Compliments to the Chef

Connie Jacobs-Warden of Chow!Bella never found it so hot that she had to leave the kitchen

by Julia Lynam

Photos: Jeff Clarke

CChow!Bella exterior how!Bella, a small and elegant restaurant in St. Albans, recently celebrated its second birthday.

'The name reflects the food,' explains proprietor Connie Jacobs-Warden. 'It's not the Italian 'ciao,' because we're not strictly an Italian restaurant, more of a Mediterranean restaurant with an American accent.'

Warden's early life was spent in more exotic climes. Born in California, she and her eight siblings spent three years in Guam before her father retired from the Air Force and brought the family to live in Jericho. 'Just think about my poor mother having to outfit nine kids for Vermont after we'd spent all that time going barefoot in Guam!' she laughs. 'Our feet were splayed and it was hard to find big enough boots!'

Early plans for a career in the food industry were scotched by her parents: 'I wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., which was the premier East Coast cooking school, but my parents were horrified — it wasn't considered a very genteel occupation for a woman.'

Enrolled instead at Emerson College in Boston to study mass communications, she became discouraged. 'I didn't graduate,' she says. 'It soon became apparent to me that the media industry was very competitive. This was the early '70s and there were no women in radio and T.V. except Barbara Walters; I just didn't have the guts to stick at it.'

She returned to Vermont and, after a stint at Carbur's restaurant in Burlington — 'It seems like everybody worked there at some time!' — Warden ventured into the world of professional decorating with a 12-week course at the U.S. School of Professional Paperhanging in Rutland, and set out for a spell as a sub-contractor doing commercial wallpapering in Vermont and Boston.

'I lived in Beacon Hill, Boston,' she recalls. 'I couldn't afford to keep a car and park it there, so, as a lot of my jobs were nearby, I used taxis to go to work. I'd call one of the really big yellow cabs and fill it up with my tools and wallpaper.'

It was during this period that Warden's real talent, and innate sense for food, began to emerge. She proved her mettle in a part-time job as a prep cook at classy Piaf's Bistro in Boston's Wilbur Theater. 'It was totally trial by fire,' she says. 'I don't know to this day why Richard Pilla hired me!'

She was, after all, from a world that appreciated fine food. Despite their horror at the idea of their daughter training to be a chef, the Jacobs family had many connections with the business. Her aunt and uncle had run the McCann food show on a New York radio station. 'They were totally food- oriented,' Warden says. 'They partied a lot and were friendly with James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child.

Connie Jacobs-Warden

Connie Jacobs-Warden built her reputation as a chef in Burlington, Boston, and Florida before opening Chow!Bella two years ago. She describes the St. Albans eatery as 'a Mediterranean restaurant with an American accent.'

'And my grandmother,' she continues, 'back in the 1930s and '40s, was a trouble shooter for Schrafts in New York City. They ran a chain of lovely little luncheon restaurants that made, among other things, their own chocolates. My grandmother's job was to make sure the recipes were being stuck to and the corporate line toed. She could always tell if they were deviating from the company's recipes in any way!'

At Piaf's, Warden quickly moved onto 'the line' as a chef. Cooking soon displaced wallpapering to become her full-time occupation. Her ambition to attend the Culinary Institute of America was realized as, during the theater break every August when the restaurant, too, closed down, the owner sent her to CIA to take cooking classes.

'During this time I studied frantically,' Warden recalls. 'A colleague at Piaf's had graduated from the cookery school run by Madeline Cayman who now lives in Williston. She lent me Madeline's books and I read them cover to cover, upside down and inside out. That was a large part of my technical training.

'I also had a real sense of cooking,' she continues. 'There's a type of person that makes a good chef, and it's not necessarily a straightforward 'type A' personality, as many people think.

'We use the left side of the brain more than people realize! You have to be a very hands-on person, tactile with good hand-to-eye coordination; but you also need very good powers of concentration and to be able to cope with a high level of pressure, dealing with cooking maybe as many as 15 different things at once.' She pauses, as a thought strikes her. 'Why anyone would want to do this is the biggest question of the century!'

Such qualities were also important in finding financing for her new venture. Becky Tarte, vice president and market manager at the Swanton branch of the Chittenden Bank, remembers it well: 'We were excited about Chow!Bella because Connie had planned her business very well, and success hinges on the amount of planning. Personally, I was tickled to be able to help a fellow woman who had a wonderful business plan.

'That said, we definitely look at each deal on an individual basis and we look for sound planning. I felt very confident in Connie's abilities — she'd been running her catering business from home and had taken time to understand the business and her goals.'

Bob Pickener

Connie Jacobs-Warden believes St. Albans offers lower overhead and less competition for restaurants than Burlington. She says, 'Running a business here is more relaxing.' Pictured: head waiter Bob Pickener.

Warden came to the Railroad City in the late '80s when she met and married Peter Warden, then running his woodworking and restoration business, now employed by Asyst Technologies of Essex Junction. They have one daughter, 9-year-old Emily. 'There wasn't much chance of working as a chef, and I didn't want to do wallpapering,' Warden explains. Instead she set up a home-based catering business, coining the name Chow!Bella.

