BACK OF THE HOUSE
MISERY LOVES CO.
Taste-making trio has
everything but a restaurant
Chef Aaron in the kitchen.
BY EMILY MCKENNA, PHOTOS BY BRENT HAREWYN
e were the first eager customers to arrive at the Valentine’s Day pop-up dinner thrown by Misery Loves Co., the brainchild of three local food-industry pros— chefs Nate Wade and Aaron Josinsky and sommelier Laura Wade (Nate’s sister and Aaron’s wife). It was a mild February 14, not a surprise given the disappointingly moderate winter we’ve had. The door to Cork Wine Bar & Market—where the trio set up a kitchen and fullservice restaurant after the shop had closed for the night—was still locked. Within seconds, a rosy-cheeked Laura opened the door and welcomed us inside.
The pop-up as a concept is not new. For the past year it has become trendy for chefs to open temporary eateries, to pop up in a space that is not their home base and to serve food that is different from what they are known for. It gives chefs the freedom to explore and to experiment with new techniques, to cook fancier or simpler food, to cook outside of their box. Thanks to Misery Loves Co., the idea is catching on in Vermont.
“We started to hear a lot about the pop-ups happening in other cities, and we thought it sounded cool—a little fly-by-night, like a way for us to break the barriers of how we define restaurants,” says Nate Wade, who was most recently the consulting chef at Duino Duende in Burlington.
Of course—and they will be the first to admit this—the pop-up is also a convenient way for MLC to have a restaurant without actually having a restaurant. It is like their laboratory for testing out different concepts and menus without the financial responsibility of settling down in one space. Think of it as a restaurant dry run that has given these creative, eager cooks the chance to introduce their food and culinary style to the public. How thankful we are.
To date, Misery Loves Co. has put on about 45 pop-up dinners in six locations around Chittenden County, including at Sneakers Bistro in Winooski, 3 Squares Café in Vergennes and, most recently, at Cork, a cozy wine shop and tasting space across the street from the shuttered Alchemist in downtown Waterbury.
Chef Aaron Josinsky and his kitchen mate and business partner chef Nate Wade greeted us quickly from behind the reclaimed-wood bar, which had been outfitted with an electric flat top and a single electric burner, their only cooking equipment for the night. It was as makeshift as things go—no hoods, vents, Ansul systems, no actual fire or gas. They supplemented with pans and knives from home and plastic pint containers to hold their mise en place.
They offered a quick, firm handshake before we were walked to the back of the shop to sit at one of eight sturdy wood tables set with simple flowers and a glowing candle lantern. The trio looked as if they’d just barely finished setting up when we arrived. Josinsky and Wade—who with Laura as their general manager opened Bluebird Tavern in 2009—had the kind of anticipatory look on their faces that many cooks get right before dinner service starts. It’s the calm before the storm.
Tonight’s Pop-up Menu.
My colleague and I surveyed the menu—written in black marker on butcher’s paper with a small red heart, the only acknowledgement of Valentine’s Day. We ordered 10 of the 11 dishes on offer that night, starting immediately with the Spiced Peanuts, a generous handful of nuts toasted in a skillet and coated in an addictively spicy-salty blend of ground chiles and sugar. The menu was split pretty evenly into small and somewhat less small plates. Two of the larger plates would have been plenty for one person’s dinner. We, however, preferred to indulge. The food continued to come out pretty quickly, one dish after another, delivered by Wade, Wade and Josinsky.
The Massachusetts oysters with a tart-peppery mignonette were refreshingly briny and the beets in a salad with blue cheese and local arugula were candy sweet. The menu, with a surprising number of options, seemed untethered to any one style or ethnicity. There was a balance of classically inspired dishes, like frisée salad with a runny poached egg and house-cured smoked pork jowl, or cheek, and a giant pork meatball, or crepinette, with mushroom salad, alongside pork buns, ramen and a lamb gyro with tzatziki.
“We like to cook what we want to eat,” says Nate, when he, Aaron and I sat down a few days after the event to talk about how they come up with their menus. “When we go to New York City or Boston, we try to eat as many things as we can. So, we try chef David Chang’s pork buns at Momofuku. Then we go to Chinatown and have a totally different pork bun. Then, finally, we figure out how to make our own version and, eventually, we get it right.”
Aaron adds: “We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves. We love old-timey rustic food. And we love street food. We don’t really think about what is trendy but more about what we really like. Our menus evolve to reflect this.”
The pork bun on offer that night was made with pork shoulder from VT Family Farm braised with sriracha, hoisin, soy sauce and brown sugar. The shredded meat is stuffed into homemade buns and garnished with fresh cilantro, sriracha-spiked aioli, scallions, kimchi and house-made pickles. Each bite was an eye-rollingly delicious balance of fatty, spicy, sour and salty flavors.
