If you live in the Boston area, the chances are good that you know of Formaggio Kitchen. It's a local mecca for cheese, wine and fresh artisanal foods with outposts in Cambridge and the South End of Boston.
When we heard that the team at Formaggio was offering a class highlighting the traditional food and drink of après ski, we naturally ventured over to Cambridge and grabbed a front row seat. The guys behind the class are Michael Healan and Tripp Nichols: Michael is the wine buyer at Formaggio, while Tripp handles the cheese buying. Both are seasoned skiers who have experienced après all over the world, and who have a great knowledge of, and passion for, the culinary traditions behind the mountain cuisines that we've come to love.
The class took us around the world to the great ski towns, such as Verbier, Vail and Cortina d'Ampezzo, and served up plenty of delicious food and drinks along the way. Not wanting to leave, and full of Raclette, we sat down with Michael and Tripp after the event over a glass of wine to learn a bit more about what they do.
YOU BOTH HAVE TURNED A PASSION FOR GREAT FOOD AND DRINK INTO A CAREER. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
Michael Healan: I grew up in a family of teetotalers, and my mom drew her culinary inspiration from her Pennsylvania-Dutch upbringing: think dry roast beef, American Chop Suey, Jell-O salads, and canned green bean casserole. But for reasons not entirely clear to me, in early adulthood I latched on to quality cuisine and wine and became passionate about it. From the moment that I had my first perfect food and wine pairing (roast lamb with Chateauneuf-du-Pape at the old Upstairs at the Pudding), I was smitten with both. I was working a desk job, but I guess you could say that gustatory pursuits turned into a serious hobby.
I found my greatest pleasure in discovering interesting and delicious food and booze traditions, and began to throw elaborate dinners and “pre-prohibition” cocktail parties. OK, I guess it was more of an obsession; I took vacations built around eating and drinking, I sneaked Finnochiona and raw-milk French cheeses back home in my suitcase, and once bought a mixed case of Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba that I sent home by FedEx, in a box marked “Olio Extra-Vergine di Oliva.” When I began to tire of my suit job, I started dreaming about making food and wine a full-time endeavor rather than a side project. On the umpteenth time I moaned to a co-worker that I was sick of working in an office, he asked what I wanted to do, and I blurted out “I want to work at Formaggio Kitchen!” It took two more years before I worked up the nerve to actually do it.
Tripp Nichols: I grew up in apple country (Harvard, MA) and food traditions were always a central part of my life. My dad has always accused me of having 'champagne tastes' so I had to find a career that would allow me to pursue those on my beer budget. My first real job in food was in Alaska on salmon and crab fishing boats (yes, like Deadliest Catch). Besides meeting a host of interesting characters, seeing firsthand where high quality food comes from - how it's processed, how it gets to your local grocery store - it was an incredible education.
After the boat I stayed in food but transitioned to hospitality, doing stints at restaurants and liquor stores. Those champagne tastes eventually led me to Formaggio Kitchen. When I started working here seven years ago I didn't know much about cheese, but my time here has coincided with an incredible expansion in American artisan cheese production, especially in New England. I've had the opportunity to develop an expertise in cheese and other gourmet products and meet countless producers locally and around the world. It's an exciting moment to be in food.
THE WORLD OF FOOD AND DRINK, ESPECIALLY CHEESE AND WINE, IS FILLED WITH TRADITIONS THAT GO BACK GENERATIONS. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FAVORITES THAT YOU'VE COME ACROSS?
Michael: One of my favorites from the world of wine is “Methode Ancestrale” sparkling wine, which predates Champagne by hundreds of years. It originated in the mountains of the Savoie, where — in the years before modern temperature control — the early onset of winter would often shut down fermentations before the yeasts had finished their job of converting all of the available grape sugars into alcohol. The vintners would shrug their shoulders and bottle the wine. But when the weather warmed up months later in the spring, sometimes the fermentation would spontaneously restart for a brief time in the sealed bottles, resulting in a slightly fizzy, slightly sweet wine. That tradition continues today in the Savoie, especially around the town of Bugey, and the wines are an uncomplicated, unpretentious delight.
Tripp: St. Bernards were originally bred by Swiss monks as search and rescue dogs. You'll often see depictions of St. Bernards with a wee keg around their neck. Those kegs were filled with whiskey, brandy, or wine to deliver to the individual in distress to warm them up. There was a time where I liked to think of myself as the St. Bernard among my ski crew, always ready with a bit of whiskey on the lift.
WHAT DOES TRADITION MEAN TO YOU?
Michael: In America, we have the luxury of picking and choosing elements of other cultures, including their gastronomic traditions. After all, we’re all pretty recent immigrants when it comes down to it. That means that we don’t have the weight of history on our shoulders. We can create new things — even entirely new genres — without repercussion. But if you’re a pizzaiolo in Naples, a seafood chef in Galicia, a tailor in London, or a vigneron in Beaune, you're not just a craftsman, you are the upholder of tradition. Your job is to perfectly replicate an ideal thing that was created generations ago.
What amazes me is that there are people who spend decades of their lives in fanatical pursuit of that ideal, and then have the courage to tweak it or go in an entirely different direction. It’s like an artist who spends years perfecting realist portraiture, and only then ventures into abstract expressionism. It feels more real, because you know they’re not a dilettante throwing paint on canvas on a whim; tradition was the necessary building block for genuine creativity.
RACLETTE IS ONE OF OUR FAVORITE SKI CULINARY TRADITIONS. WE HEAR YOUR SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT RACLETTE CHEESE WAS QUITE THE JOURNEY.