A favorable economic climate created a demand for the restaurant the catering business evolved into, Tarte says: 'The overall economy in Franklin County is good, the manufacturing base has grown, businesses are expanding, and people are going to need somewhere for lunch, so they're going to use Connie's business!'

It wasn't always like that, Warden recalls. 'Ten years ago, when I first moved here, St. Albans was a very different place,' she says. 'We came because Peter had been working on renovating some blocks under historic preservation grants and had bought an old Victorian house for himself. I didn't think I'd love it, but we've seen a great influx of business and community awareness of what a great place it really is.'

In the early '90s St. Albans wasn't big enough to support a restaurant that served dinner Monday through Saturday. When Jeff's Maine Seafood expanded, with Warden on the staff as chef, from a seafood market into an eat-in restaurant, it was on weekends only. Over the decade, demand built up and Warden turned her thoughts to starting her own restaurant.

The Main Street space Chow!Bella occupies had changed hands several times. Originally the salon or reception area for the St. Albans Opera House, the long, narrow room retains original features including a marble floor and decorative, pressed-tin ceiling. The small kitchen is open to the restaurant, an important feature for staff morale, Warden says. 'We can hear people talking and laughing and enjoying the food while we're working. With a closed kitchen the cooking staff really feels very little connection with the customers.'

The first three months after she opened in January 1998 were, Warden admits, horrendous. 'The first day was the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach, because once I was open I had to stay open. It was difficult trying to staff the restaurant, and then we had a break in — someone took all the liqueurs!'

St. Albans has certainly warmed to Chow!Bella: 'We have a lot of regulars,' Warden says. 'I was definitely shooting for the local crowd; it's good to see them in here for lunch every day.

'And I'd rather be here than Burlington, where the overheads are so much higher, the crowd is fickle and competition is so intense. Running a business here is more relaxing.'

The restaurant employs 10 people, most of them part-time, in addition to Warden. 'This is a unique community,' she says. 'We have no college students and we're not exactly a culinary capital. This means that my waitstaff are more mature than the average; it makes for less of a turnover and more responsibility. I'm in the kitchen much of the time so the waitstaff have to act as hosts and they are all knowledgeable enough to respond to positive or negative feedback.

'But the customers still want to see me here — it's a bit like being on stage every night. I tell the staff we have to act and think as if every customer walking in the door on any night of the week is a food critic.'

Word is beginning to spread outside the area and Chow!Bella is attracting patrons from Burlington and farther south. 'I even had repeat customers on vacation from England — they'd eaten here last year just after we opened and they were delighted to find us still here this year!' Warden recalls with glee.

'What I'd really like,' she continues, 'is for people from the Burlington area to consider Chow!Bella an essential stopping-off point for dinner on their way back from a day in Montreal.'

Connie Jacobs-Warden & Laura Fribley

The kitchen at Chow!Bella is open to the restaurant, which is an important factor in staff morale, according to Connie Jacobs-Warden (left): 'With a closed kitchen the cooking staff really feels very little connection with the customers.' Also pictured: chef Laura Fribley.

The menu includes light meals, salads, snacks and desserts with all the elements popular in the late '90s: wilted spinach, portabella mushrooms, steamed mussels, home-made flatbread, and, of course, cappuccino. Daily specialties tempt the palate and local Vermont suppliers are well represented: Ben and Jerry's Homemade Inc., The Vermont Tea Co. and The Perfect Drop rate a mention on Chow!Bella's menu.

Warden has wide experience in the world of high-class restaurants — all with little formal training as a chef. In 1983 she was cooking at a French restaurant in Florida when she was enticed back to Vermont to cook at Pearl's, just opening as a restaurant and night club on Pearl Street, Burlington. Nancy Burnett, one of Pearl's four founding partners says, 'Connie did extraordinary stuff — it was the best food in Burlington. Even now, 16 years later, people still stop me in the street to say how great it was.' Economic pressures caused the restaurant to close after little more than a year, although the club, under different ownership, remains.

'I wasn't surprised when I heard Connie had opened her own restaurant,' says Burnett, who now runs Fresco Studios in Burlington. 'She has remarkable staying power, and it's something she always wanted to do.'

'Connie is intuitive about food,' says Michelle Bessett, co-owner of Jeff's Maine Seafood in 1988, who was thrilled to discover Warden living in St. Albans when she was looking for a chef. 'She can make wonderful-tasting things from the most basic ingredients. My husband, Bob, says that if Connie made you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich it would be the best one you'd ever had!'

Bessett, who now runs As the Crow Flies, a kitchen and houseware store in downtown St. Albans, adds, 'We were interested in innovative cooking and we brought a lot of ethnic food to St. Albans that the town hadn't seen before. Finding Connie was a real stroke of luck.

'A lot of people were really pleased to see her open her own place,' Bessett continues. 'Her cooking is a combination of extreme simplicity with a really wonderful touch. I mean, where else can you get a really superb roasted vegetable and mixed grain salad in St. Albans?'

Julia Lynam is a free-lance writer living in Burlington, Vt. Her work has appeared in business publications in the United States and England since 1982.