Photo: Colin Clark
The Small-Town Chef Award
RESTAURANT: Community Table
LOCATION: Washington, Conn.
For a chef who made his bones cooking in the food meccas of New York, New Orleans, and Copenhagen, it might seem a detour to open a restaurant in Washington, Connecticut, population 3,596. But Joel Viehland felt he was at a career crossroads working at a large hotel in New Orleans, where he found himself after walking away from a potential sous-chef position at the globally celebrated Danish restaurant NOMA to start a family in 2007. Dispirited by what he felt was an inordinate disconnect between the kitchen and its food-sourcing, Viehland realized he wanted to do something that was "not in competition with nature but rather cooperating with it." When the opportunity came in 2010 to head up the Litchfield Turnpike to one of the many sleepy, historic townships dotting New England's countryside, Viehland pounced.
Thus was born Community Table, where his produce-forward, hyper-seasonal menu reflects a back-to-nature approach so popular with locals and New York City weekenders. All vegetables come from within a 50-mile radius, which leads to some eye-opening combos that speak entirely to what's right that minute. Consider a late-summer/early fall dish called Fallen Leaves, in which slightly dehydrated kale and dried pears, winter squash, and watermelon combine with a verdant vinaigrette made vivid with nasturtium and sorrel. It's a perfect summation of Viehland's cuisine: a dish compelling to the eye and mouth with combinations as fleeting and ever-changing as the seasons.
"Joel has an amazing level of commitment and a strong sense of community to bring families, customers, and farmers together," says Katy Sparks, his mentor at the now-shuttered Quilty's in New York. Sparks is convinced that Viehland's culinary sophistication is perfect for his rural environs. "As a chef, he doesn't create the menu until he sees the ingredients. Instead of going in search of specific ingredients, he creates according to availability."
An early spring visit yielded a delightfully elegant chilled asparagus soup spiked with smoked trout and peppery radishes. A tender braised duck leg was accompanied by a remarkably light herbed curry-carrot emulsion; the dish offered the promise of spring in a still-cozy, comforting dish.
The desserts are far from traditional but certainly evoke place. Toasted Hay Ice Cream had a straight-from-the-farm grassiness offset by an intensely jammy spring blueberry granita shaved over the top.
Viehland favors sensible portion sizes and judicious use of fats. For the restaurant itself, he deploys carbon-footprint-minimizing measures, like solar panels and a dedicated composting program. All this comes together in "a healthy restaurant," says Viehland, "one that makes people feel better when they leave than when they walked in."