Keen
Cuisine 

A preponderance of fresh and locally found products inspire this French chef’s culinary creations 

by Rosalyn Graham

In 1995, French chef Roland Gaujac brought his family, culinary education and years of experience in public and private dining rooms to New Haven, where they thrill traveling and local palates at Roland’s Place.

A chef’s talent lies in taking high-quality ingredients and combining them in a way that will please the palate. Chef Roland Gaujac has taken the culture of his native France, an excellent culinary education, years of experience in hotels and private dining rooms around the world, and a historic and scenic location and combined them with imagination, seasoned with his own charming personality, and created The 1796 House at Roland’s Place in New Haven.

Since 1995, Roland, his wife, Lisa, and their three children have lived in the 210-year-old stately home with the signature cupola, bringing new life to a landmark that began life as a tavern and then a popular stagecoach stop in the early 1800s. For more than a century and a half, its commercial roots were dormant as it was home to the Stow and Doud families, dairy farmers. 

It was only recently revived in its early hospitality persona — first as a restaurant and bar by a retired New Jersey policeman and then, with three-quarters of a million dollars in restoration and additions, by Robert G. Hodson and his wife, who operated the restaurant for about three years. When Mrs. Hodson became ill, they closed the doors in 1989, and the historic building sat empty for over four years.

Enter Roland and Lisa Goujac.

Roland was born in 1955 in Lyon, France. While he admits, laughing, that his mother was not a great cook, and he and his sister often helped to cook when they came home from school, the French love for food and pride in good cooking was all around them. Roland’s aunt was private chef for a countess, and his grandfather loved to make special Mardi Gras cookies. 

Roland went to the culinary school in Grenoble, and then, still a teenager, worked in a hotel in Geneva and as assistant chef on a cruise ship. When he was drafted into the French Navy, he was private chef to the commandant.

After his year in the Navy, Roland worked as a chef at a bistro in downtown Lyon, and then as executive chef at a Club Med–style resort in Senegal, West Africa, for five years. Lisa describes the situation when he returned to France and a pivotal decision: “It’s such a lifestyle, being at a club, and when he went back to France, thinking he wanted to settle down, he found he didn’t feel much like a Frenchman anymore. He dreamed of going to the United States.” 

It was the boom time of the ’80s. Roland came to Los Angeles, where he was a partner in a couple of short-lived restaurants, both victims of their owners’ lack of attention to the details of the business and poor locations. “I had just come from France,” Roland says, “I had no clue that downtown LA was not so good.”

Family members pitch in at Roland’s Place. Daughters Emeline (left) and Celine help their mother, who also works at Christ the King School in Burlington, with weddings. In the restaurant, Emeline buses tables, and Celine is a hostess.

The bad luck didn’t last for long. Roland met Lisa. “I was only 20 when I met Roland, and we eloped six weeks later,” Lisa says. A short time back in France confirmed that the United States was where Roland wanted to be, and they returned, with baby son, Gatien, to a series of successes as chef in new, large hotels in Newport Beach, Le Biarritz and Le Pavilion Four Seasons, a four-star restaurant. 

Then came an opportunity right out of the movies (or maybe a chef’s wildest dreams): a very wealthy businessman who dined in the restaurant liked Roland’s food and invited him to interview for the job as his personal chef. For the next 10 years, the Gaujacs lived a peripatetic life filled with wonderful food, glamorous houses and famous people as he worked for the Taubman family at their summer home in Michigan. Winters, he had the opportunity to visit the best hotels and restaurants in the country, learning new techniques and honing his skills.

It was an exciting life, the Gaujacs agree, but there was always the tyranny of the beeper, the call for a bagel at 4 o’clock in the morning, and after 10 years, they began to seriously look for a restaurant of their own. They thought about Michigan, but were concerned about the sporadic automotive-based economy, and looked at Cape Cod, but realized that the short season there did not fit with their vision of a more settled family life.

“We had heard about Vermont through friends in Palm Beach,” Lisa says. “We looked at seven properties and then the Realtor talked us into looking at this property.” Their search had been in southern Vermont because, Lisa admits, they thought the south was warmer, but nothing fitted the needs of the Gaujac family. Typical properties were designed for an-inn owning couple, not a couple with three children and a dog.

