Three Vermont Woman writers fanned out to Burlington, South Hero, and Montpelier to interview the female chef-proprietors of three outstanding Vermont restaurants. An emphasis on using local ingredients and concocting delicious dishes—plus hard work and a passion for what they do—are the common denominators among these three talented chefs.

Donnell Collins: Creating French Fare with Flair at Leunig’s
by Cynthia Close

Donnell Collins is one of those rare women who has achieved success as an executive chef, a position traditionally occupied by men. She is not only an acclaimed chef (so named by her peers at Best Chefs of America), she is also co-owner of Leunig’s Bistro & Café, one of Burlington’s best known restaurants—which means she has to work hard to please her boss.

Collins is her own taskmaster. Working hard goes with the territory. Most days she puts in 12 to 16 hours, which she has been doing for much of the past 20 years, as she built her reputation working in some of the finest restaurants in the country, from California to Vermont.

Mothers have the strongest influence over what their children eat. Collins's mom was from Oklahoma and had a southern sense of hospitality. She loved to entertain and allowed a young Donnell to hang out in the kitchen. They were living in California, where Collins was born, when Collins, at age 10, began offering to make meals at her own and friends' homes. She was not a picky eater, probably the result of her mom exposing her to a wide variety of food experiences early in childhood.
Collins laughingly told me she has not been quite so lucky with her own two children, both girls. Her 5-year-old seems to be enamored of all things dairy, cheese ranking high on the list. Her sister is a meat aficionado, the rarer the better. If her burger gets served medium she will send it back, declaring it is gray inside, not the preferred red or pink.

Donnell Collins of Leunig's Bistro & Café, Burlington, stands next to the café's iconic clock. Photo: Jan Doerler


In spite of her early interest in preparing food and serving others, Collins did not set out to be a chef. She was majoring in English in college when she met her first mentor, Kay Rentschler, chef-owner of Storm Café in Middlebury. She credits Rentschler for recognizing her talents, as she worked her way from the front of the house as a server to the back of the house via dishwashing up to food prep and line chef. Collins realized then that she preferred working behind the scenes in the kitchen, where the magic happens.

It was Rentschler who encouraged her to change career directions and suggested she go to a culinary school. Collins followed her advice and attended Newbury College in Boston, known for it’s culinary program. The classes were demanding, starting early in the morning and ending at 6:30 p.m., excellent training for an industry that is known for grueling work schedules. Collins also appreciated Newbury’s diverse degree programs, which included students of photography and visual art, as well as those headed for careers in the food industry.

Collins’s skills were honed as she bounced back and forth between the East and West Coasts. She completed her internship requirement to graduate from culinary school here in Vermont at what was then the Basin Harbor Club. The next few years included helping a local investor open the Starry Night Café in Ferrisburgh, Vermont.

But the lure of California beckoned, as the farm-to-table movement picked up steam. Collins accepted a sous chef offer at Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, which led to a position as chef de cuisine at the five-star restaurant La Folie in San Francisco. It was here that Collins was able to use her classic French techniques, with the freedom to be creative and try things she had never done before.

While in California, she earned a reputation as a fixer: troubled restaurants would call on Collins to give them new life. In 2002 Robert Fuller, Vermont restaurateur, bought Leunig’s and called on Collins to help him redefine the menu and figure out how to improve the customer experience. Collins had worked briefly for Fuller earlier, when she did a stint at his other Vermont restaurant, Pauline’s.

Leunig’s was always billed as a “touch of Paris” in Vermont. As someone who has spent some time in Paris hanging out at Parisian cafés, I can attest to the authenticity of Leunig’s ambience and menu offerings. Collins at first was “too glamorous,” she says, bringing her five-star California restaurant style to a more laidback Vermont. She found that a large group of longtime Leunig’s regulars resisted, so she learned to accommodate, while at the same time making gradual improvements to the French-influenced menu. Collins now changes up the menu about every four months, making use of seasonably available local produce. She classifies Leunig’s cuisine as “classic country French.”

One constant throughout Leunig’s evolution has been Bob Conlon, who started as a part-time bartender in 1982. Often found smiling and greeting customers at the front entrance on Church Street, he is now co-owner of Leunig’s, along with Collins.
When Robert Fuller retired, Conlon recognized an opportunity to own the business he had dedicated himself to most of his working life. He viewed Collins as his ideal partner, and they both closed the deal with Fuller in 2013. Collins and Conlon are community minded and have continued Leunig’s generous support of local charities, along with their annual fundraising event for breast cancer research.

