16 Jul New Executive Chef at Copper Grouse Inspired by Nature’s Bounty
MANCHESTER — With spring in full swing, Vanessa Davis is looking forward to when the ramps and fiddleheads push their way through the soil into the sunlight and onto her customers’ plates.
The executive chef at the Kimpton Taconic Hotel’s Copper Grouse restaurant since January, Davis is a Vermont native who who learned and honed her kitchen skills at culinary schools, restaurants and resorts throughout New England. She has brought her commitment to farm-to-table and elevated takes on seasonal, regional comfort dishes to the restaurant and bar on Main Street in Manchester Village.
At present, Davis is working on writing a seasonal menu for the restaurant and forging relationships with area farmers and growers.
Davis also believes she has a responsibility to practicing and promoting sustainability. So the dish she prepared for the Journal — mustard seed crusted Atlantic cod filet — isn’t long for the menu, given the serious concerns about the long-term viability of the cod fishery. She’s looking for a way to spin the recipe forward with a different protein.
“As a chef I have to be respectful of sustainability,” she said. “I don’t want to see a species die off.”
Davis traces her farm to table roots back to when her husband’s grandfather died and he left Davis and her husband his gardening equipment. The hard work and care of turning seeds into plants that produce edible fruit has stuck with her since.
“I have a lot of respect for the farmers, people who chose their career in that lifestyle. I think it’s incredible,” she said. “[It’s about] taking their respect and love for what they’re doing and showcasing it as best as possible. I want to show their hard work through my hard work on the plate. ”
NOW WE’RE COOKING
For a demonstration of what her cuisine is all about, Davis assembled the mustard seed crusted filet of Atlantic cod, plating it with roasted acorn squash puree, vegetable hash and a honey cream sauce.
The fillet, adorned with a chain mail coat of mustard seeds, sizzles as it hits the hot oil in the pan, skin side down. After a few minutes, Davis takes the pan off the fire, adds a healthy portion of butter and delivers it to the oven, where it finishes for 10 to 15 minutes.
While the fish cooks, Davis tends to three sautee pans on the burner.
The vegetable hash fills the kitchen with savory aromas of red onions, purple potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts. A second pan holds the creamy, golden-orange acorn squash puree. The third holds the sauce, which is reducing down to a deep golden hue.
One thinks of acorn squash as a fall and winter staple, or a part of the backup band on your Thanksgiving Day table. But here, as a puree with lots of cream and a dash of truffle oil, it transcends its humble roots and makes a fine base for the dish.
Next comes a layer of the vegetable hash, with all its harvest colors of purple, orange and green; and finally, out of the oven comes the cod filet, which Davis carefully balances atop the vegetables. The sauce is poured next, and then a small salad of sprouts garnishes the finished plate.
It almost looks too good to eat.
The cod flesh slides apart magically, firm, yet mouth-tender, and the mustard seeds provide just a hint of spicy bite at the back end. Savory and sweet flavors abound in every bite, with a slight hint of pleasant bitterness in the perfectly-cooked Brussels sprouts, The squash and sauce bring it all together.
INSPIRATION FROM THE GARDEN
“Rustic sophistication” is the phrase Davis uses to describe her culinary style. She employs seasonality in her menu decisions and enjoys elevating comfort staples such as macaroni and cheese or goulash to fine dining fare.
When it comes to her culinary inspiration, Davis quite literally wears her heart on her sleeve.
Sitting across from her in the dining room of the Copper Grouse, you notice the splash of color on her right arm, peeking out from just past the cuff of her crisp white chef’s jacket — and wait, are those rainbow carrots on her arm?
Yes, they are. In vivid, life-like hues on her right arm is a tattoo depicting the bounty of a New England growing season: A turnip, rainbow carrots, tomatoes, greens, flowers, strawberries and blackberries.
“I really developed such a deep respect for ingredients once my husband and I got into gardening,” Davis explained in a follow-up email. “The beauty from starting plants from seeds and watching them transform into incredible plants with flowers and their fruit also helped with the thought process behind the tattoo.”
Davis grew up in the Randolph area, where her mother worked at a nearby restaurant. Struggling with high school, she chose vocational school and studied for a culinary career at Randolph Technical Career Center with the late Jerry Sullivan.
“He had a lot of faith in me and worked with me quite a bit,” she said of Sullivan.
After a semester’s high school internship at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Davis earned a certificate from the former Connecticut Culinary Institute. Stints at three more Vermont restaurants followed before she got her first big break, at Essex Resort & Spa in Essex Junction
That move allowed Davis to gain experience in upscale food, and promotions to sous chef — “the step I was looking for,” she says — and tavern head chef.
“That’s really where I got into learning about farm to table, trying to utilize as much Vermont products and changing menus with the seasons,” she says.
As executive chef, Davis prefers to roll up her sleeves and jump in on the line with the staff, or focus on plating and presentation of the dishes before they go out to the dining room to make sure the presentation is on point.
“I like to feel the pressure they’re feeling,” she said.
The Taconic is very happy to have Davis on the team, general manager John Burnham said.
“I am thrilled to have Vanessa on the team as she brings a wealth of experience and knowledge. She introduced a new dinner menu just over a month ago with an even greater focus on locally sourced and seasonal offerings,” Burnham said in an email. “The Kimpton Taconic hotel guests love the restaurant now as they always have and the locals have embraced the new menu.”