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Savory Characters

Owning a restaurant is no piece of cake, but this couple makes it work well

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Steve and Lara Atkins returned to Vermont in 2002 to raise their son and open their restaurant, The Kitchen Table, in Richmond.

Steve and Lara Atkins know firsthand the benefits of following one’s heart. It has worked for them in romance as well as it has in business. If they had followed their first career choices, they would now be physicians, likely never having met, and Vermont palates would be suffering an unconscious, unfilled yearning.

They did, however, follow their hearts, and, through a series of fortunate events — interspersed with a lot of hard work — the Atkinses became the chef-owners of The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond.

The Kitchen Table is housed in an 18th-century brick building at the junction of U.S. 2 and River Road that is said to have once been bought by Thomas Chittenden, Vermont’s first governor, for his son. The Atkinses discovered it through a “Picket Fence Preview” listing on the Internet, just at the time they had decided to return from California to Steve’s home state of Vermont. Their path to that return is the story of how they found each other and their profession.

Steve grew up in Shelburne, the son of an IBM-er who had transferred here when Steve was quite young.” Following graduation from Champlain Valley Union High School, he says, “I was fairly sure I was on my way to medical school and being a physician, so I went to Bates College and have my bachelor’s in biology.”

Lara grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. — “born and raised,” she says with a chuckle, her Tennessee accent sneaking through. “My father’s a physician, and another of his many hobbies was we lived on a farm, so grew Herefords for beef for our family and for selling. He’s an amazing person, so I grew up feeding the cows and the horse.”

Her mother, “an excellent cook,” taught Lara and her two older brothers “a great appreciation for all aspects of life,” she says.

From a very young age, Lara planned to study medicine. In 1993, after graduating from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., with a degree in biology, she headed to Nashville planning to enter medical school at Vanderbilt. She decided to first apply for a job in a research lab there, and made a two-year commitment to work. She also made a quick discovery: “I didn’t like it at all!”

Lara continued on at the lab, but one afternoon, she dropped in at a fine-dining restaurant near her home. “I walked in and said, ‘Do you need a prep chef or anything?’ The chef looked at me — a little preppy person — and she encouraged pastry for me; but I worked on the line. I worked at that restaurant at the same time I worked at the lab the last year, which was crazy — two full-time jobs — but I did it.”

While Lara was developing her kitchen chops, Steve, who also graduated in 1993, had realized near the end of his time at Bates that he did not want anything to do with medicine. “I had always worked in restaurants as summer jobs,” he says,” and I gravitated to it.”

Back in Vermont, he took a job cooking at Café Espresso in Williston, “a fantastic place,” he says. “I learned a lot, and it got me going in the right direction.”

After two years there, in 1995, Steve decided to further his knowledge and enrolled at New England Culinary Institute. Down in Tennessee, Lara’s two years were up, and she, too, entered NECI. Although not in the same class, they met during the first rotation.

“It was crazy,” Lara says, “but I knew the moment I met him that he was the one for me. We moved in, pretty much immediately, together.”

NECI students go to school six months and take six-month internships. Lara and Steve headed to Napa Valley for theirs. She had arranged to work at a restaurant in St. Helena, and Steve found a job in the village of Sonoma. When that restaurant closed and he had to quickly find another place, Lara landed him a job where she worked.

He advanced more quickly, she says, because he had more cooking experience. She eventually moved to a bakeshop in Calistoga owned by the same restaurateur and made pastries.

At the end of their internships, they were unsure whether they wished to remain or come back to Vermont. First Steve, and then Lara, decided they were acquiring a great deal of experience, and since they were already college graduates, they did not need the NECI degree. They became engaged and returned to Vermont to get married, but after the wedding, they headed west again, this time to San Francisco, where Lara found work “at a giant, upscale wholesale pastry shop” that produced 200 to 400 cakes a day, all made by hand.

photoThe menu is changed every two to three weeks, and sometimes weekly in summer. Bill Jenkerson is a sous chef.

Steve worked at a restaurant called Bizou under Chef Loretta Keller. “By far,” says Lara, “we attribute the biggest influence to our current style to Loretta. She was classically French-trained, but produced all comfortable, approachable, beautiful food — not towers of leaning nonsense — just beautiful country food. She had what we wanted to do.”

