Fare Trade

This musician now makes the tastebuds sing

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Jon Fath and Lucie Bolduc-FathFive-plus years ago, Jon Fath took the plunge with his wife, Lucie Bolduc-Fath, and opened Toscano Café/Bistro in Richmond, where they serve rustic Mediterranean cuisine. They say business is great.

There’s more than one way to make music, and Jon Fath knows several of them. Whether it’s drumming or cooking or studying or planning — he approaches each subject as something to be played well.

Fath and his wife, Lucie Bolduc-Fath, are the owners of Toscano Café/Bistro in Richmond. Toscano, which features rustic Mediterranean cuisine with an emphasis on northern Italian, was the culmination of some dreaming, a lot of study and hard work, reaching out to fellow restaurateurs, and listening to the community. This is the way Fath (pronounced “faith,” by the way) does things.

Fath grew up in a “very culinary family in Barrington, R.I., right on the Narragansett Bay,” he says. He spent his summers digging clams and quahogs at low tide and taking them home for his mother to cook. She was allergic to seafood, but she would cook them up and make something else for herself.

“My folks were fairly well traveled — my dad was a chemist and would take business trips to Europe, and my mother would go occasionally. She used to watch Julia Child on television in the ’60s. I can remember her sitting there with a pad and paper taking notes. She cooked both French and American.”

Fath’s first encounter with Vermont was in 1969 at age 12 — “back in the day,” he says — when he came up for a visit with his older sister, who was attending Goddard College. He and his sister had just attended the Woodstock festival. He fell in love with the state.

It was music that finally drew him here. When he was in high school, a friend of his had a band in Vermont, he says, and in the early or mid 1970s, Fath’s brother had a band at Goddard College. “They were playing gigs and stuff, and I just fooled around with the drums with this friend of mine.”

By then, he had spent a year or so in Vancouver, BC, at a leather shop, working with a friend of his sister’s. When he came to Vermont, he opened his own leather-craft business in the Barre-Montpelier area. From there, he spent a year in the Northeast Kingdom, doing leather crafting and organic farming, “That was before it was popular again,” he says.

Fath’s next move was to Burlington, where he started working in restaurants — “doing dishes, prep cooking, that kind of thing, but I was also playing gigs.”

He had become quite good on the drums and began playing in cover bands at Nectar’s. “I had a band working there twice a month. I was just a regular. I could go in there any time and Nectar would give me $100.”

He left the restaurant business to concentrate on making a living from his music. When a couple of his friends landed a job playing with an American band in West Germany in ’83 or ’84, they called him when their drummer became ill, and Fath went over and played for a year.

He later ran a three-piece rock band for a number of years called The Match. “We played everything from high-end weddings to straight-ahead club dates,” he says. “We made a good living between the Burlington and Rutland Holiday Inns.

Three Toscano CooksAlthough Jon Fath continues as chef-owner, Joe Ianelli (right) is head chef. Dale Billado (center) is the kitchen manager, and Jason Williams, the line cook, is nearing graduation at New England Culinary Institute.

He made his living playing drums for 15 years, he says, until the music scene just began drying up for him. “The weddings were getting thinner, more people were hiring DJs rather than bands, and I was at a point in my life where I felt a career change was inevitable.”

By then, he and Lucie had met through Fath’s guitar player’s brother’s wife, who worked for her at the Vermont Federal Bank branch on Williston Road. They were married and starting a family. “For me, cooking was a sort of natural alternative, and having New England Culinary Institute right here at the Inn at Essex, five miles away, was convenient.”

He attended from 1993 to ’95. “The main thing I would say about that experience, along with learning the basics, was learning the language. That’s what it’s all about, because someone can take that language anywhere in the world, pretty much, and use it.”

He had a concept, a dream of having his own place. He felt confident, having run his own business during his music days. “I knew I had to just learn my craft and make a living and pay some dues, and all of that.”

“Paying some dues,” for Fath, involved working at other restaurants in the area. He speaks generously of those he encountered.

