Buying the inn wasn’t a whimsical, spontaneous decision for the Spanjians. Rather, it was a strategic business investment that involved months of research and a complete due diligence process. While the inn had a solid foundation in place, the couple wanted to create a destination known for comfort, amenities and creative farm-to-table meals beyond the traditional breakfast. They added layers of fresh paint to each of the 12 stylishly-appointed guestrooms (four deluxe kings, two kings and six standard rooms, all named after covered bridges in the area), an overhaul of the existing restaurant menu and the hiring of new talent to head up the kitchen. The barn out back was transformed into an elegant, state-of-the-art, fully functional cooking studio called The Hidden Kitchen, a magical space where local chefs and instructors offer hands-on workshops and demonstration classes for those wishing to learn more about the art of cooking, and named in honor of Marilee’s mother’s former restaurant in Del Mar, California. The nearby organic garden grows lush during the summer months, producing all the vegetables and herbs used in the restaurant; what the Spanjians can’t grow is sourced from local farms and vendors down the road. Menus are inspired by the seasons, root vegetables are pickled and stored for use during cold-weather months, and the emphasis is on harvesting what’s available while maintaining a commitment to the mantra: “Eat real, eat local, eat fresh.”
While the Spanjians are self-described foodies and love to cook, they wanted to find an executive chef for their restaurant to take the lead and create seasonal menus worthy enough to eat. Enter Jean-Luc Matecat, a native Vermonter and reformed skater-dude with an easy smile and a passion for all things food. He’s a young chef with an old soul, someone who’s wise beyond his years and who appreciates the fine art of culinary creation. He was selected from a group of 80 applicants last November at a cook-off held by the Spanjians. The dish that won them over was a creative presentation of braised elk shank served with cavatelli, fresh ricotta and coal-roasted beets.
The young chef got his start learning how to cook from his father, a professional chef and former instructor at the New England Culinary Institute. Against his father’s wishes, he earned his degree in culinary arts at Cabrillo College in California and worked his way up from dishwasher to cook working at restaurants over the summers to help pay bills, grateful for the experience as dishwasher, where he learned the reality of operating a successful restaurant from the ground up. Jean-Luc has honed his cooking skills over the years but believes his style is still rooted in old-school basics, leaning heavily upon teachings from his father, whose belief in simplicity has stood the test of time: use fresh ingredients, utilize what is available, minimize waste and prepare fundamental stocks and vinaigrettes.
When sampling Jean-Luc’s dishes, the focus is on flavor. The arsenal of Jean-Luc’s techniques includes his favorite weapon, sous-vide cooking, a process that vacuum-seals foods in a pouch with herbs and seasonings for a long time at low temps in order to enhance natural flavors, mostly used in cooking meats and fish. But he also enjoys preparing simple, straightforward meals. Take, for example, a presentation of garden heirloom tomatoes served with creamy burrata. You could taste the sunshine in the ripe, vine-grown, cherry-red tomatoes tinged with just enough balsamic vinaigrette and basil oil, paired with crostini points for an added crunch, capturing the essence of a perfect summer’s day on a plate. The bowl of velvety summer squash soup, which would have been perfect enough on its own, featured a blossom of zucchini stuffed with meaty Maine lobster, creamy Vermont mascarpone, and a kiss of garlic chives. His dishes go beyond what they should in terms of expectation, but never to excess. It’s just the right amount of food, even if you’re sampling an array of courses for two hours. You leave feeling satiated, never stuffed.
The Inn offers something to do for every season: leaf-peeping during fall, snowshoeing on property during winter, spring antiquing at local shops, summer hikes on nearby trails. Amenities include free DVD rentals from the Inn’s library, lush terry robes in guestrooms, available room service for breakfast, S’mores by the firepit during good weather and craft cocktails before dinner. The Spanjians go out of their way to make each guest feel welcome, from the fresh-baked cookies left in your room to the “roadie-to-go” bags of homemade cider doughnuts given after breakfast. They’ve mastered the art of making guests feel welcome in a picture-perfect New England setting.