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The late afternoon sun is hot, but inside the brick walls of 51 Main a group of people sits on the leather couches in the corner, talking and laughing in the cool air. When I walk in, sweaty from the heat and feeling as though I’ve just run 10 miles, I look around and feel a little out of place. I should be relaxing, cool drink in hand.
The globe lanterns and well-stocked bar give the room a trendy lounge feel. But the lunch and dinner menus tell a different story: the restaurant now opens at 11 a.m, and serves both lunch and dinner.
The newest addition to the ever-changing menu is a range of lunchtime crepes. The crepes, priced between $5 and $7, come in pairs, each one wrapped and neatly garnished on a square plate.
Tucked away in the back of the restaurant is a tiny kitchen, which usually hosts one of the two chefs. Starr Ricupero was the first chef, hired back when 51 Main opened in 2008.
“I’ve worked in all aspects of kitchens,” he said. “I was a baker, I was a pastry chef, I worked in big hotels, for buffets, for mass production.”
Ricupero knew he wanted to be a chef at the age of 11, when someone came into his grandfather’s bar with tall paper chef hats.
“My mom was like, ‘Put this on. You should go back in the kitchen and pretend you’re cooking, and I’ll take a picture,’” he said. “And when she took the picture, I just knew. That’s what I wanted to be.”
He still has the picture — it is taped to his cooking toolbox, which sits in a corner of the 51 Main kitchen.
For seven years now, Ricupero has lived in Vermont. He started at the New England Culinary School’s Essex campus in 2002, and since then has worked at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, and the Middlebury Inn, Tully and Marie’s, Storm Café and 51 Main, all in Middlebury. During his time at the Middlebury Inn, he met the hostess and bartender, whom he later married.
Now she works at the Storm Café and for Daily Chocolate in Vergennes.
“Our plan is to open up a chocolate shop,” he said. “Hopefully in the next couple years, but we’ll see. It might happen, it might not.”
But for now Ricupero puts his creativity into cooking for 51 Main. He chooses the menu, which changes every couple of months but always includes a soup and salad du jour. He goes through phases, he says — recent ones have been Thai, Irish, Indian and Italian.
“We want to stay out of the box,” he said. “I always want to keep the menu international. You’ve got to switch it up a little.”
When the restaurant’s manager, Carl Roesch, started looking for a creative way to expand their lunch menu, Ricupero suggested crepes. And almost two months ago, Lisa Northup joined the staff as a daytime chef.
“My grandmother from here, and she was French,” said Northup, who grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire. She has been cooking professionally since she was 15, starting out as a baker at a supermarket. Her most recent position was as a baker at Rosie’s.
“My mom’s a really bad cook, but my Grandma wasn’t,” she said. “My grandmother gave me a cookbook when I was 10 years old. I learned how to cook out of that, and I cooked for the whole family because, like I said, my mom’s cooking was really, really bad.”
Northup makes the crepes, the quiches and some of the desserts. Since she is cooking in relatively small amounts, she has the time and the freedom to cook what she wants — for example, the caramel cheesecake that she made on a whim a couple of weeks ago.
“At Rosie’s it was okay to do dessert specials, but they have a set menu,” she said. “If you had extra time, you could do some specials.”
After Northup leaves the restaurant at 5, she goes back to her home in Cornwall — her grandparents’ old house. When she cooks dinner for her sons, who are 11 and 17, she doesn’t cook the cheesecakes and crepes that she makes at work each day.
“The house has a huge yard and a nice big herb garden,” she said. “At home it’s basically what I pull out of the garden.”
The garden has plants that her grandparents planted years ago — the rhubarb, she estimates, is about 30 years old, but still going strong. And with the cooking skills from her grandmother, she cooks meals both at home and at work.
Back at 51 Main, the late afternoon hours can be slow. But both Ricupero and Northup have noticed significant increases in the number of people coming in recently.
“The last couple of days have been the busiest,” said Northup. “I think people are starting to hear about us, and they’re trying the food.”