A piece of restaurant history
Erin Bevan, chef de cuisine at the Four Columns Inn’s Artisan Restaurant & Tavern, prepares a Summer Farm Salad.

A piece of restaurant history

A conversation with Charles Mallory, who recently restored the Four Columns Inn and opened its Artisan Restaurant as a modern-day homage to its groundbreaking farm-to-table menu of the 1960s

NEWFANE — Dining al fresco with Charles Mallory at Artisan Restaurant at Four Columns Inn in Newfane inevitably turns into a conversation about the ways in which food in Vermont is unlike food anywhere else.

Mallory is the CEO of Greenwich Hospitality Group, a company he founded in 1999, which owns the inn and upscale, attention-to-detail properties in Connecticut and Texas. He also is celebrated for his success in his shipping brokerage firm; for his activities in the vintage automotive world; and for his collection of antique cars, some of which become an attraction at the inn when parked in front of the great classical portico with its four fluted Greek-revival-style columns.

Mallory serves on three boards, including the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Since 1996, his family has owned a home on the Wardsboro/Jamaica line.

Mallory's major rehab of Four Columns Inn in 2015, Newfane's most historic inn, offered him the chance to bring the site's restaurant back to life as something that speaks entirely to the way he likes to eat now. When it came to talking about food and dining in Vermont - over appetizers, wine, entrees, and dessert - he had much to say.

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Anita Rafael: As we're enjoying dinner at one of your restaurants, can you talk about what foods you like?

Charles Mallory: I was fortunate with what I ate growing up because my mother was from New Zealand and my father, who was from the U.S., married her during the war. When they came back to the States, she cooked what she had grown up on in the 1930s, which was entirely fresh, homemade, unprocessed foods.

My father, on the other hand, gravitated to things such as Sara Lee Pound Cake and Reddi-wip, despite his traditional upbringings. As a result, all the good influences on my palate, an appreciation for freshness, for vegetables, and of course, for lamb, come from my mother, and all the bad instincts come from my father. I've always known what it means to eat properly and eat well.

A.R.: What were your objectives for the Newfane property and this restaurant in particular?

C.M.: I'd been driving by the Four Columns for 20 years. I'd stopped here for dinner on a number of occasions, and at that time it was a rather serious place. It was fine dining, in an old-school manner. It felt to me that that kind of dining was becoming harder to sustain, especially in a rural environment, and possibly even in urban areas.

After we had successfully repositioned and redesigned the restaurants I owned in Connecticut and Texas, I said, “Why not give it a crack at the Four Columns, too?”

It was clearly an emotional decision and more complex than I expected, but it certainly has been a labor of love, and one that I am proud of.

A.R.: Why take such a bold risk in such a quiet town as Newfane?

C.M.: At the properties we have in Texas, I saw that after bringing two bankrupt hotels back to life, they became more or less the heartbeat of the town with their revival having a very positive impact. It showed me that boutique hotels and inns are a vital element of small towns, like the villages you see in England and Europe, with their local pubs and guest rooms.

As other activities of small towns fade, perhaps fewer churches or the loss of fraternal groups, it's even more important that a hotel or inn becomes the centerpiece of the community.

A.R.: We read that Four Columns' farm-to-table origins preceded the legendary Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' restaurant, by several years. Is it true that the pond here was once stocked with trout, that the chef gathered vegetables and herbs from his own garden, and that chickens, pigs, and game birds came from the property, as well?

C.M.: Yes. This restaurant began in 1965 under Rene and Pierrette Chardain. From 1982, Greg Parks ran it. He was a local man who started as a dishwasher and as a protégé of Rene Chardain and eventually became the chef.

And so it was, chronologically speaking, the first fine-dining farm-to-table restaurant in the country.

I did some research and learned more about what they had done here since the mid-60s, and when I realized the extent of it, I thought, “Well, this could be pretty exciting.” This is not just a beautiful piece of property, it's a piece of history, and I really wanted to preserve and enhance the legacy of the Chardains and Parks.

So off we went.

A.R.: Went where?

C.M.: The first thing that I decided was that a maître d' in a tuxedo managing a hushed, carpeted dining room so quiet that you could hear a pin drop was not going to work in the 21st century and, therefore, we needed to make the ambience more fun from a décor and design point of view and still honor the historical connections.

However, it was also obvious that this was going to be a new farm-to-table restaurant in the spirit of Rene Chardain, and that the kitchen would have to be passionate about creating dishes that were made from ingredients sourced locally.

A.R.: Do you think food is about passion?

C.M.: Oh, of course. My wife will tell you that food is first and foremost on my brain. When I walk in the door, my first questions are: What's for dinner? What did you buy at the farmers' market? What's in the fridge? Where are we going to dinner tonight?

A.R.: What strikes you about Vermont's tastes, flavors, and foods?

C.M.: Whenever I am here, I think of autumn, game birds, and hearty foods, but I'd just as soon have a Greek salad prepared with greens from the fields up the road and a rich Vermont feta.

At our properties in Texas, which are in the high plains near Big Bend National Park, the kitchen is truly dependent on wholesale distributors for ingredients. There is little that we can source locally there, but I think that in time that will change.

Whereas in Vermont, there is so much the kitchen can get from nearby farms and producers, and I am constantly surprised by what Chef Erin Bevan comes up with for the daily specials just because of the connections she's made locally. On her way to work she stops at the farm stands to pick up ingredients that are fresh and homegrown.

A.R.: How can you say “Vermont” and make people's mouths water, like when you say “Napa Valley” people think of wine and food, and when you say “Tuscany” people think of wine and food? What's our mouthwatering trigger?

C.M.: Vermont had a head start on that wholesome, organic, craft, artisan food movement. Vermont has, perhaps, let others catch up instead of fully claiming that title.

Vermont needs to continue to run with that ball because it was a leader in farm-to-table concepts as far back as the 1960s.

A.R.: In addition to beer and maple syrup, Vermont long ago nailed national branding in dairy as well - all our cheeses, ice cream with Ben and Jerry's, and others. So can we say Vermont really is about great food in every category?

C.M.: I can guarantee you that there are people sitting in brownstones in Brooklyn right now who are thinking about a weekend getaway in Vermont, and they are thinking about the food first and the hotel room next. Things they want to eat are making their decisions. Vermont already carries a good reputation for great food.

A.R.: Can you tell us about a remarkable meal you've eaten that is forever fixed in your memory?

C.M.: Yes, a dish of Coquilles Saint-Jacques, but this memory ties in two of my interests. There was a Grand Prix championship race-car driver in the 1930s, a Frenchman named René Dreyfus, and he and his brother Maurice, a car mechanic, opened a small restaurant in New York on East 49th Street that became very famous.

It was called Le Chanteclair, and even though I knew it was a serious French restaurant, I was desperate to go there because I was obsessed with cars and racing. René was incredibly famous, and I wanted to meet him. So, when I was 12 years old, my mother and I had lunch there one day, and I ordered the Coquilles Saint-Jacques.

A.R.: One last question: Is it true that Mick Jagger had dinner and stayed at the Four Columns Inn in July 1983, for his 40th birthday, and that he was with supermodel Jerry Hall, his girlfriend at the time?

C.M.: Yes. They stayed in the garden cottage, which is now the Spa.

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