Tripp: Formaggio Kitchen was on the hunt for a new raclette and since we pride ourselves on knowing producers personally, a trip to Switzerland was in order. I had a contact in Verbier, a fellow skiing enthusiast who spent his college years in Vermont, connected to the local food scene. His family owns a restaurant there and was connected to countless local producers. With Mark as our guide we visited several of his cheesemaker and affineur neighbors, tasting each of their raclettes. When we met Roger, we knew we found the one, and every effort and expense to make the trip paid off. We've been importing his cheese ever since. Besides the unfortunate timing (when there was no snow on the ground) the trip was big success.
THE SWISS ARE PRETTY STRICT ABOUT THE PROPER WINE PAIRING WITH RACLETTE, AND IT MAY SURPRISE SOME PEOPLE...TELL US ABOUT IT.
Michael: We are conditioned to think of a rich, gooey, potato-y dish as something you would pair with a big red wine. People often come into the shop asking me for a recommended pairing with raclette, and they are almost always surprised when I steer them toward lean, high-acid white wines. That’s the tradition in Switzerland and French Savoie, and you might think it’s just a matter of historical and geographic accident — after all, grapes (especially red ones) struggle to fully ripen at high altitude. But once you taste the two together, it makes perfect sense. The acidity is necessary to cut through all that butterfat. A big red would, somewhat ironically, fall flat.
HOW DO YOU FIND THE PRODUCERS YOU PARTNER WITH? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CREATING THOSE PARTNERSHIPS?
Tripp: It's nothing fancy, just word of mouth. Most of our connections come from producers we work with who connect us to their friends in the same industry. There's a camaraderie that exists among regional producers. That local pride helps raise the visibility and interest in the entire suite of products coming from that region.
Michael: From the perspective of the wine department, I would say that we look for humility and honesty. The best winemakers see themselves as farmers first and foremost, not chemists or marketing professionals. When we hear a winemaker start talking about his or her expensive new oak barrels, or maintaining a consistent “house style” or brand regardless of vintage, we start to tune out. The wine world is notoriously prone to fads, and we are much more interested in authenticity and distinctiveness. That doesn’t mean that we reject progress or innovation; we have a lot of things on our shelves that are on the cutting edge of the natural wine movement, for example. But we want to see winemakers working in harmony with their land, and with respect for tradition, even if they are trying something new.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR HISTORY ON SKIS.
Michael: My parents are both from the south, but when they moved to New England my dad started skiing and got excited about it. He was so excited, in fact, that in spite of his meager budget he went out and bought brand new skis and boots for my mom and coaxed her out to the local ski hill. He took her straight up to the peak on the chairlift, where she promptly took off the skis, walked all the way down to the base lodge, got some hot chocolate, and never skied again. I was about four years old when this happened, and my dad made certain that I and my sisters learned to ski from a young age so he would have company on the slopes. None of us ever got all that good at it, but we always had a blast. Oh, and my mom’s skis? I skied on them for years when I was a kid.
Tripp: I owe my very existence to skiing. Both my parents were skilled on the slopes, my mother in particular. My parents met at a disco bar at Sugarbush in Vermont in the late 1970s. My dad thought he might impress my mom with his skiing prowess, not realizing that she was taking it easy on the east coast after skiing professionally in Europe and serving as a Hollywood stunt double. I had my first season pass at age 2, continued to ski at Sugarbush growing up and decided to trek west to Montana for college. As a freshman I landed the second spot on the men's ski racing team at University of Montana and had the good fortune to ski at resorts all through the Rockies. After years spent racing I realized that my true love was not between gates but between trees. Backcountry skiing and hiking to find good stash spots has become a favorite pastime. Sugarbush is and will always be my home mountain, but I relish any opportunity to try different peaks.
YOUR CLASS TOOK THE GROUP ON A JOURNEY TO SAMPLE CUISINES FROM SOME OF THE PREMIER SKI DESTINATIONS AROUND THE WORLD. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLACES TO VISIT - FOR BOTH THE SKIING AND THE APRÈS?
Michael: Taos comes immediately to mind. It’s a bit of a throwback in the way that some New England mountains are — it’s like a time machine back to when lodges weren’t fancy and no one cared about the latest gear. You might see a dude in a beard skiing in jeans, you will definitely see local powderhounds hiking into the backcountry, but you almost certainly won’t see rich New Yorkers or Angelenos in fur boots. It’s all about the skiing, not the fashion. Apres on the mountain consists of a couple of bars that are showing some wear and tear, and you won’t find anything fancier than tacos, but the company is suitably grizzled and entertaining.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Whistler is the ultimate place to be pampered, eat a huge variety of great food, and dance the night away. I will never forget seeing a line of beautiful young women waiting in line outside a nightclub in the base village around midnight on a cold night, wearing short skirts and teetering on high heels in the slushy snow. It’s incongruous, but it works.
Tripp: I'd say Vail, Whistler, and Jackson Hole are favorites. I recently skied Crystal Mountain in the Cascades for the first time. The terrain was steep, rocky, and delicious. The après scene at Vail and Whistler is classic. There's going to be fondue, raclette, and gorgeous women dancing in ski boots. I always seem to end up in Verbier and Chamonix in the summer. Hopefully I can right this wrong in the not too distant future.
APRÈS DRINK OF CHOICE?
Tripp: Whiskey, Lawson's Sip of Sunshine, and Heady Topper.
Michael: I almost never crave beer, and on the rare occasions that I do, it’s typically a brown ale or a stout. But after a hard day of skiing, I want a cold, crisp, hoppy pale ale. Then, after a hot shower and dinner, I want whiskey in front of a fire. It’s pretty much the only time in my life that wine is not priority number one.
Michael and Tripp put together an incredible menu, and each ingredient can be purchased in-store at Formaggio Kitchen and some online should you wish to take a stab at some of your favorite après dishes.