“I worked at Café Espresso right here at Taft Corners under Chef Tom O’Connell, who was a terrific influence for me, and he is now owner at the Windjammer. I worked for this French chef, Daniel Lacroix, when he owned Emma’s in Jericho. I worked downtown right on the water, at Mona’s. That was a good experience. Chris Purdy was the chef down there; I think he’s at the Ice House these days. I did a stint for the Perry group just to see what made them tick.”

All this time, Fath had a concept for a restaurant of his own. Over the years, he had tweaked the menu, and at one point, he called on Tom Oliver, who had been the chef at Sweetwaters when Fath did his first NECI internship there and had kept in touch over the years. They met at Muddy Waters over coffee.

“He first of all tried to talk me out of it,” says Fath with a grin, “because I think that’s the right thing to do when you’re consulting. And the first couple of pages of these books will say the same thing: Don’t do it unless you’re prepared to lose your shirt and probably your family.”

Oliver sent him off to write a business plan, put him in touch with broker Bill Kiendl, a broker with V/T Commercial, and suggested he contact Robert Fuller, a longtime area restaurateur who has mentored a number of people.

Faths' sons Max, Sam and DylanThe Faths’ sons, from left, Max, Sam, and Dylan, work in the restaurant. Max and Sam are bartenders, and Dylan is a host/buser and daytime server.

“He’s a great guy,” says Fuller. “The thing I really respect about Jon is he had this vision for Toscano. He had written a menu years before he found the location or copyrighted the name.

“He’s done very well there, and in a kind of crowded mini-market with Kitchen Table Bistro and Sonoma Station. He’s found his market there.”

Fuller says he has eaten at Toscano a few times. “I really like the food Jon makes — what I call ‘straightforward Italian.’

Fath learned that the recently closed Daily Bread restaurant in Richmond was on the market. Aaron Millen, who had bought it from Betsy Bott, was ready to sell. “When we bought it,” says Fath, “it had been closed for a couple of months. We completely renovated the front and back of the house and changed the name and concept.”

Joe Ianelli, Millen’s sous chef, had plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., says Fath, “but he had six months before he was going, so I said, ‘Hey, if you want to keep earning a living, I can pay you right away to help us start renovating.’”

Ianelli then headed to culinary school, did his internships, went out West for a while, and has now come back to be head chef at Toscano.

Renovations took eight weeks. “Everybody was stopping in” says Fath. “We were giving tours all the time. People stopped in who used to work here when Betsy owned the place. One day a lady called up when were in there painting and said, ‘Are you going to have those LaPlatte burgers?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Then it occurred to me how important that endearment to the community is.

The business has grown on track with Fath’s business plan. He and Lucie have shared duties, Fath in the kitchen, Lucie running the front of the house: reservations, the seating chart, working with the servers and the kitchen to make sure the dining room flows properly. Their three sons, Sam, 20; Max, 19; and Dylan, 17, work in the restaurant, tending bar, waiting tables, and busing. With Ianelli’s return, things are changing, as he takes over the kitchen.

“Now that I’m primarily out of the kitchen, Lucie’s been teaching me the seating chart,” says Fath, “which is really important from a business point of view. I’m working the door, and on weekends, in particular, we take reservations, because we are small — like 60 seats — what you might call a destination location.

“At Vermont Federal Bank, she was managing a crew of workers and a lot of cash flow, so she’s good at that. And I’ll tell you, to have somebody in your corner good with customers and good with cash is what it’s all about.”

Once the transition is made, Lucie will continue to keep the books, and Fath will continue to manage the advertising. They took their first vacation in four years in January 2006, when they went to St. Martin.

“From a chef’s point of view, it’s been wonderful; from a business point of view, we’re on track — over the five-year hump,” says Fath.

“The products we use have always been a mix of imported and local products. Now that Joe’s in the kitchen, we’re moving more in the local direction. We’re also moving a little more in a finer dining direction,” he says.

“I look at this restaurant as entertainment. It’s not a political statement; not sustainable agriculture; it’s entertainment. I’m not on a mission to educate anybody. It’s entertainment.” •