story and photos by Marichel Vaught
MONTPELIER — What do you do when weekly, low-key and simple potluck meals with friends spiral out of control into multi-course dinner events the likes of which are seen on gourmet magazine covers?
That question arose for Helen Labun, a Bear Pond Books event coordinator with an Agriculture and Food Systems degree, a love of cookbooks and a published foodie book of her own. Over the course of four years, Labun’s informal potluck gatherings at her home had morphed into a complicated study of new flavors and an overabundance of menu items. Says Labun, “The potlucks got progressively out of control. This needed to become a job rather than a hobby.” And so in August 2015, Hel’s Kitchen was born.
Hel’s Kitchen, an obvious play on Labun’s name, shares space with the restaurant Salt at 207 Barre Street. Salt’s owner, Suzanne Podhaizer, was looking for someone to share restaurant space with her since Salt is only open Fridays through Sundays. In stepped Labun, who had been looking to open a take-out eatery specializing in diverse home-cooked style meals with a weekly rotating menu. Hel’s Kitchen offers take-out Mondays through Thursdays, with onsite communal table and family-style dining offered on Thursday evenings. Labun emphasized that Salt and Hel’s Kitchen are “two very different types of eating.” Whereas Salt is a dine-in restaurant and offers a more upscale menu, Hel’s Kitchen’s meals are made by a self-taught cook who describes her dishes as “aggressively home-cooked.” Sometimes the restaurants will share themes, such as Spanish cuisine on the same week, but they offer very different meal experiences.
Many locals may remember a similar eatery at that same Barre Street location not more than 10 years ago. Susan’s Kitchen, a take-out restaurant owned and operated by Susan Reid, also featured a rotating weekly menu of home-cooked, eclectic dishes. This is not mere coincidence. Labun wants to bring back that same type of establishment where someone can pick up an interesting meal on the way home from work. She even consulted with Reid prior to opening her restaurant. Hel’s Kitchen ended up adopting the same hours, themes and meal-order and take-out process as Susan’s Kitchen.
Hel’s Kitchen is mostly a single-person operation. Labun says that friends will sometimes volunteer to help prep. Her husband, Lawrence Miller, steps in when he can but it’s mostly Labun you will see in Hel’s Kitchen. “He’s an excellent dishwasher,” said Labun of Miller.
Labun describes Hel’s Kitchen’s menu as curiosity-driven. “A defining characteristic of my cooking is broad curiosity. Trying new things. Researching new regions,” Labun said. She wants to offer dishes not easily found in the central Vermont area, thus her menus are internationally and regionally diverse. You may see Spanish, Moroccan or South African cuisine on rotation; you may also see Taylor pork roll, a New Jersey favorite. Labun even presents menus specific to a certain time period. Just recently, her Thursday night family style dinner was themed on 16th Century Spanish cuisine.
Her cooking is inspired by the hundreds of recipes that came about from her years of potluck dinners. Labun also finds inspiration in the hundreds of cookbooks that have overtaken her kitchen at home. “I love reading cookbooks!” said Labun with a smile. Not just for the recipes, she explains, but for the personal story that prefaces each recipe. One of her favorites is “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” by Jennifer Reese. A book, she says, that has funny stories and highly useful recipes. This passion for cookbooks is also enabled by her work in marketing and event coordinating for Bear Pond Books, where she previews the latest food-related books.
Labun clearly isn’t a complete stranger to the food world or food trends. She studied Agriculture and Food Systems at Princeton University and went on to get her masters in Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. The Vermont native also wrote “Discovering Flavor,” published in 2014 with the tagline “all you need to know about food appreciation in 99 pages.” “It’s a crash course [in] food appreciation for the foodie and non-foodie,” explains Labun. The book is a narrative examining the flavors the average consumer experiences on a daily basis, such as coffee, where those flavors come from and how our basic senses respond to them.
It’s obvious that Labun loves food, learning about food and sharing her food. Her recipes allow people to try new flavors and cuisines. “People taste a dish here, go to someplace like New York City where there’s a restaurant with a professional chef specializing in that cuisine and say ‘Oh yeah, I know what that is!’ and they try it again and other new things.”
Hel’s Kitchen’s weekly rotating menu encourages new taste exploration. “If they don’t like it, they can come back next week when the menu is different and try something new again.”
Labun said that Hel’s Kitchen is heavily focused on the home-cooked style to the extent that all her menu recipes are shared on the restaurant’s website. “I want people to try a dish and know they can make the same exact thing at home.”
Hel’s Kitchen uses organic and locally-sourced ingredients as much as possible. For those rare spices and ingredients, Labun turns to trips to Montreal and the Internet. Friends will also ask her for a shopping list when they travel out of state or country. For ingredients just too rare to procure, such as peacock for the 16th Century Spanish Peacock Sauce, Labun goes to the closest substitute, which in this case was chicken.
Some upcoming cuisines that will be visited on the menu are from Turkey, Persia and France. Labun definitely wants to highlight Sweden in December in celebration of St. Lucia’s Day. We’re expected to find a lot of winter squash in upcoming dishes: Labun’s husband hates winter squash so she rarely gets to cook it at home.
Hel’s Kitchen has entrees and desserts with vegetarian and gluten-free selections, and dishes can be modified for vegans. Labun can accommodate other food allergies but encourages people to visit the website and peruse the exact ingredients in her recipes before ordering.
Take-out is available for pick up and reheating at home Mondays–Thursdays, 3:30–7 p.m. Orders can be phoned in at 229-6678 or made online at helskitchenvt.com. The current menu and recipes can also be found at the website. A communal table and family style dinner service is offered on Thursdays at 7 p.m.; reservations are required.
Garlic Butter Cheese Spread (recipe from Helen Labun)
- 1 head garlic, roasted (see below for roasting instructions) — choose a larger or smaller garlic based on your preferences
- 6 oz. Cabot Alpine Cheddar Cheese (it doesn’t have to be this exact cheddar cheese, I just happen to love this cheese more than is reasonable), in smallish cubes
- 5 tbsp. unsalted butter, also in cubes
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 1/4 tsp. chili powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Hot sauce (optional — and to taste)
- Boiled cider (optional)
Put the cheese in a food processor, process until fairly smooth. Add everything else but the boiled cider, process until very smooth — you’ll have to scrape down the sides occasionally. Serve with boiled cider drizzled on top — optional. Good on bread, crackers, sandwiches, steak.
Roasted garlic: Heat an oven to 375˚F. Cut about 1/4 inch off the top of a head of garlic. Drizzle olive oil on the exposed cloves, wrap in aluminum foil and roast for about 50 minutes, or until all the cloves are completely soft. Squeeze the soft meat out of the skins.