Ripple Effect

By tossing A Single Pebble into the central Vermont restaurant market, Steve Bogart and Phil Gentile have created waves throughout the state

by Larissa K. Vigue

Steve Bogart and Phil Gentile opened A Single Pebble in Berlin in 1997. The name of the restaurant was taken from John Hersey's book about a trip up China's Yangtze River. "I just really liked the name, the history," says Bogart. "Every time I turn on the stove, I'm doing something that has been done for 6,000 years."

Steve Bogart has a one-track mind. "Ever since I was 8 or 9, I've had a driving interest in everything Chinese. It's uncontrollable," admits the 53-year-old co-owner and head chef of Berlin's A Single Pebble, which opened in November 1997 on the Barre-Montpelier Road. The restaurant serves, on average, 700 people a week, Tuesday through Saturday evenings, at its 17 tables.

An almost entirely self-taught chef with three decades of experience and certified by the American Culinary Federation, Bogart maintains that culture, not cooking, prompted his career choice. "I would not be in this business if it wasn't Chinese," he says.

Bogart has indeed created what he calls his "own little China" in Vermont, where he's lived since 1966, when he left his home state of New Jersey. He studies the language with a tutor. He reads a weekly Chinese-language newspaper. He imports the flavor of New York's Chinatown into the Green Mountains by recreating recipes he samples there and ordering $700-$1,000 weekly in non-perishables and Oriental vegetables from a Chinatown supplier. (Fresh fish and other regional products come daily from Proctorsville's Black River Produce.)

Bogart has been to China twice, in 1986 as the food guide for a group of American Culinary Federation chefs and in 1994, as a guest of the Chinese government in thanks for his longtime, "strictly non-political" work with the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association.

And he's been in this business before. In 1971, he began his professional career by cooking weekend meals for paying guests at the home of a friend. In 1972, he graduated to owning and operating across New England and New York a full-time Chinese-banquet catering business. Most recently, in 1992, he started China Moon in Warren, which he ran, save for a brief hiatus back to catering, until opening A Single Pebble.

Depending on the finagling that occurs on any given evening, the result is often either a good profitable night that stresses everyone out, or a stress-free night with no profit.

Pressed to identify the root of his passion, Bogart, who has a subdued, yet concentrated, demeanor befitting his man-behind-the-curtain role, shrugs his shoulders. "Well," he says finally, "I can remember eating in this Chinese restaurant in 1953. Maybe it was the decor or these things," he says, picking up chopsticks, that struck his fancy.

Profiling Flavor

Classical Chinese cuisine subdivides into regions, explains A Single Pebble chef Steve Bogart. Southern China and Hong Kong favor the Cantonese style, which depends on the inherent flavor of the product to provide the dish with its taste. For example, a whole fish will be steamed and then served with just a sprinkling of salt.
Bogart sticks primarily to Szechuan cooking, which adds seasonings (generally, pungent onion-family members like garlic and scallions, as well as ginger and hot chilies) to the beef, chicken, pork, seafood, bean curd, and noodle dishes to, as he says, “expound on their natural flavors.”

“The whole philosophy behind classical Chinese food is that everything on your table will be balanced,” explains Bogart. And a perfect balance requires five separate flavor profiles, corresponding to the regions on our tongues that identify those different tastes: salty, spicy, bland, sweet, and sour. Far from isolating one flavor to work your way through before going onto the next dish, keep that lazy susan spinning around, says Bogart: “They are meant to be eaten at the same time.”

And just a hint: When you break for a drink, don’t reach for your tea. The Chinese consider it a ceremonial beginning or end to a meal, not a common beverage. Bogart's partner, A Single Pebble's convivial front-of-house man Phil Gentile (pronounced "Jen-TIL-ee"), who owns 40 percent of the business to Bogart's 60 percent, has another idea: "I think it's some sort of reincarnation thing."

To hear Bogart talk about how and why he cooks, that doesn't seem far-fetched. By way of explanation, he tells the origin of the restaurant's name, which is taken from John Hersey's book A Single Pebble about a trip up China's Yangtze River. "The lead person pulling these junks (square-sailed boats used in Chinese waters) up the river was called 'Old Pebble,'" explains Bogart. "I just really liked the name, the history. It fits what I'm doing here going to incredible lengths to make it authentic. Every time I turn on the stove, I'm doing something that has been done for 6,000 years."

That "something" is classical regional cuisine cooked in the style of Szechuan. It features everything from chicken to mock eel (shitake mushrooms) cooked in homemade stock not oil with natural flavor-enhancers like garlic and ginger (in other words, no MSG) using a paper-thin wok set over a deep well so the heat flows up and around the vessel. Everything is made from scratch by Bogart and his five fellow chefs and assistants (all graduates of New England Culinary Institute, where Bogart has taught) in the tiny, though scrupulously organized, kitchen.

