Chef Justin Barrett Does "Extreme" Farm-to-Table at Piecemeal Pies
Mar 08, 2017 04:13PM
● By Gabrielle Varela
Behold—meat pies—the British pastry pie filled with savory meats and veggies. “It’s just flour and butter and a butcher block, and I like that,” says Justin. “The concept is as ubiquitous as a sandwich.”
Justin, 34, got his start cooking in New York, Oregon, and
Maine. He says he just “always worked with British guys” and that his
philosophy on food was shaped by his heroes, Nigel Slater and
Fergus Henderson, known for pioneering the nose-to-tail way of eating. When Justin came to Vermont, he
took all he had learned and started cooking family-style community dinners on
people’s properties, in places like sheep pastures and old barns.
The name Piecemeal was chosen as a reminder of his collective beginnings. “The events were a product of everyone involved. It’s a reminder that I don’t need to do everything myself. The event, the food, this is a collaborative effort,” he notes.
When it came time to set down roots, Justin decided he wanted a product-driven business. “Instead of breakfast, lunch, and dinner service, this [the pies] gave me a way to feed more people more sustainably, especially where we are. There are a lot of people who live and work around here who really need some daytime options, and for every single animal that has come through here, I’ve shaken the hand of the farmer and the person who raised it,” he adds.
Justin describes Piecemeal as “extremely farm to table,”
which means he is essentially living every chef’s dream—working directly with
farmers and food producers to create food he believes in.
“When I left New York, I came here and I just wanted to get my hands dirty. I feel like everyone who cooks should know the difference between the germination time of a carrot seed and a radish seed; otherwise, you demand things of farmers that are unrealistic. So it’s really important to know that so you build that trust, and then our customers can trust us. And then we build a system that actually works.”
Justin prefers to work with small farms, although it means more work. “A trout farmer in St. Johnsbury has been raising 40 trout for us every three weeks, so I go up there and get them. I think that is more important than getting fish from some big farm, even if it is in Vermont, even if it is organic. They don’t really need us. This way, I have a farmer who is raising rabbits for us, and I buy all of them from her. I know I have them, and she doesn’t have to waste an entire day sitting at the farmers’ market hoping to sell one. It works for both of us.”
The farm-cooperative structure at Piecemeal is more than just acquiring highly specific ingredients direct from their sources; it is a philosophy and a way of viewing food. It is this attitude that attracts many guests to Justin’s business and brings many of his staff straight from the farm. Four staff members including Justin are former or off-season farmers.
“This relationship was my goal if I was going to do anything with food. I don’t want to do it any other way. Waste is a huge problem in restaurants, so having something product driven allows me to really control how much of a product we are using of a very limited menu. The more options, the more variables you have, the more opportunities for waste there are.”
Justin has his staff visit farms frequently to help harvest or prune; this motivates them and reminds them of the meaning of what they are doing. Jessie Shannon came a week after they opened in October 2016. Before pressing pie molds at Piecemeal, she was manning the farm stand at Cedar Circle Farm.
“Not many places work this closely with farms. It’s good to be a part of that, and it’s a good winter job for me,” says Shannon.
The restaurant space itself, a space on the block that he waited for for three years, is charming and polished, with high ceilings, an open kitchen, and an unassuming citrus garden in the storefront window. Once upon a time, the building was a department store, so the floorboards are former shelving Justin ripped down and laid as the groundwork for his restaurant. Many are still decorated with graffiti like “Claire is a honey” and tags like “Yogi Bear” written in permanent marker.
The room is reflective of Justin’s prior training in architecture and his philosophy regarding food. “People seem to really get it without a lot of explanation. A lot of that has to do with the design. That’s why there isn’t a wall between the café and the kitchen—to reinforce that cooking should be approachable,” he says.
Piecemeal makes about 80 pies a day; they are modern takes on old classics like rabbit and bacon, lamb curry, and smoked trout and fennel. His menu features other eclectic additions like tomato coconut soup, rutabaga potato mash, cumin-roasted carrots with citrus and avocado—all made from novel regional ingredients he seeks out or has grown for him.
“My goal when I get an ingredient is to basically not mess it up, to preserve the integrity of that. Sometimes I like the flowers or blooms more than the herbs themselves. There are specific types of grains that I find really attractive. It’s good to have farmers to talk to directly about that,” he adds.
Some of Justin’s other dishes are boundary pushing but
familiar—fudgy chocolate cake made, surprisingly, with beets and served with crème
fraiche and poppy seeds. And don’t forget the hard cider bar, a cheery complement
to a dominant New England beer scene.
“I don’t feel comfortable enough to break out the steak and kidney pie yet, but people are so interested in what we’re doing that I think we are getting there. I think we are already pushing it in regard to what people around here are used to, and now they trust us, and I trust them, so I think we’re going to start to have some fun now.” Justin says they are gearing up for a busy summer, and he’s started offering a brunch option with brisket he brines all week for hash.
Justin is making double the number of pies he projected he’d be making since their opening in October 2016. “As people start to trust us, we can make dishes that they can expect to be delicious. It’s really refreshing. We are gaining regulars. We have people who come in every day for coffee, and we’ve been here long enough that we are building those relationships, which is really nice—to be accepted into the community—because the people who live and work here is ultimately who I want this to be for. I want to be what White River wants, and if other people come, that’s great.”
Check out the website for updates on menus and events! www.piecemealpies.com