THE RUTLAND RENAISSANCE MAN
BY NICOLE L’HUILLIER FENTON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENT HARREWYN
When you take a closer look at the restaurant industry in Vermont, it appears that the state has attracted restaurateurs that not only have superb culinary skills and intricate knowledge of flavor, but have also studied the art of running a successful business.
Chef Steve Sawyer of Table 24 in Rutland fits that profile perfectly. He’s worked in top-quality kitchens across the country, but he’s also learned how to build a business model from the likes of House of Blues, ESPN Zone and the nearly 30 restaurants he has opened throughout his career. The unique twist to his story is that Chef Steve Sawyer is also on a bit of a mission. He wants to help revive Rutland, one delicious plate of food at a time.
“I’m incredibly proud of the community here and the resilience of Rutland,” he said one evening in January. Sawyer grew up in Rutland and is still a little surprised after all his worldly travels that he ended up back in his hometown to run what has become his most successful restaurant to date. He graduated from Johnson & Wales with a degree in food and beverage management in 1992. He says it was the perfect combination of culinary arts and business school. While the business side appealed to him from the start, it was the kitchen that called him.
He found himself working in various kitchens in resort towns in his 20s, traveling each winter to Colorado and spending summers in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and South Carolina. In 1993, Sawyer purchased Brix Grill & Wine Bar in Flagstaff, AZ. It was the first time he realized that he knew a lot about the kitchen but not as much about how to run a financially successful business. The restaurant folded, but Sawyer persevered.
For the next four years, he worked as a sous chef at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, SC, and in Chicago, IL. That restaurant gave him a true sense of how an effective and structured program could work. It wasn’t until he landed as a sous chef and later as the corporate chef of New Openings at the ESPN Zone conglomerate that he really sharpened both his culinary and his business savvy.
“I trained at the flagship restaurant for the ESPN Zone in Chicago. It was intense training and gave me in-depth perspective on all aspects of the business. I then went on to open the ESPN Zone in Las Vegas, Denver and Anaheim,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer says that the front-of-the-house systems and efficient kitchen processes that he perfected opening restaurants around the country influence what he does every day at Table 24. In the kitchen, you’ll find him stoking the wood-fired oven, plating up one of his signature and award-winning burgers and answering questions from the servers. His approach to culinary arts is to cook in a manner that is respectful of the food and its unique flavor profiles to allow the product to shine through.
“One of my favorite dishes at Table 24 is our Simple Fish. We grill it, or blacken it, brush it with butter and season with sea salt. In its simplicity, the flavor of the fish becomes the hero of the dish.”
That focus on flavor is woven into everything that comes out of his kitchen. The Jerk Chicken Fondue appetizer was a perfect balance of spicy seasonings that mellowed just a tad when dipped into the creamy smoked Gouda fondue pot. This colorful dish—which also came with green apples and sourdough croutons to dip—was an immediate hit at our table. Sawyer says that the most popular dishes at Table 24 are a toss-up between the Slow Roasted (wood-fire rotisserie style) Prime Rib or the Lobster Macaroni & Cheese. Five cheeses including Monterey Jack, Asiago, Parmesan, Gouda and Emmenthaler Swiss are melted together to create a velvety sauce for his Macaroni & Cheese. Toss in sweet Maine lobster, tomatoes and chives and you’ve got a dish that you’ll be talking about for months.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Chef Sawyer’s Black Bean Soup, available only on Thursdays, that really caused a stir at our table. He talked about what makes it so delicious. “We soak the beans overnight, then brown ham hocks in oil. Add onions, carrots and celery. Simmer the beans in homemade chicken stock until tender. Remove ⅓ of the beans and the hocks. Reserve the hocks until cool enough to pick all the meat off. We purée the soup until smooth and then add the reserved beans for texture. Fold in the picked ham hock meat.” It’s served with pico de gallo, lime sour cream and tortilla strips.
Whatever dish is being prepared at Table 24, Sawyer keeps a keen eye on quality control and adherence to the recipes, while he talks about his vision for the future.
“I’m focused on seeing our staff succeed, helping them to get better at their jobs. We have a 401(k) program for our employees, which is a little unusual in the restaurant business,” said Sawyer. He is also committed to giving back to the community that has supported him over the last seven years, through philanthropic work from a golf tournament that he and Table 24 staff organize each year. The charity changes each year, with the main requirement being that the money raised stays in Rutland County. This year’s recipient is the Foley Cancer Center at Rutland Regional Medical Center.
Standing at the door to the entrance of Table 24, Sawyer greets customers warmly and comments that Table 24 wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support of Rutland. He’s often been called a “local boy that made good” and it appears that is something he is very proud of. He laughs at that label but says, “I like to think that I’ve contributed a little bit to the renaissance of Rutland and that feels pretty good.”
Nicole L’Huillier Fenton is a native of Rutland and works daily to support the local food system through her marketing agency in Burlington, Skillet Design & Marketing.