Okay, it’s a dozen questions for Michael Werneke, the executive chef at Prohibition Pig on South Main Street in Waterbury.
The restaurant has added a small in-house brewing operation, and recently expanded into an adjoining building and built a deck along Elm Street.
“It’s coming along nicely,” said Werneke, “Chad (Rich, the owner) runs a tight ship and he’s done an amazing job of renovating the building. It’s beautiful.”
1. Where are you from? How did you get here?
I grew up in northern New Jersey and went to North Carolina State University for aerospace engineering. Realizing that wasn’t nearly as exciting as it should be, I’d started cooking at a local cafe in downtown Raleigh and loved it. I’ve cooked all around the country from San Diego to Seattle, Virginia and New York. I got disillusioned with the restaurant business working at a corporate steakhouse in Norfolk, Virginia. They wanted me to serve mashed potatoes that showed up in vacuum-sealed packages and heat them as needed. I left two weeks later. I ended up moving up here to make cheese for Jasper Hill. It was the best therapy ever. I got excited about food again for the first time in years.
2. Why do you think the Waterbury-Stowe area is such a hotspot for good food and drink? Does talent draw talent, or does Vermont draw talent?
The whole Vermont food scene excites me. There’s a ton of talent up here now and not just in restaurant kitchens. We’ve got incredible brewers, distillers, cheesemakers and farmers.
Waterbury is a crossroads, so there’s already lots of traffic going through it. I think it started when the Alchemist had the cannery open for retail, people would just automatically come into town for food, which they then realized was pretty good. It’s just grown from there.
3. What are some of your favorite food cities/towns (outside of Vermont)?
Having grown up in New Jersey, I miss the pizza and red sauce Italian food there. And definitely miss the taco stands in San Diego. I lived on carne asada burritos for almost six years.
4. Vermont is pretty conscientious when it comes to sustainability, slow food, promoting and supporting small farms/businesses, green energy initiatives, etc. What do you think are some of the most important food issues in our world today?
That’s such a broad question; one worthy of a series of college courses. I think we need to stop overfishing the oceans, farmers should rotate crops more, and we should stop wasting so much food that’s produced every year.
5. Are there any current food trends you love?
I love that ramen is finally taking off in Vermont. I started making it three years ago at the Rusty Nail, and brought it with me to Pro Pig. Now there are other restaurants doing it as well. It’s great après-ski food.
6. What three people (alive or dead, real or imaginary) would you invite to a dinner party? Who’s cooking?
I’d have Ferran Adrià (from famed restaurant elBulli) make dinner for Jerry Garcia, Julia Child, Hunter S. Thompson and myself. I think that’s my perfect four-top. Imagine the conversation.
7. Do you do any home growing or brewing of anything?
My brother and I have been working on making hard cider on his in-laws’ farm in Milton from the heirloom/wild apples that grow there. We’ve had some great results.
8. Where did the inspiration for Schiddy’s Tavern come from? What’s your favorite “Schiddy-style” treat?
Everyone asks about Schiddy’s, which makes it that much more fun. One of our bartenders said, “I’d love to one day have a bar called Schiddy’s.” He went on to explain the concept, which is largely a dive bar. We decided it was a great idea so we turned Pro Pig into Schiddy’s for a night not knowing how people would react or perceive it. Turns out it was a huge success, so we’re doing it again. I think the Tuna Wiggle (a spin on tuna noodle casserole) is my favorite. It’s a refined version of a dish I couldn’t eat otherwise. But this year we’ve made our own Spam, and Nate (Johnson) brewed a Schiddy’s Lager that’s really, really good.
[Editor’s note: Schiddy’s Tavern at the Pig features a one-night-only special menu with crafty takes on philistine treats and drinks. Zima, anyone? Wednesday, Nov. 12, starting at 4 p.m.]
9. What’s in your glass/mug these days?
With the weather now becoming much colder, it’s bourbon season again. And hot tea.
10. You’re stranded on a deserted island. What five (magically regenerating) ingredients do you bring?
Pigs, salt, laying chickens, avocado tree, corn.
11. You’re pretty good at food. Do you have any other hidden talents?
I’m a bit of a computer geek. I love to tinker with Linux and open source software. I’m building a server to stream my live Grateful Dead collection to wherever I am in the world.
12. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?