Chef Hilary Adams Killington VT
Hilary Adams was born in Vermont to a farmer of a father and a mother who could not cook.
Dad was the eleventh generation to farm the family land. He came from deep community roots. When there was a potluck dinner, no one had to ask what anyone would bring. Everyone had their special dish.
“So I’m five years old and I’m hearing stories of these fabulous women who shaped my father’s life, and I’m living with a woman who burns Stovetop stuffing,” Hilary recalls, with a laugh.
“I thought, ‘There’s gotta be something better than this.’”
There was, but it would take Hilary a while to find it.
One of her first culinary ventures came at just three years of age when she brought her Dad a mud pie – actual mud shaped with her hands – and he took a bite. He continued to encourage her as she made her way.
“Life moved on, and I always felt like there was more to food than what comes out of boxes and cans,” she says.
But she really didn’t think much about food, other than eating it, until she landed a job in publishing, working with a bunch of foodies from New York City. Their mindset on cuisine differed vastly from Hilary’s upbringing, and ignited a fire within her to explore and to learn.
She changed jobs a few more times, ultimately going to wait tables at a new French Restaurant called Café Provence, opened by Chef Robert Barral of the esteemed New England Culinary Institute.
Ever peppering him with questions – “How does ceviche cook? … No, I understand the acid … like, how does the protein change?” – he finally took her by shoulders and said, “That’s IT! You need to go to culinary school, you’re on the wrong side of the line.”
Three days later, she was on the phone with the New England Culinary Institute for an intake interview.
Then, halfway through her second year, Hilary found out she was expecting a baby. Already mom to a teenage daughter, the surprise news threw her a bit – some creative thinking would have to happen to achieve her fledgling dream.
Leave it to the ingenuity of a teenager. Soon after, daughter Mackenzie came home from an indoor farmer’s market in Rutland, exclaiming, “I found it, Mom. I found it!”
“What did you find?,” Hilary asked.
“I found your place.”
The next Saturday, Hilary accompanied Mackenzie to the market.
“I went, and I fell in love with every vendor, with the whole thing … it was then housed in an old and dingy warehouse, but I loved every inch of it,” she says. “I realized I had come home. This was what I wanted to do.”
So she went home, opened a bottle of wine, and started a business plan. 48 hours later, the Domestic Diva and Funky Farmer came to be, with Hilary as the former and her proud papa as the latter. He would grow the produce she would utilize to create food to sell in the market.
At the time, Hilary explains, ‘farm-to-table’ was not the buzzword it is today. It was just an inkling … a thought people were beginning to have. She was on the cusp of something awesome.
The Domestic Diva thought this would be a little project she did once in a while, but it grew into a product in high demand. Meanwhile, she was also working with the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) on a program to teach underserved populations to cook.
The State of Vermont operates a gleaning program, by which farmers harvest the best of their crops to sell, then volunteers go in to glean the remaining crops and deliver them to food banks. Hilary gave cooking classes at women’s health and mental health networks and WIC to teach locals how to work with Vermont produce to feed their families.
“I was doing these two things. I have pictures of the 18-month-old planting tomatoes. It really was a family operation,” Hilary says. “Dad grew the vegetables, Mackenzie and I did the marketing, and baby Maddie learned about food.”
But it got big – too big for one person – and Hilary got burnt out. She took a hiatus, working at a grocery store and a couple of restaurants under other chefs. It was then that she realized she needed to work on her own creative endeavors.
Enter Ed Stevens, manager of the Killington Mountain Lodge, who called Hilary, looking for a resident chef for the newly renovated hotel.
She thought for sure it was a joke. She thought: ‘This does not happen to people.’ She thought: ‘You can have a kitchen where you can serve food nightly and cater banquets. How would you like the best of both worlds … which is your entire dream?’
Today, Hilary is living the dream, and so are her guests. Diners are coming back night after night – every night of their stay.
The chef says this is the greatest compliment, because there are wonderful restaurants out in town, and guests are choosing to eat her food instead. Her menu changes nightly and is fairly whimsical, in the sense that it sometimes comes together ‘on a whim.’ There are weeks when she comes in, looks around and creates menus on the fly, and others when things are planned in advance.
She appreciates the flexibility. The small menu allows her to play with local ingredients, which are close to her heart. If the apple guy shows up with great-looking apples, she’ll do a cheese fondue with apples to dip.
Her diners get a little piece of her passion and her love in every bite, because the food is inspired by everything around her. A limited menu in a small venue can make guests with dietary restrictions anxious, but Hilary enjoys the challenge of creating special meals for every guest. It allows her to serve and care for people in ways only this venue could inspire.
One of the most beloved meals at the lodge is Hilary’s pork tenderloin brined in Jack Daniels and apple cider, served with drunken red roasted beets and the best fingerling potatoes you’ll ever eat.
Those potatoes happened quite by happy accident. On what could only have been Hilary’s second or third day in the restaurant, she was chatting away, and picked up a squeeze bottle she thought held canola oil. Spritzing the potatoes, she noticed they weren’t getting shiny. She had laced them with Jack Daniels and honey.
(That dish is soon to be entered into the Jack Daniels competition, in late February 2016.)
As Hilary has found, both in life and in the kitchen, “What seem like crazy errors always turn into the most fabulous thing … it’s really funny how the universe hands you precisely what you need exactly when you need it, and you just say ‘thank you’.”
Thank you, Chef Hilary, for creating amazing experiences for guests to the Killington Mountain Lodge.
– Ashley Kahn Salley
Lead Storyteller, Innisfree Hotels