As co-owner Collins pitches in wherever there is a need, even as a dishwasher if things get backed up in the kitchen. But she finds her greatest pleasure in creating sauces, a skill at the heart of French cooking. She told me she can start with almost any ingredient (she has even used the powdered drink Tang) and end up with a fabulous-tasting sauce. Collins shared her recipe for a Vermont-sourced cranberry mead sauce for this issue (see page xx). Perfect for the holidays.

Leunig’s is open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.–10 p.m. They serve brunch on Sunday and have live jazz music Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. For reservations and information: (802) 863-3759,

Crystal Maderia: Connecting the Seasons & the Land at Kismet
by Michelle A. L. Singer

When you encounter something by chance that seems like it was meant to be, then it could be kismet, or your destiny, says Or it could be a slow-food, farm-to-table restaurant that is a staple for locally sourced, seasonal eating on State Street in downtown Montpelier. If you're Crystal Maderia who grew up fascinated by food and traveled the world cultivating food knowledge before she opened Kismet in 2006, it's both.

The first location of Kismet was on Barre Street in Montpelier in the current location of Beau, an authentic butcher shop and European-style delicatessen that Maderia also owns and runs with Jules Guillemette. It shares the same commitment to integrity of product and service, offering raw and processed meats, seafood, and cheeses, with an emphasis on Vermont products. It also serves up craft cocktails at its prohibition-era bar.

Crystal Maderia of Kismet, Montpelier, holds a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. Photo: Jan Doerler


Only a year after she moved Kismet to 52 State Street in 2010, the building survived two catastrophic floods, which temporarily closed the restaurant. "Kismet is a community-oriented restaurant," says Maderia. "Thanks to the community, we received over $50,000 in donations and were able to reopen our doors and are now in our 11th year of service."

"At the restaurant," says Maderia, "my menu development is deeply connected to the seasons and the story of our landscape. I work hard to source and grow local organic ingredients to create a menu that is respectful of our land, nutrient dense, and delicious." 

In that spirit, Kismet is a Slow Food Certified restaurant. Slow Food International began in Italy and is, according to, "a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life, and combat people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the world around us." Slow Food is a global movement found in 160 countries, yet Kismet is one of only nine Slow Food Certified restaurants in Vermont. The list can be found on

The "snail of approval" is not easily given. Becoming Slow Food Certified is a long process that involves a thorough investigation.

"They followed me around for days, interviewed staff, watched deliveries come in at the restaurant, and watched us prepare ingredients," says Maderia. "It's been a dream of mine, and for me, it's personal. Slow Food is preserving the story of food all over the world, where food has been the central point of a community. My role as a chef is to source the best quality ingredients and prepare them in the most nourishing way possible for the person receiving them. It's also creating foods in an environment that respects the land, water, and community. The Slow Food approval is an honest acknowledgement of that effort and I'm proud to be recognized."

Maderia interacts with food not only as a chef but also as an activist. The Slow Food movement believes food is tied to many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture, and the environment, and she agrees. Whether it's how Vermont milk gets sold on the worldwide commodity market and how that affects whether dairy farms can stay in business, or legislative reforms around animal processing and how it affects price, Maderia is listening and participating. When customers see fluctuating prices, she can educate and connect them to the larger story of food in the state. She's involved with Vermont Farm to Plate and the Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Kismet is operated as a community-oriented restaurant and behaves like a cooperatively managed business. "I take customer feedback seriously," says Maderia, "including dietary needs." She adds, "While I am the sole owner of Kismet, I aim to include my employees in as much of the decision making of the restaurant as possible. I hope that we are able to make collective decisions that empower my staff to feel both cared for and respected." 

Maderia is the author of The New Seaweed Cookbook and specializes in recipe development for people with specific dietary restrictions. She has contributed recipes to Tracey Mederios' most recent cookbook, the GMO FREE Cookbook, and her recipes have won the praise of famed herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods, and Alexandra Jamieson, co-creator of the documentary Super Size Me. 

Kismet is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5–9 p.m. and brunch on Saturday (8 a.m.–2 p.m.) and Sunday (9 a.m.–2 p.m.). For reservations and information: (802) 223-8646,

Phoebe Bright: Serving Down-home Gourmet Food at Blue Paddle Bistro
by Sarah Galbraith

A white clapboard homey building adorned with cheery blue shutters in South Hero houses the Blue Paddle Bistro. The name refers to the owners' love of water and paddling boats and the simple bistro fare they serve. The dining room is small but inviting, and there always seems to be room for a few more. Even on a busy night, the attention to detail and easy friendliness from the staff sets the place noticeably apart from other eateries.

