Meet the chef: Justin Patras from Park Squeeze in Vergennes
This April, Justin Patras celebrates five years as head chef at Park Squeeze in Vergennes. But he’s been working in kitchens much longer than that — 20 years, to be exact.
“I grew up in food,” he said during an interview last month. “Both of my parents cooked, so I was exposed to it at an early age.”
Patras’ mother used to cook for the Black Lantern Inn in Montgomery (where Patras was raised). His father worked as the sous chef at Hotel Jay.
“I remember going to the hotel with my dad,” said Patras. “Popping into the kitchen was like being in the Land of Oz and going behind the curtain!”
The family’s culinary enthusiasm came home too.
“Food was a big thing at home,” Patras said. “My mom’s Russian and Polish and my dad’s Irish and Greek, so as you can imagine Christmas and Easter were big food holidays for us.”
Patras, himself, started his first job in food when he was 15. “I worked at Killgores General Store, where I made bread, soups and sandwiches,” he said, also noting his experience working as a server for the Montgomery town dinners. “At a young age I started doing both sides of the service. The more you know the more valuable you become.”
He took his skills to the next level at Johnson and Wales University, in Providence, R.I., where he earned his culinary degree in 2003.
“It gave me an opportunity to get out of Vermont,” Patras said of his education in Rhode Island. But the move still allowed him to be close to family; his sister was going to school in Boston and they had more family in Connecticut.
After graduating he bounced around for a few years before coming back to Vermont. In 2006, he took a job as lead line cook at Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes. He worked there in the back of the house for about three years before taking a break to travel in Southeast Asia.
He returned to Vergennes and picked up front and back of the house shifts from Michel Mahe — late owner of the restaurant group that includes The Bearded Frog, Black Sheep Bistro, Park Squeeze and The Lobby. But Patras then took off again; this time he went out west.
When he returned, sometime around 2010 (or maybe it was 2011), Patras managed Up Top — a bar that Mahe owned in Vergennes — and worked three days a week with Erin and Sanderson Wheeler at the Bobcat in Bristol. In April 2013, Mahe reopened Park Squeeze, which was formerly a West Coast-style fast-casual restaurant with noodle bowls and wraps.
“Michel came to me and was like, ‘Do you want to run this?’” Patras remembered. “The rest was kind of history.”
Now, five years later, the 35-year-old father of one manages his own kitchen and his own employees at Park Squeeze
“I think the hardest part of restaurant work is management,” Patras said. “Somebody always has an opinion or an idea of the way they think it should be. You have to have a different level of diplomacy as management — everybody’s problems are your problems. Every day is a challenge, but it keeps it interesting.”
In Park Squeeze’s tiny kitchen, Patras tries to maintain a “nice, laid back environment.”
“I’ve worked at probably 10 different restaurants and with a lot of different chefs,” he said. “The more you do it the more you start to see the ups and the downs and the different management styles.”
On a busy night, Patras will have three cooks and a dishwasher.
“I typically do most of the entrees,” he said. “I also help expedite and make sure food is going out right.
“What we cook in the restaurant is food for our customers,” he explained. “It’s typical of what’s going on in the U.S. right now: classics with a twist. Burger night is by far our busiest night. Our menu has food everyone is comfortable with. It’s not hard to make good food, but it’s easy to take something that could be good and make it mediocre. We make sure to take the time to do a little extra and make it taste good.”
At home, Patras is a different kind of chef.
“A lot of my food is pantry cooking,” he said. “I find a flavor I want to go with — usually inspired from one of my travels or classic Russian or Greek flavors I learned as a kid — and then I look and see what we have in the cupboard and make something with that.”
Patras reserves his exotic flavors and experimenting when cooking for his son and for his partner, Andrea Cousineau (executive chef of the restaurant group). At the Squeeze, he sticks to what people know.
“When you cook for a long time you want to feel like you’re doing something you’re excited about, but if you’re customers don’t want it or are scared to eat it, there’s a flaw,” he said. “I always try to make the food I serve fun but approachable.”
Pickles, Patras style
2-3 European cucumbers sliced, thin
1 Spanish or yellow onion sliced root to stem in thin strips
1 tbs minced garlic
2 cup white vinegar
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp dill
Place cucumbers, onion and garlic in heat proof container such as a steel or Pyrex baking bowl and set aside.
In a medium pot combine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, water, sugar, salt, mustard seed, coriander seed, black peppercorns, fennel seed and dill. Bring to a boil then poor over cucumber mixture and set aside to cool.
Let pickle for at least 24 hours.
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