had high expectations of what the school had to offer after reading it’s web site contents and given the aptitude and success Alton Brown has attained. I left the school feeling disappointed and yet I don’t think my high expectations were misplaced especially since I have fond memories of eating at NECI restaurants in the past. I wonder what had changed, but left clearly feeling that if I did decide to pursue culinary school, this place wasn’t for me.
I may not have seen all of the buildings, fancy kitchens and labs the school had to offer, but as a someone interested in the school it just seems like I could have gotten more out of my visit with a little friendly guidance and key points of differentiation to focus on. I know when I have guests I do my best to make them feel welcomed and answer all of the questions they have. A school where I could potentially spend a large amount of my hard earned money would do well to have a similar philosophy.