Rather than offer separate courses of appetizers and entrees, patrons are encouraged to order the simply named "small," "medium" and "big" dishes in tandem. When they arrive in rapid-fire succession, the server sets them on the table's bright-red lazy susan (a striking contrast to the white tablecloths) so diners can easily mix and match the food on their plate, thereby achieving a balance of tastes on the palate.

Although each reservation is a two-hour slot, servers sometimes must assure diners that they aren't being rushed, says Bogart. They quickly adapt. A detailed menu and an educated wait staff of seven (some of whom worked with Bogart at China Moon) helps, says Gentile. "We get three to four tables a week that are surprised by the menu — they're looking for the sweet-and-sour, the buffet — but we explain to them this is a little different. More often than not, they're pleasantly surprised."

For Bogart, who spends nearly every hour he's not cooking back home reading recipes in Chinese, redefining what "Chinese food" means to Vermonters is gratifying. "The stuff you get in the take-outs (here) bear no resemblance to anything in China," he says. It's bizarre that they have the exact same food I have, the exact same equipment, and yet they think Americans want something else. I've proven that if you cook like you cook for your family on a Sunday afternoon, people are just going to go nuts over it."

Phil Gentile, the restaurant's convivial front-of-house man, says of his partner's passion for Chinese culture: "I think it's some sort of reincarnation thing."

Sometimes, though, the more exotic menu items are overlooked. Off and on for months, A Single Pebble ran a verbal special (six of which are offered nightly) featuring Chilean Sea Bass. Patrons, many of whom order only the specials, says Bogart, raved over it. "We averaged probably 70 pounds a week, so we said, 'OK, let's put it on the menu.'" When no one ordered it, they reclaimed it as a special. Sales rose. "It's the nature of designating something 'special,'" says Gentile, and then talking it up.

Special or no, dishes go easy on the pocketbook. Menu selections range from $2.25 to $14.95. "We're very reasonably priced in today's market for the service and the quality of the food," says Bogart. "It's available to everybody. On any given night our clientele goes from carpenters and plumbers to surgeons they can all afford it."

But the profit margin remains low, between 4 and 6 percent. They pay their 23 employees (in addition to the kitchen and wait staff, there are four busers, two cleaning people, and one bartender) well, so labor costs are, Bogart says, "ungodly." But, he adds, he's so enthralled with what's he's doing that he never counts hours and, besides, "all of the five-star Michelin restaurants in France" operate at the same level.

Nor do the partners want to work more. "I've been cooking this kind of food for 30 years," says Bogart, "and I've never wanted to shovel it out. That's not why I cook." Lunch would require just as much work as dinners for much less return and Bogart says he's finally gotten comfortable enough with his crew to actually duck out a little early these days. "For the first time in four years, I can finally step back and look at the place," he says with a smile.

What about opening for a sixth dinner? No, say Bogart and Gentile, they want their Sundays for family time (both are married wives Deborah and Ellen, respectively, work in the local school system with two children) and, as Bogart notes, "Mondays are a dead day in the industry, anyway."

Fortunately, advertising doesn't figure heavily in the budget. Other than the sponsorship dinners the restaurant provides to non-profits like the Red Cross and the Onion River Arts Council, A Single Pebble draws customers by good, old word-of-mouth. Wait staff regularly find notes left on the tables listing what patrons' friends told them to order.

In the beginning, says Gentile, it helped enormously that "Steve had such an incredible following in Washington County. He'd been cooking here for 20 years, so once word was out, people flocked here." Also, the restaurant offers lots of parking and "is easy to get to off the interstate," notes Gentile, "so the location never held us back. Actually, it works to our advantage to be somewhat hidden. People seek us out."

For Steve Bogart, who spends nearly every hour he's not cooking back home reading recipes in Chinese, redefining what "Chinese food" means to Vermonters is gratifying.

A Single Pebble is so sought-after that the partners have had offers to open a second location in Burlington. Gentile says he and Bogart have little interest in splitting their time between the two venues. "We're employing 23 people, serving five meals a week and maxing out," he says. "Most people in the restaurant business would strive and love to (do that) and be full-time. We're doing something right."

Jim Reiman, co-owner with Robert Meyers of Burlington's Sweet Tomatoes Restaurant and friends with Gentile and Bogart, thinks so. "As restaurants go, it's difficult to deliver the same quality of food day in and day out, (but) Steve is the consummate chef-owner," says Reiman. "He has a proprietary attitude that goes way beyond normal and Phil's a perfect complement. They've distinguished themselves with their level of dedication and perfection in front and back."

