The Prince of Peas
From planning to prep to training the next generation of chefs, David Hugo yields a mighty crop
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
David Hugo juggles many hats. He is the owner of Starry Night Café in Ferrisburgh, the food manager/head chef at Shelburne Farms, and the president of Crumpitz Inc., his corporation.
Chef David Hugo doesn’t save his old menus. He likes to wake up and see what kind of day it is before committing to the list of dishes he’ll create that day.
“A lot of people — even a lot of chefs — like to pick up a recipe and follow it. For me, it’s seeing what’s coming in — what protein I can get via a lamb or beef or chicken or rabbit or duck — then seeing what’s coming in from the garden now and creating it more or less on the spot.”
“It’s more how, I guess, my mom cooks, so it’s more natural for me to do it that way,” says Hugo.
As the food manager/head chef at Shelburne Farms, the owner of Starry Night Café in Ferrisburgh, and president of his corporation, Crumpitz Inc., Hugo might make his life easier by recycling dishes he created years ago. But designing his menu on the fly out of what’s available from the garden that day is what helps keep the spark in his work life.
Besides using the Market Garden at Shelburne Farms, Hugo sources his fresh ingredients from other producers around the state. Norma Norris, the owner of Norris Berry Farm in Monkton, looks forward to his visits. “We sell him produce throughout the summer,” she says. “He stops out here a lot; makes the pickups himself.
“I’m very proud to say that lots of my produce goes to Shelburne Farms, because it’s one of the nicest things that Vermont has to offer. It’s a treasure.”
Making pickups himself is typical for Hugo, to whom quality is paramount. That’s one reason why it’s hard to imagine what he was thinking when, in 2005, three years after buying Starry Night, Hugo took on the additional job of general manager/chef at the Lake View House on Shelburne Road, and three years after that, in 2008, he accepted the position at Shelburne Farms. That was comparable to having three full-time jobs.
About a year ago, he realized he had to give something up. He left the Lake View House. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t take on another place,” he adds. “The options are out there.”
Hugo confesses to loving to work, even at home, where he does woodworking. “I love building things. Food is kind of like building something for your palate — something that is intangible,” he says.
“David was one of my first customers in, I guess the late ‘90s, when I started doing fallow deer venison,” says Hank Dimuzio of LedgEnd Farm in Middlebury. “He’s always been an innovative chef. If you have extra shanks, he’ll figure something out; liver, loins, he’ll do that. He’s very good at treating the local farmer well.”
Hugo knew from a young age that he wanted to be a chef. The third of six children and a native of South Burlington, he moved with his family to Jonesville when he was in first grade. “I come from a fairly big family,” he says. “My mom loves to garden, and in Jonesville, they could have some animals and a garden and a bigger house and be out in the country more.”
When he was in seventh grade, the growing family built a house Colchester, where Hugo attended high school. After graduation in 1984, he headed to Hyde Park, N.Y., to study at the Culinary Institute of America.
Back in Vermont after graduation in 1988, he found work with Chef Gérard Rubaud in Fairfax, who had been trying to introduce the concept of sous vide, or vacuum-sealed gourmet food, to U.S. palates.
“He went bankrupt that summer,” says Hugo, “and I followed Patric Grangien to Café Shelburne and was his first sous chef there.”
After a year and a half at Café Shelburne and a short detour to Paris to help Grangien’s brother, who had lost his cook, Hugo headed for Breckinridge, Colo., where he spent five seasons (“about four and a half years,” he says) in restaurant work before returning to Vermont to become the breakfast chef at Shelburne Farms.
“I spent the summer,” he says, “then in the fall, I kind of traveled around and landed in San Francisco. He and his wife, whom he had met while working for Grangien, spent five years there. When a son, Elan, was born, they came back to Vermont, and Hugo returned to Shelburne Farms, this time as head chef.
“That was 14 years ago,” he says, adding that he and his wife have since parted ways and he is living with a new partner.
After five seasons at Shelburne Farms, he had an opportunity to buy his own restaurant. Starry Night Café had been launched in 1999 by Fleury Mahoney, who was ready to move on. They closed the deal in January 2002.
