Stowe, VT, 1066 Ye Olde England Inne

The big news surrounds our Executive Chef, Sam. He has just beaten 5000 other chefs in the Nation by taking 1st Place Chicago at the National Restaurant Association annual Meeting Culinary Competition. Sam's winning recipe will be celebrated here at the Inn with a special dinner. The date will be announced in the newsletter (sign up here to receive our monthly newletter).

Sam joined us as Executive Chef in August of 2001. His influence in the menu has been enormous. If you have not yet enjoyed his cuisine make the effort to do so – it is truly superb and justifiably receives accolades daily.

Too Many Cooks: Taste, texture and temperature... essential food contrasts
By Nancy MacLellan Edwards | The Stowe Reporter
If food does not already excite your imagination and make you eager to experiment with unfamiliar combinations of ingredients, it will after talking with Sam Palmisano, new executive chef of Mr. Pickwick’s at Ye Olde England Inne. His enthusiasm is immediate and infectious, and, in spite of our meeting first thing in the morning, I became hungry as we discussed the additions he is making to the restaurant’s new June menu.

I mentioned that I had always thought of Mr. Pickwick’s as the place to go for game, because it was on the regular menu year around. Sam agreed that game is the restaurant’s strength: venison, rabbit, quail, and pheasant, all farm-raised nearby in Vermont, are served daily. The more exotic ostrich, guinea hen, wild boar, and kangaroo that also appear are raised on Colorado ranches. All eight items will still be available in June, some with new trimmings and sauces, along with international and ethnic fare, Sam’s innovations and/or creations.

The weekend before, a friend and I had done some unannounced research at Mr. Pickwick’s: I headed straight to the venison, which was prepared very rare, at my request, with a rubbed marinade of spices, then cooked in port wine-raspberry reduction sauce, and served with a medley of sautéed vegetables and Cajun-fried potatoes. Not usually indulging in either potatoes or fried food, all disappeared with alacrity and great pleasure. My friend’s more conservative halibut was far from conventional; pan roasted, it was served with celery, apple, and potato puree and apple-fennel salad. It, too, was given short shrift without complaint. Both of the entrées were specials of the day, priced between $20 and $26, placing Mr. Pickwick’s in the "upscale" category of Stowe’s restaurants.

We started our meal with leek-and-fiddlehead quiche with baby field greens, julienned prosciutto, and lemon vinaigrette. Closure was achieved only after Maple Crčme Brulee and Chocolate Mousse Cake on a pool of Raspberry Coulis. It was possible that we both would perish from a surfeit of pleasure – or plain over indulgence!

As I mentioned, Sam is fairly new at the Inne, arriving last August after four years as chef at the Villa Tragara, which recently closed. Sam refers to himself as self-trained, but in truth he grew up being a chef. His family owned a typical steak-and-seafood restaurant on the Barre-Montpelier Road at that time, and he was allowed to indulge his creative urges very young, both preparing food and cooking. By the age of 19, he was full-time sous chef at the Villa, working there on and off and in various roles, for almost a decade.

Sam is still young. He is married and has two young children, Jay, aged 7, and Aria, only 5 years old. He met and married Holly, his wife, at the Villa, and Holly shares his passion and playfulness with food. Because of her encouragement, and then insistence, he submitted a recipe to the annual Sunkist Signature Recipes contest, which awards prizes during the prestigious annual National Restaurant Show. This show is held each year in Chicago, and on May 19, Sam will be in attendance in order to present a prize-winning recipe. Featuring, as required, Sunkist products, Sam will prepare orange-grilled lobster tails with blood-orange syrup, served with orange salsa and orange-almond basmati rice. His new dish was chosen along with one other, out of 5000 contending recipes.

Besides featuring native game, Pickwick’s is in partnership with local produce and dairy farmers, as a member of the Vermont Fresh Network. Sam buys only from nearby growers and processors whenever possible, and, if native products seasonally cost more than the supermarkets, the Inne is glad to support small, local businesses in this way.

When speaking enthusiastically and with unbridled pleasure of the restaurant’s menu – which will change monthly from now on – Sam uses words such as imagination, emotional appeal, freedom, and expressiveness. Describing his new contributions, he mentions playful ingredients, and essential freshness and contrast of taste, textures, and temperatures, words that I have borrowed somewhat freely for this column. It is of particular interest that he includes temperature as an essential contrast. It is true that small amounts of fresh, uncooked ingredients, now included in almost every plate along with the usual protein and starch combination, enhance and whet flavor and appetite.

However he learned, Sam is at home working with every nuance of what is currently considered fine cuisine and shows his understanding of it when he speaks. All his words are illustrated on the June menu in tempting dishes such as grilled scallop, shrimp, and clams in chilled gazpacho; caramelized onion pierogies sautéed in truffle butter and served with mixed greens, and balsamic-reduction-and-chive cream; or rack of Vermont rabbit with polenta fries and rabbit-juniper sausage served in a vegetable succotash. While not so extreme as contemporary fusion, there are strong Southern, Southwestern, Asian, and other international tones among the more typical New England and British fare. Even Mr. Pickwick’s mixed grill is composed of Buffalo medallion, half of a poussin chicken, and venison sausage all grilled and served with their own sauces and rosemary roast-garlic mashed potatoes.

Don’t believe a word you may have heard about British food. If you’ve traveled in the British Isles, the breadth of Mr. Pickwick’s menu will come as no surprise. I remember being struck by the variety and excellent quality of international cuisine in good restaurants there (after all, the British learned a lot during the days of their glorious empire). I particularly remember the plenitude of game and the exquisite freshness of fish and seafood in restaurants in England, Scotland, and Ireland, many of which look very like the cheerful bar and dining area of the Inne. But if you’ve a touch of Celtic or Saxon blood, dinner at Mr. Pickwick’s may leave you a little homesick.