Chef Robert Barral — Cafe Provence
After two decades as an executive chef, Robert Barral and his partner, Line (pronounced “Lean”) Barral, decided it was time for a change. They road-tripped throughout New England, eyes and minds wide open to possibilities. But when they came through Brandon in 2003, they knew they’d found home. And a purpose.
A French restaurant in Brandon? How would that go? Quite well indeed, and Café Provence became a vital element in Brandon’s renaissance.
Barral enjoyed a fresh palette as he developed the Café in 2004. He chose sage green and Provençal gold for the walls, added beautiful tile work behind the grill and installed a brick oven for pizza. “People like the open kitchen, where they can sit at the counter if they wish and watch us cook,” he explains. Sunlight streams in the south-facing windows and accentuates the Mediterranean atmosphere.
Chef Barral sources beef from Spotted Dog Family Farm in Brandon and cheese from Blue Ledge just north in Leicester. And veggies? “Hannah Davidson of Good Earth Farm drives here each week with a load of veggies. I walk out to her truck and pick what I want!
The freshness and flavor are incredible!” Barral makes a tomato pie in season, a handsome pastry crust topped with heirloom tomatoes, pesto, caramelized onions and a creamy goat cheese disc. He bakes it until the tomatoes wrinkle and the cheese softens, then he serves it with mesclun greens, lemon herb vinaigrette and balsamic reduction. House specialties include duck, seafood stew and roast chicken.
Like most chef-owners, Barral puts in a long day; fortunately he lives within sight of his restaurant. “Before I head to the café each morning, I stop at Gourmet Provence, get a cup of coffee and say hello to the cooks and bakers. They always give me things to taste and get my opinion on new pastries they create.”
Line Barral manages the books and oversees Gourmet Provence just down the street. In addition to French-style pastries, the shop stocks cheese, pâtés, gourmet condiments and Vermont specialty products. Thanks to the artistry of pastry chef Tammy Johnson and Betsy Hutton, the cake decorator, Gourmet Provence is the place to go for specialty cakes. The wine room also offers some excellent values.
So what set Barral on his culinary journey as a young Frenchman?
“Good food was always present in my youth,” he recalls. “My family would sit down for dinner at noon on Sunday and the meal would last until four. Family members would bring a succession of dishes such as fresh oysters, stuffed tomatoes or peppers, roasted goose or grilled lamb chops with a potato gratin, magnificent cakes from our favorite patisserie. Even after all that food, someone would still ask, ‘So, what do we eat tonight?’ and we’d start planning the next meal.”
That eating evolved into formal education, at first against the lad’s will. “My mother enrolled me in cooking school when I was 16 because she believed I was spending too much time on the ski slopes. I thought I would hate it, but within days, I absolutely fell in love with cooking. The first dish I had to prepare was duck a l’orange, and I had to eviscerate the bird.” But young Barral was captivated and, after graduating top of his class, went on to hotel management school in Grenoble.
Prior to running his own restaurant, Barral worked as an executive chef with Four Seasons International, with stints in Montreal, Edmonton, Chicago and Boston; New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier and Essex/Burlington; and Celebrity Cruise Lines based in Miami. These positions allowed him to serve as both chef and teacher, responsible for finding and training his cohort. “You can be a great cook but not a good teacher, or vice versa. As executive chef at NECI, I was responsible for finding and training chef instructors who were both.”
However, handling the management and administrative responsibilities left Barral with fewer opportunities to cook and to instruct, anathema to this natural teacher and gifted chef. Hence, Café Provence.
“When we started the restaurant, I was cooking all the meals seven days a week. It was kind of a shock, but I loved it because I had come back to the source. I could worry about each meal and focus on pleasing my customers.”
Cooking classes were part of his business plan, along with catering. “Teaching has always been an important part of my life. I love to share with people what I like and know. The first year, a group of local women came to almost every class. In the spring, they decided to throw a party, and each person brought a dish she had learned to make at the cooking classes. It was great fun for them to show what they had learned and for me to taste their work.”
Chef Barral has taught cooking classes for 12 years now and remains enthusiastic as ever. Classes run year round, on Wednesdays. $50 for one three-hour class includes three demos and tastings, or buy three classes and get the fourth one free.
Classes take place in the culinary theater designed specifically for demonstrations. Prior to the new teaching space, Barral would pull tables in front of the counter in the restaurant upstairs and use a portable gas burner to cook. Guests now settle on padded stools at a handsome cherry counter.
The chef has a relaxed demeanor as he teaches, welcoming interaction and patiently explaining techniques. However, in the hour leading up to class, he’s a whirlwind. “Lunch ends at two and I run to prepare for class, gathering all the materials and doing all the prep because I have all the steps in my head.” He shuttles the pots and pans and fixings downstairs to the culinary theater, ready to greet his students.
People travel from throughout Vermont and New England to partake of these lessons, and some make it a destination, spending the night at a local inn. Guests can order a drink from the bar to en- joy during class or with the meal. The most popular sessions feature cassoulet, lamb and chicken, as well as seafood stew or a fish with an interesting twist. Café Provence also offers baking and pastry classes, and Barral can teach special classes to private groups by request.
“I want people to leave happy and having learned something. My reward is to hear that my students have made the dishes at home.”
Advice to home cooks? “Don’t be afraid to try new dishes or develop new skills. I hear it all the time in my classes: ‘I was so afraid of making pastry or whatever, but you make it look so easy!’ You have to challenge yourself or else you’ll get stuck. If you make a mistake, start fresh! It’s not the end of the world.”
Maria Buteux Reade treated herself to a class last winter, supping on cassoulet, carrot-pear soup and chocolate croissant bread pudding with crème anglaise. Three of her classmates that evening were also farmers! Only in Vermont...