Schoolhouse rules: Family + work

Photographs courtesy The Schoolhouse at Cannondale

 

Tim LaBant, chef/owner of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton for the last eight years, lives in a house two miles from the restaurant, which is only open Wednesdays to Sundays. And that is all by design. LaBant has a wife, co-owner Julie, and four children, whom he enjoys spending time with. So perhaps the first rule of The Schoolhouse is balance family and work.

The restaurant is actually in a former one-room schoolhouse that dates from 1872. A kitchen was added to the back in 1980.

“It’s been a restaurant from 1980 to 2004, but it was a casual hot dog-hamburger kind of place,” says LaBant, who leased the building in 2006 and gutted it for a nine-month renovation that preserved the molding and the blacksmith’s nails, among other 19th-century details.

“It’s modern but reflective of the time period,” LaBant says of the Shaker-style wainscoting, slate bar and white, dark-chocolate brown and salmon palette. “It’s a bit of a mix but comes off pretty well.”

As for the palate, well, LaBant thinks of that in terms of a palette as well.

“It’s my personal palette – the mood of the season, the creativity of myself and the staff.” The menu may feature chestnut soup, Portuguese octopus, lamb sausage, Painted Hills short ribs, Berkshire Pork loin, dark chocolate soufflé and spiced bread pudding.

It changes frequently with no one item generally appearing for more than two months.

“We support sustainable Connecticut farmers,” he says, “but it’s winter in New England and the leaves are off the trees. Nothing’s growing.”

LaBant orders from different purveyors, making the most of winter vegetables like Brussels sprouts, squash and parsnips. He also uses a root cellar and the different food-preservation techniques that New Englanders have relied on for centuries, like pickling and curing.

“We’re not cooking for a family though, but for a restaurant,” he adds, “and our amount of storage is limited.”

LaBant grew up in Wilton with a mother who was a “fantastic cook.” But it wasn’t until he was nearing the end of college (Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio) that he got in front of a stove. He cooked out in Boulder, Colo., and got a job at IBM in IT sales. By then cooking had taken hold and he completed his culinary training at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he earned high honors and numerous awards. This son of New England went on to sharpen his skills in Boston under Frank McClelland, chef/owner of L’Espalier on Boylston Street, and Ming Tsai, perhaps best-known for the PBS series “Simply Ming.”

LaBant was shopping around for real estate for the catering business he had started when he saw The Schoolhouse and realized the space deserved a restaurant. Tim LeBant Catering & Events is still going strong. Perhaps another reason that The Schoolhouse is in session Wednesdays through Sundays.

As LaBant says, “Never bite off more than you can chew.”

The Schoolhouse at Cannondale is at 34 Cannon Road in Wilton.  For more information, call 203-834-9816 or visit schoolhouseatcannondale.com.

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Serves 6

For the dressing – Yields about 1 cup

3 slices thick-cut bacon (4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch-thick pieces

1/2 cup buttermilk, well-shaken

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 medium clove garlic, minced and mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt

1 small whole scallion, trimmed and finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the fritters and greens

Kosher salt

1 pound fennel bulbs (about 2 large), stalks and fronds removed; bulbs halved and cored

6-inch length baguette, cut into 1-inch pieces

3 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, cut in pieces and finely ground in a food processor (about 3/4 cup)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

6 ounces mixed greens (6 cups packed)

To make the dressing

In a 10- to 12-inch heavy frying pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp, stirring occasionally, about six minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, mayonnaise, garlic, scallion, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Whisk in the bacon. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.

To make the fritters

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon of salt. Using the large holes of a box grater, coarsely grate the fennel. Add the fennel to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Drain in a fine mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until completely cool. Using a large spoon, press out as much water as possible from the fennel while in the strainer, and then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Place another paper towel over the fennel and press to remove more excess water.

Put the bread in a food processor and process until you have coarse crumbs. (You should have about 2 cups). Transfer the crumbs to a large bowl. Add the fennel, Parmesan, eggs, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Mix gently to combine.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch cast-iron (or nonstick) skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of the batter into the oil. Press down lightly on the each fritter to form a 2-inch patty. Cook the fritters in batches until golden and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain briefly.

Arrange the greens on six serving plates. Place 2 fritters over each and drizzle with some of the dressing. Serve immediately with the remaining dressing on the side.

— Tim LaBant

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