“Then we saw this huge property, but it was much too expensive. The Realtor said, ‘Wait. Don’t say no until you’ve met the owner.’ So we drove out to see him near Basin Harbor and talked to him.” The owner was Robert Hodson, whom Lisa describes as “a giving, wonderful man. He fell in love with our family and said, ‘Write me a business plan that proves that it’s not worth my price.’” The Gaujacs wrote the plan and bought the historic inn.

Hodson continued to be very supportive, calling his friends and promoting the new restaurant. The Gaujacs — Roland, Lisa and their children, Gatien, Celine and Emeline — moved into the 1796 House, which they christened the 1796 House at Roland’s Place. 

A rustic bar near the front of the house greets visitors. Fresh from the kitchen, Roland (left) poses with waitress Sarah Manieri and line cook Ryan Creed.

“It’s been a learning process,” Lisa says. “We learned you can’t rely on the tourist business and have to market to the local area, and that January through April is a quiet time, so we enjoy it and then work really hard during the summer.” 

They also learned after a few years to ease up on themselves by closing the restaurant on Monday and Tuesday, and they don’t serve breakfast, except to the guests in the three bed and breakfast rooms and to special parties. They are open for Sunday brunch.

An interesting quirk of timing was that Roland opened his restaurant just as the Vermont Fresh Network was beginning. His tradition of French cuisine with its strong regional and local themes, plus his experience in West Africa where local produce was the focus, made him an early supporter of the Network’s plan to bring local farmers and local restaurateurs together.

“We did business from the beginning with local producers, some of them very small,” he remembers. “We had a guy who came with one box of blueberries and another guy with a log in his basement who grew shiitake mushrooms.” 

Now Roland gets lots of local produce, from the turkey of Misty Knoll Farms and the venison of LedgEnd Farm to fiddlehead ferns and cattails from local suppliers who are poised to move quickly in very short seasons. Roland gets most excited in the spring as these delicacies appear, often providing the centerpiece of one of the favorite features of the menu: “Roland’s Inspiration.”

Loyal local customers have made Roland’s Place a part of their lives, for quiet suppers, big family get-togethers, reunions, club and committee meetings and the historic moments such as birthdays, graduations and weddings. Marilyn McLaughlin of Shoreham who dines at Roland’s Place frequently with her husband, Mac, and friends and family, says they enjoy the excellent food and Lisa’s warm welcomes. 

“You feel like you’re in their home,” McLaughlin says. “Roland is a fabulous chef, always trying new things.” She appreciates the fact that Roland comes out to chat with the guests. “At first, Lisa practically dragged him out of the kitchen, but now he comes out on his own. It makes patrons feel important.” 

For many families in Addison County and beyond, including Gov. Jim Douglas, Roland’s Place has been a perfect location for family weddings — Lisa’s focus in the business these days. With views of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, the large deck, with seating for 200, is a beautiful spot for a wedding. Daughters Celine and Emeline, now 16 and 14, help their mother with the preparations — Celine as a gracious hostess and Emeline using her artistic talents to decorate the cakes. 

The establishment has always been a family project, with the children ready to pitch in when called upon. Gatien is a student at St. Michael’s college, but tends bar and helps with catering when he’s home. Celine is a junior at Rice Memorial High School and is studying sports medicine at Burlington Technical Center, with thoughts of a career in physiotherapy. Emeline is auditing courses at Rice this semester after returning from spending the fall studying in France. “They all have great work ethics. We work hard, but it’s easier having family time,” says Lisa. 

After working in the business for the first eight years, hostessing and using the business and marketing expertise she had garnered when she went back to school in Michigan, Lisa realized she was not a bookkeeper at heart. She found her dream job working at Christ the King School in Burlington as development director for the diocese and the school. “It’s fun and it’s social, and it fits with the kids’ going to school in Burlington,” she says. “We still work together. I like hostessing. I like to talk to people.”

Roland’s quieter nature fit well with taking on more of the business details, and he admits he likes the B&B part, too. “I was not too crazy about it in the beginning, but now I like to meet the people and get to know them.” 

He comes out from behind the stove and has breakfast with the guests. With the adaptability that is the hallmark of a committed business owner, he says that although the best part is cooking, working with local produce and local companies, being a restaurant owner is much more than cooking, and he likes it all — even plowing the driveway with his new tractor.