Their first pop-ups could be described as mostly experimental, the trio trying to bring to life ideas that had been simmering for some time. Aaron, Nate and Laura were having beer at The Monkey House in Winooski, listening to local DJ Disco Phantom spin tunes to an almost empty house. They thought: Wouldn’t this night be better if there was fried chicken to eat? So, they started frying chicken at Sneakers next door and shuttling it, along with buttermilk biscuits and honey butter, through an alleyway to the customers at the bar. The Dirty Bird—and the Misery Loves Co. pop-up series—were born.
Left to right: Beverage director Laura Wade,
Chef Nate Wade chatting with diners, Chef Aaron Josinsky serving up a dish
The name is Aaron’s brainchild. He, Nate and Laura had just finished up working their final season at Shelburne Farms and did not know what project they would move on to next. So, they decided to throw a dinner party for Valentine’s Day and to call it Misery Loves Company, a kind of anti-Valentine’s Day Valentine’s Day anthem. Working in the food business, they all had grown to despise this particular day: “It is one of those days when there are so many expectations and nobody who is working that night wants to be there,” admits Aaron.
Nate adds: “When we turned the idea into Misery Loves Co., we were trying to express the feeling that we’ve all had—when you can’t find something good to eat or when you feel like you are selling all of your ideas to the highest bidder. You are just struggling to find your identity. Then, you find yourself at home and you are cooking and you realize what it is you wanted to do again—to cook for people who want to be with you. And you realize that you are happy again.” He adds, chuckling: “This past Valentine’s pop-up dinner was the first time I have worked on Valentine’s Day and did not want to kill myself.”
That first anti-Valentine’s Day dinner never actually materialized, but Aaron, Laura and Nate moved forward with the catering company. The basic schedule for the pop-ups runs on a three-day rotation. There is the planning day, the ordering day and the prep day:
“Generally, we sit down on Sundays and drink coffee and say to one another, ‘We need to write a menu,’” says Aaron. “Then, we prep on Monday and put the finishing touches on everything on Tuesdays.” They get by with their two refrigerators, doing most of the prep work out of their home kitchens. Laura is their beverage director and she has a penchant for Old World wines like Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt.
“We were so naïve for that first pop-up at the Monkey House,” admits Aaron. “And it was pretty rough. To be honest, the first time in any new space is rough and they really don’t get easier. One second you are rolling with prep and service and the next you realize that you have forgotten the smoked paprika and are 20 minutes from home.” Luckily, Aaron and Nate have been working together for almost six years, starting at Shelburne Farms back in 2006. They know how to wing it when they need to. As a group, the members of Misery Loves Co. have an impressive resume. Aaron, Nate and Laura were all part of the opening team at Bluebird, Aaron and Nate in the back and Laura managing the front of the house and the beverage program. They have all spent time at The Inn at Shelburne Farms and Aaron and Laura also worked together at Blue Hill in New York City. Most recently, Nate was at Resto, a meat-friendly restaurant in New York City whose motto is “bringing fat back.”
And yet, almost in spite of their stellar experience and their growing recognition, they remain grounded and earnest about their goals: “Honestly, I just want a couple to come in for a good dinner and then go home and make love,” says Aaron, with refreshing honesty. “We just want to have a good, honest family business.” Nate adds: “We just want to work hard and go to bed.”
They all support local producers but recognize—and are not afraid to say—that local does not always mean better: “That is a lesson I’ve learned in Vermont,” admits Aaron. That said, he admits that there is no other place that he’d rather be and the pair already know who will source their eggs and their tomatoes, and they are excited about all of the great Vermont beer.
The issue for them is that local has turned into a kind of fetish in foodie culture: “We don’t always want to say that it’s local,” Aaron says. “We want that to be implied. Most importantly, we want to convey that you shouldn’t have to pay an arm and a leg to eat good food.”
When you get them talking about their own restaurant dreams, they again start to sound idealistic in a way that betrays their years in the business. They are over fancy restaurants—the expensive “white tablecloth thing,” as they describe it. Nate giddily talks about the feeling he wants customers to experience in their restaurant: “We’re not worried if the chairs match as long as they are comfortable. We want to convey warmth, hominess. We want customers to feel happy.” “You come and eat our food and that’s pretty much all we can say,” says Aaron. Nate chimes in, “I just want food to be good again!” Well, so do we, and it’s a good bet that with Misery Loves Co. around, the food will be.
Find Misery Loves Co. at MiseryLovesCoPresents.com and on Facebook.