After 15 years, owner still excited by Brandon’s future
By RUSSELL JONES
Amidst downtown Brandon, the nearly finished construction, the specialty shops and art galleries, new breweries and retail stores, you can also find a culinary getaway reminiscent of the southern coast of France.
Stepping inside the 11 Center Street location, the green and gold backdrop is the setting for an open-design kitchen, pans hanging and chefs hustling around in full view of the dining patrons. And running that kitchen you’ll find Chef Robert Barral, the owner of Café Provence.
Barral was born in Montpelier, France and began formal training as a chef at 16. After spending time working in high-end restaurants in France, Switzerland, Montreal, Boston, Chicago and Miami, Barral began cooking at the New England Culinary Institute in Burlington in 1987.
But in a major shift, he left NECI and started his own restaurant in Brandon in 2004. This past weekend, he celebrated the 15th anniversary of the restaurant’s founding, as well as Bastille Day.
He and his partner, Line, who runs the bakery Gourmet Provence just down the street, said they came to Brandon for strategic reasons as well as for the recreational opportunities.
“Being located between Middlebury and Rutland, it is a very good location to draw people in,” Chef Robert said. “This beautiful building was empty and the price was right and we felt the timing was right for us as well as for the town.”
Vermont had always been on the minds of the couple, even when they lived in Montreal or Boston.
“In 1976, we were coming down every weekend to ski,” Chef Robert said of his time in Canada. “I would look around and tell Line, ‘It’s nothing but cows, who lives here?’”
“And then when we were in Boston, every time we had a day or two free we would drive up,” he continued. “When the opportunity came around to buy this place, we jumped at it.”
Line and Robert said the people of Brandon were another great selling point for them.
“They people were so friendly here,” Line said of the time all those years ago. “They still are some of the nicest people that live here.”
The early days of Café Provence were hectic, the 66-year-old chef said. He and Line were still living in Hinesburg when they bought the restaurant, but a local artist helped out by giving him a place to stay in town.
“Warren Kimble let me sleep in his barn, which is now the home of Brandon Music,” said Chef Robert. “I stayed there for six months and he wouldn’t let me pay him a thing.”
He said Kimble kept trying to put a bed in the barn for him, but the chef declined saying, ‘with a bed I would be too comfortable.”
At the time, Brandon was a bit of a food desert, with only the House of Pizza and one additional restaurant at the time, and the new French bistro took off like a wildfire.
“It was so busy when we opened, everyone wanted to come eat here,” the culinary artist recalled. “I was doing a cooking segment on the local television and people would come in and say, ‘Oh, I know Chef Robert,’ and I would come over to greet them and they would say ‘Oh, well I know you from TV,’ but we had never met.”
TEACHING OR COOKING
After years teaching at the New England Cooking Institute, Chef Robert is well known as not only a fantastic chef, but also a very talented teacher.
“If I had to choose one over the other, I would probably choose teaching,” the chef said. “Teaching is very rewarding, but it takes a lot of patience. I don’t know if I could do it every day, but like now, once a week, it’s perfect for me.”
Café Provence has a culinary theatre where Chef Robert holds his classes on Wednesdays. He says he has many repeat attendees and that folks like to give gift certificates to his classes as fun presents on the holidays, birthdays and other special occasions.
“We have people who have never been to the café who come for the class because someone gave them the gift certificate,” he said. “Then they come back again.”
Although French cuisine can be difficult to master and is often intimidating to newcomers, Chef Robert said as long as people have a passion for cooking, they do just fine in the classes.
“It is more than just recipes in the classes. I show them techniques and share anecdotes from my time cooking,” he said. “It is not brain surgery. After I show them the techniques, many people say they can’t believe it is so simple.”
CHANGES OVER THE YEARS
In the past 15 years a lot has changed, Chef Robert recalled, not only in the town of Brandon, but also in Café Provence.
“I quickly learned there were some traditional dishes I was making — foie gras or sweetbreads, for example — that people just didn’t go for here,” he said, so he adapted his menu.
The year after Café Provence opened, they started the bakery, Gourmet Provence, which turned out to be a huge help for the restaurant.
“When we started, the bakers and the chefs were sharing the same space,” Chef Robert recalled. “It is too small of a kitchen for that and having the bakers in their own space was tremendously helpful.”
Now, the bakery and the café work together. The bakery makes all of the pastries, breads or quiche that the restaurant serves and the café provides the bakery with salads, sandwiches and other items.
The bakery also stocks a large selection of local cheeses, patés, wine and other Vermont specialty products.
“We really compliment each other in many ways,” he said.
The two agreed that mixing things up is also important.
“We try to do fun events like wine tastings to keep people coming in,” Line said. “We had a wine tasting last week with over 40 people attending.”
“We also do different menu nights because you have to do little things that break the routine,” Chef Robert added. “We did a prime rib night that was very popular recently and we are going to do an Italian night in August or September.”
The town of Brandon has also changed in the last 15 years, especially with the Segment 6 construction creating significant improvements.
“It is very exciting to have it almost complete,” said Line. “It looks great already.”
Chef Robert agreed that the new construction would be a “huge change,” and a welcome relief after years of construction.
A few friends and former colleagues from the culinary institute recently came for dinner at the café and asked the chef if he had an exit strategy after 15 years.
“I thought about it and realized, no, I didn’t have an exit strategy,” Chef Robert said. “It’s very exciting and I think it will be a whole new ballgame once the construction is finished. I think I will wait and see what happens to figure out my strategy for the future.”