He laughs as he recalls how he chose the name, Crumpitz, for his corporation. “I was at my lawyer’s office, and he’s asking me what I wanted to call my corporation. The only thing that popped into my head was my dog’s name.”
Hugo comes across as a soft-spoken, laid-back kind of guy who seasons his talk with humor. But underneath that exterior burns a furnace full of energy. He spends long hours — six to seven days a week — on the job.
Although he checks in at Starry Night every day, his dining room manager, Amanda Suebert, and her husband, Josh Krechel, who’s the chef there, have things running pretty smoothly, he says.
“It’s just checking in with them most days, and maybe working one or two nights down there on the weekends. And that — besides doing the paperwork and all the other stuff that goes along with ownership — is mostly what I do at Starry.”
A typical day finds him up around 6 or 6:30 to get his children (Elan and Aliya) off to school or, in summer, dropping them off at their respective camps. He stops by Starry Night three to four days a week “to work on something, pick something up, drop something off,” and then heads to Shelburne Farms, where he looks in on the breakfast crew to work out any problems.
Next he preps the farm cart, which serves salads and sandwiches at lunchtime at the Farm Barn; then meets with the special function chef, “helping him out, doing the ordering, checking in the produce from the garden.
“Here at Shelburne Farms I have 22 employees, so inevitably there’s something not going right or someone who needs my attention. It seems like there’s no end to that.
“Then it’s more problem-solving, making sure everything gets done to the quality I want it to be; teaching; training; tasting a lot of stuff; creating the menu; and figuring out the Sunday menu, which is more family style, so totally different. Shelburne Farms has some really great cooks who work for me here.” He cooks one night a week on the line at Shelburne Farms, because it’s what he likes to do.
Like most creative people, in a perfect world, Hugo would like to find somebody to run the business end of things so he could “just cook and create and not have to deal with the money and the whole employee relations thing.”
Still, it’s fun work overall, even the challenges, he says. One of those challenges is attracting enough customers to make a profit. While overhead continues to rise — gas, electricity, insurance, food prices — “nobody wants to spend more when they go out for dinner because their wallets are being pinched, too.
“If you look at the busy restaurants in town, they’re not ‘local’ places. Olive Garden does more business than all the other restaurants combined in Chittenden County. Any restaurant would love to be that busy. It’s a lot easier to manage a restaurant when it’s busy like that than to manage the seasonality of a smaller place.”
What’s really being pinched, along with everything else, Hugo says, is the cost of labor. “I look at it, and sometimes I think it’s downright criminal what I have to pay cooks who are highly trained, went to culinary school, and are making $12 an hour.”
Amazingly, Hugo finds time for getting outdoors to play when he’s not working. “I love to ski, love to run, love to hike,” he says. “I love to be outdoors.”
His creative side isn’t aimed only at food preparation. Asked where he goes from here, he opens the floodgates of ideas. “I have a lot of different directions to take,” he says, and mentions an invention he’s considering that would do deep scrubbing in a kitchen without harsh chemicals and degreasers. He’d also like to create a cookbook on healthy cooking for athletes or people who want to lose weight. “The average diet cookbooks out there are so not creative in their cooking.
“Or maybe I’d do something like creating a vegetarian restaurant, or do catering events, or — and this is kind of in the back of my head — if I think Blueberry Hill is for sale, having a bed and breakfast where I can incorporate a physical activity aspect to staying with a cuisine and having my own garden and growing my own animals so people can have that. Or doing a wedding event where the bride and groom can come and grow vegetables for their dinner.”
For now, though, his focus is clearly set on connecting with the growers and the community, “because if you don’t know what your farmers are growing, you’re going to pay too much for food.”
For Hugo, the really fun part is the cycle of creation, from farm to plate. “I love going out and seeing what they’re growing. The one thing I love about Shelburne Farms is, you know, our dinner starts with dirt. If we don’t have good dirt, we’re not going to have good vegetables. And if we don’t have good vegetables, the menu is not going to taste good. “ •