Sea Fare

A young chef rallied his family to follow his calling

by Liz Schick

Since 1996, the West family has owned the St. Albans restaurant whose name recently changed from Jeff’s Maine Seafood to Jeff’s Restaurant. Jamie West runs the restaurant; his mother, Marie Anne West, is the general financial manager and runs the catering operation.

Strange as it might seem, there never was a Jeff who owned Jeff’s Restaurant on Main Street in St. Albans. The restaurant was named by Michele Bessett and Bob Iwaskiewicz, who opened it in 1983 as a seafood boutique called Jeff’s Maine Seafood. It was named for a mobile seafood business they had bought that sold fish from a truck in parking lots around Franklin and Lamoille counties.

By 1990, Jeff’s was a full-fledged lunch and dinner and catering business, offering specialty and take-out food and selling fresh fish wholesale and retail. When Bessett and Iwaskiewicz decided to pursue other ventures in 1996, they offered to sell the business to their young chef, Jamie West.

Seafood sign so familiar to the St. Albans

They say timing is everything, and the timing for West was perfect. He had worked in food service since age 13, moving up from an after-school dishwashing job at a local restaurant in Sheldon to pub cook. He knew, when it was time for college, that he wanted to do something practical, yet something he enjoyed, like cooking.

At Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York, West majored in hotel and restaurant management. After graduation, he spent eight years at the Tyler Place Family Resort in Highgate Springs, working his way up from server to chef to head chef. 

“It was a great laboratory for me to experiment and gain experience,” West says, “because Pixley Tyler Hill would challenge me to create three meals a day for well over 130 people and their kids every day.”

In 1992, feeling he needed a change, he took time off and went to the University of Montana to study theatrical direction. Once that was out of his system, he returned to the Tyler Place, where a friend mentioned that Jeff’s Maine Seafood needed a line cook. Bessett and Iwaskiewicz  hired him. 

As West became more involved in the cooking and menu selection at Jeff’s, he began to have ideas about shaping the social aspect of the restaurant, for example, suggesting live jazz on Friday nights. Bessett and Iwaskiewicz, who now own As the Crow Flies kitchen shop right across the street, told him they liked his ideas, and he could do anything he wanted in the restaurant if he bought it. 

West rallied his family and raised the funds from them and the bank to buy Jeff’s. Nine months later, Jeff’s Maine Seafood became the West family’s business. West and his sister, Rebecca, and his brothers, Timmy and Peter, were the partners; the business entity was called Wild West Enterprises. 

Two and a half years ago, West and Rebecca bought out the other partners. With Rebecca as silent partner, West and his mother, Marie Anne West, run the business, he as restaurant manager, she as general financial manager. Timmy stops in to help out in a pinch. “And then we pinch him,” says Marie Anne with a twinkle in her eye.

photoThe catering side of the business has seen continued growth. Prep cook and catering chef Jody Gleim has worked at Jeff’s for 12 years.

From the beginning, West envisioned developing a fine-dining atmosphere with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. “This is hard to do and certainly more expensive,” he says, “which is why a lot of people don’t do it. But if you really establish relationships with local people, you can do it.” 

He offers examples. Three staff members grow vegetables; his father picks about 80 quarts of wild blackberries each summer; there is a selection of regional cheeses; Boyden Valley beef is used; and in the winter, Lake Champlain perch is on the menu. 

What they can’t buy locally, they buy from Lindsay Ryan of Burlington Foodservice Co., who considers herself part of the family. Like the rest of the staff, customers, suppliers, and Marie Anne’s seven children, Ryan calls Marie Anne “Mama West.” Ryan stops in at least once a week to take orders, and more important, she says, to visit. 

“We chitchat and talk about catering and their family and my kids and which kid won the soccer game,” says Ryan. “Without question, I consider them to be part of my family, too. With all of that, they run the restaurant and catering business in the most professional way possible, and I feel extremely fortunate to have them as a customer.” Ryan finishes by musing, “It’s a great way to make a living.”

Everybody on the staff is considered part of the family, from head chef Stefan Pellman to the prep cook/catering chef, Jody Gleim. Gleim has worked at Jeff’s for 12 years. “I’m not sure she knew how to boil water when she came,” says West, “but now she’s cooking some of the best food in northern Vermont.” 

Twenty-eight-year-old Abby Krone, the night manager, has been with the restaurant off and on since she was 15, in one capacity or another.

Day manager LuAnn Beyor joined three years ago after her family retired and sold their diner in Alburgh. She had thought she was finished with the food business, she says, but found she missed the interaction with people. “It was quite a change, going from hamburgers and French fries to wines and sauces. I’m a little intimidated serving in the evening, but I love working through lunch. I love the people — customers and staff. Working for the Wests is just like I’m still working for my own family.”

When the family bought the restaurant, West and his brother Timmy worked together. After a while, feeling burned-out, West left the day-to-day running of the business to Timmy and his mother, and moved to Burlington as bartender at Leunig’s Bistro. About three years ago, it was Timmy’s turn to burn out, and there was talk of selling. By then, West had had time to regenerate his creative juices and had, with Leunig’s owner, Robert Fuller, as a mentor, developed a clear vision of what he wanted to do with the restaurant. He was ready to return. 

The first thing he did when he came back was to remove the retail portion of the restaurant—shelving and lobster tank—and expand the restaurant into the space. However, longtime customers or those who read the crayoned mirror in the back of the restaurant, know that they can still buy their fresh fish for home cooking at Jeff’s.

photoJamie West and his partner, Benjamin Nogueras (pictured), live right around the corner from the restaurant. Nogueras works in the business, but is also studying for the bar exam and plans to practice law.

With Fuller’s help, he began to understand how to be relaxed and run a business at the same time, and to be able to focus on the big decisions instead of over-thinking the small details. “In the end,” says West, “you need to think about the big picture and where you are going.” 

He firmly believes that “it comes down to putting out a great product, being nice and  not gouging people. In turn, they will come and they will support you. Our customer base is incredible, which is why, on average, we serve 350 dinners and 375 lunches each week. For example,” he says, “this Friday night you can bet Mrs. Corrigan will call to make a reservation for Saturday night at 6:30 for herself and her husband, as she has done for the last 11 years. The same thing holds true for the Werners, the Benays, Bruces, Dermodys, Klettes, and many others who dine here week in and week out.”

The restaurant has always had a catering department, but under Mama West’s guidance, it is a growing part of the business equation. From April to June this year, there was at least one catering job every day, sometimes more. 

“On average, the catering division keeps 10 people busy, while it takes 20 to keep the restaurant running smoothly,” says West. “We’ve just purchased a new catering van and finished a new catering brochure.” 

Helping with the brochure was West’s friend Bob Essman, who also helped to redesign the logo and make the recent name transition from Jeff’s Maine Seafood to Jeff’s Restaurant. According to Marie Anne, there are no plans in the works to change the name on the familiar sign over the restaurant’s entry. 

When he returned to Jeff’s, West also had a psychological plan to implement. “I wasn’t going to work 90 hours a week,” he says. “I was gong to be mentally fit so I won’t burn out again, because I want to be able to run the business for the long haul.” 

With this in mind, he and his partner, Ben Noqueras, bought a house around the corner. While Noqueras is involved in the restaurant, he is also studying for the bar exam and plans to practice law.  Of course, being part of Mama West’s family, he’ll probably always be involved with Jeff’s in one way or the other. •