That distinction makes for another parallel with five-star restaurants: seating almost exclusively by reservation. (Out of the average 100 people served per night, only one or two parties might be walk-ins.) For weekends, that almost always means calling a week in advance. That's OK, says Gentile, because dining out in Vermont is what people do for fun. In addition to patrons from as far away as Boston and New York, "friends from all over Vermont congregate here," he says. "It becomes a social event for the weekend if people plan well ahead."

Still, being appreciated far and wide can hurt as much as help when the restaurant experiences the rare slow night. "People think, 'I'd love to go there,'" says Bogart, "'but I didn't call.' They don't think to go anyway."

So when people do think to just "drop in" and happen to hit the free-table jackpot, everybody wins, right? Yes, but not without an often stressful race against the clock, says Gentile. "Let's say we've got 80 or 90 on the books on a mid-week night fine. There's a table that's open for an hour and a half. I have to decide: If someone walks in, do I give them the table and then let them know that there's another seating (in less than two hours)? As kind as you are explaining to someone that there's another seating, they forget and all of a sudden, my 7:30 walks in. That's a constant challenge and stress in my life."

Bogart and Gentile make every effort to accommodate customers, but moderate prices and limited seatings per table (two on the weekends) mean that tables must be turned. Depending on the finagling that occurs on any given evening, the result is often either "a good, profitable night (that) stresses everyone out," says Gentile, "or no one gets stressed (but) we break even."

What hasn't been challenging is attracting employees. While other restaurants are "just screaming for help," says Bogart, A Single Pebble boasts a waiting list of chefs and servers. In part, that's because "you basically can't get this kind of experience in a (Chinese-owned) Chinese restaurant," says Bogart. With a substantial labor pool of Chinese immigrants, rarely do Chinese restaurateurs feel compelled to invite non-Chinese workers into their businesses.

Bogart wouldn't have landed an internship in the classy Los Altos, California, Chef Chu's his only experience cooking alongside native Chinese chefs had it not been for his role as tour guide on that 1986 China trip. Chef Chu's owner, a member of the delegation, agreed a few years later to let Bogart spend a month in his 800-meal-a-day restaurant. "Up until then I was only doing the (catered) banquets. This showed me how to translate everything into high-volume, commercial quality."

Bogart's only other formal training came in the late 1980s, when he worked with a master chef at Topnotch Resort in Stowe. That's where he learned about the "European brigade system in the kitchen," an organizational structure he refers to, simply, as "kitchen manners."

Neighborly manners were responsible for Bogart and Gentile's joining forces as business partners. From Pennsylvania originally, Gentile moved to Vermont to attend the University of Vermont. After getting his bachelor's degree in secondary education and a brief hiatus teaching high school outside the state, Gentile returned to Vermont, settling in Chelsea and working as a counselor for social service organizations. In 1978, he and his family moved to Worcester and across the street from Bogart.

As he was "exposed to Steve's wonderful cooking," recalls Gentile, a latent interest in the restaurant business began to surface. In 1981, Gentile and two partners opened Julio's, a bar and restaurant in Montpelier. Four years later, Gentile sold his share in Julio's and helped start up White River Junction's Catamount Brewing.

In the meantime, something else was brewing between the neighbors. Gentile says he and Bogart would "talk on and off about doing something together," but it wasn't until 1997, as Gentile grew increasingly restless with his job at Catamount and Bogart began nosing around for space to house the offspring of China Moon, that everything fell into place.

Tony Martinez is "second wok," a title once removed from sous chef. Bogart's five fellow chefs and assistants are all graduates of New England Culinary Institute, where Bogart has taught.

"I was really itching to leave where I was, I just needed someone to hand me the parachute," remembers Gentile, "and then Steve said, 'I found a space, I'm going for it.' We had a meeting in July, and by September we'd rented the space and started renovating."

Neighbor to a bowling alley, the innocuous-looking set of gray buildings, in which A Single Pebble is housed, had, in the 1980s, been home to the restaurant Philuras. That meant relatively few renovations in the basic floor plan and utilities, though, says Gentile, atmospheric changes were necessary. Bogart, being the expert on China, devised the color scheme and put in the window fixtures meant to resemble Asian screens. It took them only 60 days to open the doors. (They had only 10 tables the first year and then expanded, twice, into then-unused space in the buildings.)

"Nobody thought we could do it, but we opened right on the day that we promised we would and we've been going ever since," says Gentile.

No surprise, says Steve Everett of Montpelier's Everett Insurance Agency, who manages A Single Pebble's property, casualty, liability, and worker's compensation coverage. He considers Bogart and Gentile an excellent business risk. "Everything they do is well thought-out, well-managed, and with the customer in mind. Their primary concern is to (provide) a good product in a pleasing atmosphere." In other words, he adds, "They're conscientious and thorough and it shows."

Originally published in February 2001 Business People-Vermont