COVER STORY | By JANELLE FAIGNANT
Do you ever wonder about the chefs behind the restaurants you love? There seems to be a secret ingredient to anything anyone cooks, because everyone’s food tastes different. Even if you follow a recipe to the measurement, there’s that X factor, that undefinable variable.
“A lot of it is playing with food,” Chef Donald Billings said in an interview Wednesday. “We literally play with food. We take something and try it and if it doesn’t work, you don’t do it, and try something else.”
Billings is coming up on anniversaries of both of his downtown restaurants this fall — the fourth anniversary of Roots on Wales Street and the one-year anniversary of his second endeavor, The Bakery on West Street.
I met him on the third floor of 51 Wales St., which is used for private parties and is relatively unknown to the public. But those who know about it have been keeping them busy. With 3,300 square feet, extra-large windows and third-story views of downtown, it has the feel of a loft space, decorated with a modern but cozy feel.
When I arrive I walk into a room with dozens of plain white empty plates laid out, and two large cutting boards heaping with grapes and several piles of different cheeses artfully arranged.
“This is smoked mozzarella from Maple Brook Farms,” he says, pointing, “This is plain chèvre from Vermont Butter Creamery, this is Swisserella from Bridport Creamery, and this is Middlebury Blue from Blue Ledge Farm.”
He slices me off two shavings from the blue, probably sensing me silently panting like a dog. While we talk he’s taking dishes out of and shoveling pans into an oven; slicing pineapple so fast and succinctly while maintaining eye contact that it looks like a magic trick.
Upbeat music plays in the background as employees appear and disappear in and out of rooms, setting up for the event taking place shortly.
“We do a lot up here,” he says. “Bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, work functions. We started with just doing cocktails and hors d’oeurves and it just kept evolving.”
Despite the number of parties they have in that room, Billings says it’s probably the one thing most people don’t know about.
“It made sense with the restaurant being downstairs to try to capitalize on the space,” he said. “It was never the plan to just be one 36-seat restaurant.”
Originally from Middlebury, Billings’ culinary education came from growing up in the food business. His uncle, Marty Schuppert, was the owner of Mr. Ups and his grandparents owned the Waybury Inn in Middlebury, where he started out washing dishes. His aunt Donna Seibert, who is still executive chef there, taught him to bake and to manage large functions.
“On holidays our entire family, all 38 of us, would go to either Mr. Ups or the Waybury Inn and that’s where we would have family dinners,” he said. “We all worked there and the ones that didn’t would come in afterwards.”
Between growing up in the business, working in fine dining at the Waybury Inn and seeing the high volume at Mr. Ups, Billings said he got to see the whole aspect.
He moved to Rutland from Brandon in 2010, when he opened Roots with Dr. Mark Logan of Sanctuary Integrative Medicine. They opened it with the intent of building it around using local foods, down to the cocktails served at the bar at Roots.
“Every drink on the menu has some form of a local ingredient in it, either an herb, or local gin, or honey or something,” Billings said.
He had been doing business with Baba-a-Louis Bakery since starting Roots, and the vision for The Bakery started coming into focus.
“Once we got going here and got established,” Billings said, “It seemed like the right fit for us to acquire the bakery and expand what it’s doing, make it more visible, expand the wholesale line of things. And why not do it in a fresh new space?”
They tried to figure out a way to keep it in its original spot on Wales Street but for what they wanted to do with it, it didn’t look like it would work.
Billings says the past year has been a whirlwind since The Bakery opened. A typical day for him starts at 3 a.m., sometimes 2, depending on how many special orders they have or what they have going on that day. And the fact that he doesn’t get a lot of days off doesn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he hinted at the possibility of another business endeavor but wouldn’t confirm anything.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a challenge. There’s going to be 40 people up here in one hour. I thrive on it.”
In addition to spending a total of $110,000 in the local economy for food last year, Roots has held fundraising events for Vermont Community Foundation, Hope, the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, Restoring Rutland, and several pig roasts to benefit the Wonderfeet Kids’ Museum.
“It’s a lot of work but they’re fun,” he said. “It’s a good way for us to reach a lot of people.”
“When you go in the restaurants you can sense the energy,” Billings said. “I use that word a lot. Positive energy and good flow (are important). We have a team of people that’s phenomenal. This isn’t just me.
There’s no way one single person could do it.”
Janelle Faignant is a freelance writer covering the arts, health, and human interest stories. She lives in Rutland.