The James Beard Awards are known as the "Oscars of food," and this year Cara Chigazola Tobin was named a semifinalist, for the second year in a row, for Best Chef Northeast. She's the chef and co-owner of Honey Road, a restaurant in Burlington that's been serving eastern Mediterranean food for two years.
It can be tough to get a seat at the bustling restaurant, so Vermont Edition visited Honey Road before the dinner rush to talk to Chigazola Tobin about the ingredients she uses and her approach to running her own restaurant.
From the open and bright main dining area, we went back behind the bar, down the stairs to the kitchen, which she described as a little like a bomb shelter.
"Sometimes we're down here and we won't see any servers or anything for a long time," Chigazola Tobin jokes, "and we're like, 'what's going on up there?' It could be like the apocalypse up there and we would never know."
In a small alcove next to the main part of the kitchen is the small pantry, where bulk ingredients are stored in plastic containers on racks that reach up to the ceiling. There are a lot of spices.
"Za'atar, sumac, cinnamon sticks, allspice — I mean almost anything you can possibly think of for spices, we have," she says.
Then she moves on to nuts: "We try to keep all nuts on hand at all times."
And then there's dried fruit, "another big part of Middle Eastern food," she says. "Dried cherries, dried figs, dried apricots, raisins, golden raisins, currants, barberries."
And that list doesn't even include all the dry goods, the several different types of tahini, the pomegranate molasses, the date molasses, the grape molasses, orange water, rose water, the coconut milk, the piquillo peppers, as well as lots of different spice mixes, like mishmish, kibbe and Cara (a mix made and named just for her). For a small pantry, it packs a big punch.
Chigazola Tobin grew up in California eating Mexican and South American food. Her culinary journey had her hopping from east to west and back east again. She steeped herself in the kind of cooking she now does at Honey Road when she was chef de cuisine at the famed Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
But Chigazola Tobin wanted to run her own restaurant and move to Vermont, so in 2017 she and business partner Allison Gibson opened Honey Road. It quickly became a hit, earning a coveted semifinalist honor for Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation in 2018. Chigazola Tobin was also on the long list for Best Chef Northeast in 2018; this year's semifinalist nod is her second in a row.
"It's super exciting," she says of the nomination. "I don't like to get my hopes up too much. But it was on my list of things that would be awesome to have happen. I like to have that list. Not even things that I have to do, just things that would be awesome if they happened."
Also on that list was hanging out with the late chef Anthony Bourdain, who died in 2018. Chigazola Tobin never got to check that one off the list, but "weirdly enough," she says, "being on public radio is on that list. Just saying."
The food she serves at Honey Road is somewhat unfamiliar to many Vermonters' palates, and the menu comes with a glossary of terms like pide, haloumi, muhammara, fatoush and labne. But although the names might be new, Chigazola Tobin says the flavors of the Middle East and Mediterranean combine well with native Vermont produce and meat — and the cultural values also blend.
"For me the parallel is that, you know, so much of this food is based in tradition and community," she explains. "And actually in Vermont and New England, you know, we have such great community here. ... I really want to be a part of something and give back to my community in this way, through food, and it just felt really natural to me."
Chigazola Tobin wasn't the only Vermonter whose work was highlighted by the James Beard Foundation this year: Deirdre Heekin was named a semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer for her farm and winery, La Garagista, in Bethel.
The 2019 James Beard Awards will be given out at the beginning of May.