Fresh and Healthy “Fast Food” for
Busy Vermonters and Hungry Travelers
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MARIA BUTEUX READE
It’s Friday and you’re driving north on I-91 for a weekend of skiing. Your stomach demands attention so you pull off at Exit 6 in Rockingham. At the end of the ramp, you spy a wooden sugar shack and a vibrant sign with flames leaping out of a yellow bowl. A large board with hand-painted letters proclaims CHILI; another announces HOT SOUPS.
Stomach, calm thyself for salvation is at hand: Smokin’ Bowls! A fast scan of the blackboard menu reveals eight to 10 daily specials. Will it be Cheech and Chong chili? How about sweet potato corn chowder, mushroom bisque or West African peanut soup? If you’re lucky, you might hit the stand when they serve chicken potpie, Tuscan lamb and white bean stew or a smoked beef brisket sandwich.
On the western end of Route 11 in Winhall, smack between Bromley and Stratton, is the sister location. Weekenders, outdoor enthusiasts and hungry workers flock to these stands for “smokin’ hot food.” The brainchild of Ryan James and Sarah Di Bernardo in 2007, Smokin’ Bowls offers an array of soups, chili and hearty fare from early October through late April or May, depending on how the mountains hold the snow. Ryan and Sarah were married at the time and running Harvest Moon Catering Company in Saxtons River.
The catering business always hit a dead period from January to late spring, so Ryan dreamed up the idea of a soup and chili shack for people on the go. Locals and travelers appreciate the easy access at the junctions of Route 11 and 30 in Winhall and Route 91 and 103 in Rockingham.
More importantly, they love the food.
Sarah Di Bernardo, the 38-year-old chef and co-owner, has a repertoire of 30 to 40 soups through which she rotates depending on ingredient availability and season. She makes everything fresh daily in her Saxtons River catering facility and then delivers the goods to the two locations. After tasting these rich and hearty soups, it’s hard to comprehend that they are all gluten-free except for the chicken noodle soup and the Spanish garlic, which contains bread chunks. Many soups are vegan and vegetarian though filling enough to satiate hungry skiers and tired landscapers. How can something this nutritious burst with so much flavor and body?
People find the name Smokin’ Bowls catchy, so they stop and take pictures. Once they have a cup of these creative blends, they’re hooked. For example, the cumin cauliflower and apple amalgam is topped with curried shrimp, caramelized onions and browned bits of cauliflower as a garnish. Butternut lentil coconut soup manages to be creamy, hearty and healthy.
The Cheech and Chong chili has earned a loyal following and with good reason. All-natural local ground beef mingles with chunks of tomato, onions and garlic, infused with a hint of smoked maple syrup. Somehow the concoction remains clean and fresh, each flavor distinct yet complementary.
Sarah explains, “I have a passion for cool ingredients and unique combinations. I know flavor profiles that work well together. I’m always sampling, always tasting, pushing the limits and challenging myself to create.”
No surprise for a woman who has been involved with food since she was 17. A Rockingham native, Sarah worked at the Old Tavern in Grafton, plating cold appetizers, salads and desserts, and then advanced to line cook. This experience convinced her to attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Following culinary school, Sarah became the executive chef at Oona’s Restaurant in Bellows Falls. In 2004, Sarah and Ryan opened their Harvest Moon Catering Company in Saxtons River, where she still works daily concocting the soups, stews, chili and hearty fare that fuel southern Vermont.
Sarah uses as many fresh and local ingredients as possible. She orders her vegetables from Black River Produce in Springfield, and the beef comes from Fischer Farm, also in Springfield. Grafton cheddar cheese shows up in several offerings, as does Pop’s Smoked Maple Syrup which is made right in Saxtons River.
Smokin’ Bowls is co-owned by Sarah and brothers Ryan and Reid James. Both trained as chefs, Sarah and Ryan make the culinary decisions while Reid focuses on marketing and managing the social media. The James’ family owns a restaurant in Megeve, France, a resort in the Alps.
“We worry about the food and Reid generates the buzz.” Keith Heingartner oversees daily operations at the Winhall stand. In all, the business employs between eight and 10 people.
Daily menu specials are posted on their Facebook page. You can buy the products “to go” in 16-ounce compostable coffee cups. Soup is also sold in eco-friendly Mason jars ($13–$17 per quart or $26– $32 per half gallon, depending on the soup). There is a dollar charge for the jar but when you bring it back for a refill (and trust me, you will), the charge is waived.
The roadside shacks are open Thursday through Monday from 11am to 7pm, with the Rockingham stand remaining open until 11pm on Friday evenings from December to March. “We serve 400 to 450 people daily, but business really picks up once the ski season starts. That’s when we jump from making 40 gallons of chili a week to 120 gallons in the busy weeks!” said Sarah. Informal polls indicate that the favorites include the chili, apple onion smoked cheddar, clam chowder, West African peanut, and sweet potato corn chowder. The small cubes of orange potato and bright yellow corn kernels floating in a creamy base delight the eyes as much as the chowder warms the soul. Smokin’ Bowls offers nutrient-dense food that tastes delicious and fuels you day or night.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Go to SmokinBowls.com. Become a fan on Facebook. Two locations:
- In Rockingham: Exit 6 off I-91. Route 103 just after the I-91 overpass.
- In Winhall, at the intersection of Routes 11 and 30, not far from Bromley and Stratton Mountains. Hours: Thursday–Monday, 11am–7pm. **Rockingham location open till 11pm Friday nights January to March.