Known for its simple elegance, or "unpretentious gourmet," as the restaurant's website puts it, the bistro serves up both bar fare, like Chef Phoebe Bright's namesake burger topped with avocado, tomato, onion, spinach, portobello mushroom, and brie, as well as fancier fare. Crab-stuffed ravioli served in a roasted red pepper cream sauce with spinach is divine, and the grilled rib eye steak is a classic, with a horseradish sauce twist.

Petite and energetic, co-owner and chef Phoebe Bright, 56, followed a winding path to her kitchen at the Blue Paddle. She and Blue Paddle co-owner Mandy Hotchkiss were also business partners in the late 1980s, when they co-owned a chain of Noonie's Delis in the Burlington area. After they closed the delis' doors, Bright moved on to culinary opportunities in Portland, Maine, and then New York City, landing in the kitchen alongside well-known Chef Anita Lo at her three-star restaurant, Annisa.
Bright had never endeavored to be a chef—she had studied English in college—but there she was, working in Lo's kitchen. At Annisa, she liked the idea of getting paid to learn, rather than paying to learn at culinary school.

Phoebe Bright, co-owner of Blue Paddle Bistro, South Hero, has been running the restaurant for 12 years. Photo: Jan Doerler

"It's funny, I didn't know anything at all," she says with a laugh. The other kitchen staff at Annisa were astonished to find out she didn't even know what mirepoix was (the sautéed onions, carrots, and celery that serve as the base of many soup recipes). But when they explained what it was, she indeed knew it, just not by name. She also knew she had a lot to learn, and "I just kind of said [to Lo], 'What do you have to lose? If you don't like me, then say bye.'" Bright went on to advance in the kitchen and has remained good friends with Lo since then.

Bright returned to Vermont with the dream of opening a restaurant—but this time, no deli fare. She was keen on the dinner market, and she called her lifelong friend and former partner Hotchkiss with the idea. A community effort helped get the bistro up and running, and on March 14, 2005, the Blue Paddle opened its doors.
Soup is one of Bright's specialties at the Blue Paddle—hearty black bean, smooth tomato, warming curry carrot ginger, and creamy mushroom. Bright says she likes the idea of soup: "It's one of those things where you can open the fridge, look at what's in there, and make a soup out of it." She likes that it's simple, too. "People think it's so hard but what makes a good soup is the simplicity."

She gets many compliments on her mushroom soup in particular, and often it sells out before the night is over. It includes caraway, an unusual ingredient that many diners can't place. "A compliment to me is when someone can't figure out what's in [a dish]," she says. "It means it's balanced. It's not one ingredient overriding any other."

Bright also enjoys cooking duck, and it's on her menu year-round, although the accompaniments change. Some of the year it is served with sweet potatoes and corn, and at other times it sits alongside a bed of shiitake mushroom risotto. Duck is tricky to make well because the fat has to be rendered in a careful process.

"I like cooking duck because it's a challenging thing to do," says Bright. "When people go out and order duck, it means they trust you. If you have a passion for it, you'll get it right.

Interestingly, Bright is not a home cook. "I probably would make a horrible lasagna. I'm completely challenged by home cooking," she says. For Bright, the joy of cooking is in the process, and she loves the atmosphere of her restaurant kitchen: "I like the idea of cooking. I like restaurants and the social aspect." Plus, she likes the athleticism of cooking. "It keeps you moving. I have friends that go to the gym all the time, but my gym is my kitchen."

Bright is a two-time cancer survivor, including a 2008 diagnosis and treatment of tongue cancer that was attributed to her treatments of an earlier lymphoma. Tongue cancer left her with one-third of her tongue missing and a changed sense of taste, although her sense of smell has increased to make up for it. Food can now be an obstacle for Bright, but she has still honed her skill of tasting her sauces for balance, while also relying more on her sense of smell as she cooks.

"A lot of things I make I don't eat, but still I think we excel in things that we like more than other things," she says, referring to her passion for cooking dishes like duck and soups.

The bistro is open year-round, and its many diners include locals plus the booming summer tourist population, as well as Vermonters trekking in from other corners of Vermont, as word has spread of this excellent dinner and occasional brunch spot. The Blue Paddle was voted in a 2014 Champlain Business Journal reader survey as the number-one best dinner spot in northern Vermont. Plus, it's been the recipient of numerous Seven Daisies nominations.

Blue Paddle Bistro has now been running for 12 years. "It's the longest thing I've ever done, by 11 years," says Bright.
The Blue Paddle is open Wednesday through Saturday 5–11 p.m (off-season hours). They have a monthly Sunday brunch and live music Thursday evenings. For reservations and information: (802) 372-4814,