After a year and a half in San Francisco, they headed to Napa again, where they worked for another three to four years. Along the way, their son, Gabriel, was born. “The goal was that before Gabriel started kindergarten, we wanted to be back here,” says Lara. “We came home for a friend’s wedding when Gabe was 14 or 15 months, and it was the middle of the summer and about 50 degrees and rainy, and we said, ‘We’ve got to come home!’”

That led Lara online, where she found the listing for the Richmond property. Friends here obtained information for them, and Steve traveled to Vermont to do a walk-through, but Lara never saw the place before they bought it. “Totally blind faith,” she says. “We came home, we had this little tiny baby, and I said, ‘Oh, God, what have we done?’”

Steve admits it was probably best that neither of them had had a close look before the purchase, because “we might not have ended up here, but now we can’t imagine it any other way.”

The building had been home to a popular pub named Chequers. On the outside, it hasn’t changed much, and even inside, former Chequers regulars could still find their way around. That’s because, before opening in February 2003, the couple completely updated and renovated the interior, but retained the layout, which consists of several small rooms and a ballroom space upstairs.

For the first two years, they shared everything. Home was an apartment on the second floor. Lara was in charge of the front of the house: servers, the hiring and firing, the wine list, inventory, and linens, plus her duties as pastry chef. Steve helped when he could, but his focus was the kitchen, working with the staff, ordering, dealing with farmers, foragers, and food producers.

Then, almost three years ago, on the very day their manager had given notice, Neal Johnston came into the restaurant to celebrate his birthday.

photo The Atkinses have between 30 and 35 employees, plus NECI interns. Matt Funk is a sous chef.

“I don’t typically have a lot of time to go out and chat with guests,” says Steve, “but it turned out that evening I did. Neal sent word back through the server that they had just moved to town from California and had some shared connections and wanted to say hey. He had not yet found a job.”

Johnston was hired as dining room manager and is now a partner in the business. “He is absolutely invaluable for us,” says Lara. The wine list is all Neal now, and he’s gotten awards for his wine. I do the pastry and a lot of operational kinds of things like dealing with the sand guy, the plow guy, the chimney, all the planning inquiries and events.”

Lara also takes care of Gabe, “which is a full-time job!” she exclaims. She’s up early, occasionally leaving Steve to see that Gabe catches the bus and has his lunch, but sometimes she lets Steve sleep, because he works late.

Lara works on the computer, returns e-mails, bakes, and tries to head home by 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon to meet Gabe at the bus. They recently bought a home in Hinesburg, which is a bit less convenient, but allows them to truly leave work behind. Steve arrives at midday to begin prep. “It’s crazy, but it works for us,” Lara says.

This is a white-tablecloth restaurant. The atmosphere is serene, comfortable, and spare. Here, the focus is on the food. The pastel sage green walls are decorated with black-and-white photos by Jeff Clarke. “They own the largest private collection of my photos anywhere,” he says.

This is not, however, a pretentious place. According to Lara, the menu is “absolutely driven by what we can find through our Vermont Fresh Network partners.”

Finding VFN was “an unexpected and amazing contact,” she says. “We can get Pete’s Greens root vegetables all winter, and in high season it is awesome! We have every kind of heirloom tomato possible, herbs from our garden, all the local beef. We feel so lucky to have the farm family contacts.”

Although the location can be challenging, unless the weather’s bad, regulars make the trip from Waterbury, Stowe, and Montpelier in the east, and Essex, Shelburne, and Charlotte to the west. “And we have parking!” Steve crows.

All the energy they have left is spent with family. “We like video games,” says Lara. “During nicer weather, we play soccer with Gabe, run around. But our time with the three of us is so rare, it’s our sacred time.” Sundays in winter count as sacred because the restaurant is closed, making possible big family breakfasts. Other times, the restaurant is open seven days a week.

“We were very concerned when we opened that Vermont wasn’t quite ready for what we were bringing,” Laura says, “seeing that we had just moved from the mecca of food and wine where the diners are almost as educated as the cooks are. We were so pleased that not only were they ready, but we were celebrated here.” •

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