By GEORGE FJELD
ROCHESTER–Rochester’s Maple Soul restaurant was ranked among the top 100 restaurants in the country for 2024 by national reviewer YELP. According to owners Jim and Jen Huntington, they are actually in the top 50 at #46! That’s quite impressive, considering that Boston alone has hundreds of restaurants and Rochester itself has only 1,099 residents at the last census. Plus, Maple Soul’s only advertising is social media and word of mouth.
Chef Jim Huntington and manager Jen Huntington partner to provide a charming venue and delicious food. Set in an old house on Rt 100, in the heart of the village, the restaurant is a series of linked dining rooms with a central and open kitchen. In the first room, a small bar is fronted by 10 taps of curated draft beer and cider focusing on small local breweries. A rare beer cellar has many unusual bottles fit for a special occasion. There is a varied wine cellar as well. The middle dining room is open to the kitchen where one can watch the food magic happen. The back room is quieter and excellent for a cozy romantic meal. In summer, the porch is open and can be a delightful space.
Jim Huntington is a self-trained chef, after a high-school culinary curriculum. He enjoyed a long stint in the kitchen at Vermont Technical College before venturing into cooking in his own restaurant. He’s now been cooking for nearly 3 decades.
A member of the Vermont Fresh Network, Maple Soul sources food from local farms; last week the food on the menu was 85% locally produced. Jim and Jen have curated a group of 33 farms that supply their ingredients. They know their farmers on a first-name basis and continue to add farms. They don’t haggle with the farmers, don’t buy by price, and are happy to take “ugly” vegetables at full price. One of their criteria is that the farm must allow them to visit. That is dedication to knowing your ingredients. In fact, many evenings, one can find local farmers at the bar for a beer and a burger.
One example of the connection they have with their farmers is Uphill Farm in Rochester. Jim approached the farmers with a proposal to have them grow all the restaurant’s microgreens year round with a guarantee of buying a certain amount each and every week.. They were a summer farm before but now grow for Maple Soul and the local grocery year round. All the proteins on the menu are sourced in Vermont. The Huntingtons buy 2 or 3 whole cows per year and have them custom cut locally. They also buy locally raised Wagyu beef for their bacon-wrapped meatloaf, a standard on the menu.
Maple Soul opened 5 years ago and remained open throughout the Covid pandemic. In fact, during this time, they increased meal sales mainly through takeout, kept all their staff employed, ran fundraisers for the food shelf, and sponsored the Warm-A-Soul fund for heating assistance. They employ a staff of 13, including 4 of the original waitstaff who have been there since the first month.
The restaurant has 40 seats and six bar stools, serves 120 meals a night Wednesday through Saturday via a well thought-out process. Reservations are sequenced to ensure that diners get the full attention of their server. All 3 of Jim and Jen’s children have worked in the restaurant, with son Elijah currently working the grill each night.
The Huntingtons initial dream was to have a restaurant that is a hub for local farmers and provides “elegant comfort food” in a mid-upscale environment. YELP followers think Maple Soul has realized its dream.