Keeping it local: A conversation with Hen of the Wood Chef/Co-owner Eric Warnstedt

To Chef Eric: You had me at duck sausage.

I can still taste the dish even two months later. A duck sausage and polenta appetizer with a sunny-side up duck egg. It was amazingly rich. Incredibly delicious. Locally sourced.

Pretty much every dish on the menu at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont is locally sourced. It’s a passion of executive chef and co-owner Eric Warnstedt, so much so that he couldn’t imagine running the restaurant in any other way. Diners and growers alike have the pleasure of reaping the benefits of this dedicated chef and his team.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Eric. During our interview we discuss where his love of food came from, why local sourcing matters so much to him, and his (many) favorite food experiences.

Special thanks to Chef Matt Jennings for recommending Hen of the Wood. Always trust the chef!

Eric Warnstedt and William McNeil – Photo by Curtis Salvard

Foodie Journal: So, when did you discover that you had a love for food that would lead you to becoming a chef, and how’d you get your start?
Eric Warnstedt: At some point in college, my junior year I think, I applied for a job at a new restaurant. They hired me, but put me in the kitchen. I had zero restaurant experience and was just looking for a job.  It clicked, though, and I did really well. Then I got fired for drinking while dining there. I was under 21 at the time. But, he hired me back though. Shortly after, I decided to finish up college and go to culinary school.

We ate well as a family but not necessarily from a ‘high-end’ restaurant standpoint. We always had good steaks, stone crabs, oysters and lobster, etc. And, really the connection with food and environmental stewardship has been with me since day one. I knew immediately that the focus was going to be on local, seasonal food.

FJ: You’re considered one of the best chefs in the region, so much so that you’ve been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef of New England for four years. Do awards, or any of the labels that come with it, impact chefs in any noticeable way?
EW: That’s a hard question to quantify.  There are many great chefs that for whatever reason seem to go unnoticed.  The acknowledgement feels great and definitely helps keep the ball rolling from a motivational standpoint. From a business standpoint it obviously does help to get the word out.

FJ: You really seem to have a love for Vermont. You were an integral part in the planning of the Stowe Food & Wine Festival. You make a serious effort to serve locally sourced EVERYTHING at Hen of the Wood. What is it about Vermont that hooked you?
EW: I love Vermont – I mean, I really love Vermont.  This region has been great to me and my restaurant and I do my best to give as much back as I possibly can.  We are very involved in our regions fundraising efforts and at the end of the day I feel really good about how much we support our regions producers.

From the farmers to the cheese makers, ranchers to the brewers, it really feels like we have the best of the best.  It is continually inspiring.

FJ: You obviously are very dedicated to local sourcing – why do you feel it is so important?
EW: The local thing is the only option.  It isn’t a trend or a fad.  It is what gives us an identity. It’s what connects us to the past, keeps us focused on the present, and ensures our food’s future. Seems so simple.

FJ: Its a hard question to answer for many of the chefs I’ve spoke with, but is there a memory or experience with food that really stands out above the rest for you? Something you wouldn’t mind sharing?
EW: We are so lucky to have memorable food experiences on a regular basis. We may not make that much money but we definitely live like kings.  I have great memories of my dad banging stone crabs with a hammer in our garage in southern Florida. More recent memories are of roasting whole pigs for charity events, making lobster scrambled eggs for breakfast in Maine, seeing endless bags of porcinis being delivered when the weather is just right, pressing apples for cider in the fall with friends, drinking natural wines while gorging ourselves at places like Joe Beef in Montreal. The list is endless! Sorry to not give you one good story!

Open since 2005, Eric opened Hen of the Wood, along with co-owner and wine specialist William McNeil. It is located at 92 Stowe Street in Waterbury, Vermont.

3 thoughts on “Keeping it local: A conversation with Hen of the Wood Chef/Co-owner Eric Warnstedt

  1. My husband and I wholeheartedly recommend the Hen of the Wood ! The food, the surroundings , the excellent waitstaff….. delicious, relaxing, fun . just a lovely place. Not to be missed.

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