ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. -- A recent trek through northern Vermont was more rigorous than expected: I scaled the sugar rush heights of a chocolate hazelnut crunch bar, stumbled across Arctic char in an aromatic Genevoise sauce , inhaled the tangy-sweet aroma of mussels in green curry coconut broth, and braved the crunchy freshness of newly harvested organic fiddlehead ferns. And just when I thought I couldn't eat one more thing, the heady scent of truffle oil atop mushroom bisque made me reach for my spoon.
I was on the "NECI Trail," exploring restaurants in the Essex/Burlington environs run by former graduates of the New England Culinary Institute . Since its modest beginning in 1980 , the school has graduated thousands of talented chefs; many have remained in these lush rural byways near Lake Champlain to open their own establishments.
My goal was to taste as much good food as possible in three days. Along the way I learned there's a name for people like me, who organize their vacations around unique gastronomic experiences. We are culinary tourists. And Vermont, with its farmers and producers of artisan breads, cheeses, meats, chocolate, and even beer, is the perfect place to be one.
The Inn at Essex rightly claims to be a "culinary resort." As home to one campus of NECI, where 175 student chefs and instructors out number the 120 guest rooms, the place is abuzz with bread baking, simmering stocks, the art of charcuterie, and other basics of the trade. Guests and visitors can taste the fruits of this labor at the inn's two restaurants: the Tavern, specializing in casual American fare, and Butler's Restaurant, offering creative fine dining.
The inn also offers the opportunity to learn how to cook. In their Dacor kitchen you'll find weekly demonstrations, hands-on chef training classes, and even customized lessons with a personal chef.
Leaving the inn, it was easy to find chefs who had studied at the institute.
"You almost can't walk into a kitchen in this area without encountering a student, intern, or alumni of NECI," said Steve Atkins. Atkins met his wife, Lara, at the school. They opened their first venture, The Kitchen Table Bistro, in Richmond four years ago.
Like all the chefs I encountered, Atkins credits Vermont's rural quality and its fresh local products as important elements for opening a business here. Growing up in nearby Shelburne, he has seen the culinary world change in the past 25 years.
"As chefs entered the workforce the local food movement here exploded, which helps influence restaurants, cuisine, and the whole landscape. Vermont has seen an increase in its number of small farms growing products for restaurants and local farmers markets," said Atkins.
The Kitchen Table Bistro proudly lists the names of its farmers and providers on its seasonally changing menu. Located in a late- 18th-century brick house built by the first governor of Vermont, Thomas Chittenden, the restaurant's stark simplicity and casual elegance are enhanced by Atkins's honest, restrained, and creative approach to food.
Monica Lamay is a Burlington native who graduated from NECI in 1997. After working in California she returned last year and opened her first restaurant, Sonoma Station, in the former 1854 "Blue Seal" building in Richmond.
"I found a similarity between Sonoma and Chittenden counties. Both have rolling hills, small towns, and small farms that work together with restaurants. I thought I'd bring a little California back to Vermont," said Lamay.
Lamay sprinkles some Mexican and Asian influences amid the local fare, as found in her crab and avocado Napoleon with crunchy corn wontons. The menu offers daily specials to highlight seasonal products.
"Today is all about spring veggies. I'm serving local lamb with artichokes, wild ramps, and fava beans," said Lamay.
It's a short stroll up the road to another NECI grad's first restaurant, Toscano Café/Bistro.
"I went to NECI as an older student. I was a full-time musician, with a family, and I decided on a career change to culinary arts," said chef John Fath.
Toscano Café/Bistro is now a family affair, with Fath's wife, Lucie, coordinating the dining room and their three sons working part time as bartenders, waiters, and busing tables. The menu features rustic Mediterranean cuisine (with a heavy emphasis on Northern Italian) in a casual setting more reminiscent of Umbria than the back roads of Vermont.
"It's great how NECI alumni in this area have such diverse businesses. It's a great community," said Fath.
An example of this diversity can be found in Burlington at Drink, owned by NECI grad Bill Shahady.
"I went to school thinking I'd be a chef and then got into wine ," Shahady said. " I started with a retail store which then became a wine bar."
He eventually sold the retail store next door and his wine bar concept evolved to include all kinds of drinks.
"Our focus is people having a good time and relaxing," said Shahady.
It's easy to relax in Drink, with its black leather couches, coffee tables, and games ranging from Scrabble to chess to Battleship . The drinks include wine, beer, and 40 specialty cocktails. Above the bar, glass jars of infused vodkas are illuminated like a candy-colored apothecary. A limited menu offers small pizzas, chips and dips, and an antipasto plate.
Kirk Fiore and his wife, Katie, NECI grads, wanted a place of their own. They found an old fried chicken shack along Riverside Drive in Burlington and with their partner, farmer Abbey Duke, renovated it into Sugarsnap.
"Our premise is to serve local organic produce, meat, and dairy, and provide healthy take-out meals," said Fiore. Open since 2003, they serve a changing selection of composed seasonal salads, soups, and sandwiches.
"Today we have fiddlehead ferns and ramps. It's nice after a long winter to start seeing those things. I just got my first case of baby spinach from the farm," said Fiore, smiling.
The community farm he refers to is Intervale, just down the hill, where Sugarsnap has its own plot.
Has he seen many changes in the area?
"There are more and more organic farms. There's more availability and the price has gone down. The Onion River Co-op was a small little place; now it's the main grocery store in Burlington."
In the center of the city, Mirabelles had been my first stop. NECI grads Alison Lane (who creates the outrageous pastries ) and her partner Andrew Silva (who designs the breakfast items, lunchtime soups, and panini ) use many local products in their creations.
"We use a ton of local stuff. Vermont smoked sausage, eggs, Cabot butter, King Arthur flour," said Lane, counting on her fingers. "We make everything here. We even make our own croissants. People were thankful when we opened [in 1990] . We've almost trademarked ourselves by our pastries."
Ah, yes, the pastries.
"You should try the honey bee cake," said Lane. She placed a cylindrical vanilla cake with honey buttercream dipped in chocolate on my plate. I also selected a brightly colored daisy sugar cookie. Then a "chocolate hazelnut crunch bar" caught my eye.
"It looks like whipped Nutella on Rice Krispies ," I said.
"It's chocolate mousse atop praline and crisped rice."
Yum. I ate them all. I didn't realize I should have paced myself, like a mountain climber or cyclist on the first day of a race.
Shall I change my strategy as a future culinary traveler, eating half a bite of this and a half-portion of that to save room for the next possibly wonderful morsel?
Nah. Pass the stone-ground bread and the hand-churned butter. And one triple- chocolate-mocha mousse cake, please. To go.
Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston and Miami, can be reached at email@example.com .