BFP: So, how did you find yourself here, the first time, as a student?
BS: Totally by chance. I hadn’t even been looking at colleges at the time that I found out about Bennington, and it seemed like the perfect school for me. I mean it was. I move at a very fast pace, and it seemed to move at the pace that I like to move at, and I wanted to study things that weren’t very traditional, hyperbolic geometry, non-Euclidian geometry, things that were sort of outside the norm. There’s a funny story actually, you’ll have to abridge this a lot, after I got to school here, I lived in Fels, and I had, there were these three women that we used to hang out with, they were all very cute, so all the boys used to huddle around them, and one of the fellows who I hung out with for a few weeks, his name was Andrew, and as it turns out, Andrew was a freshmen, he was older than me because he had been in the army, and it turns out—I mean you know the size of Bennington—Andrew was my step-mothers best friend’s son, who I had never met because he had been in the military. So that was like, alright, I’m in the right place! This seems right to me. So yeah, I just ended up at Bennington, and it is the one right place for me. It’s the only one that makes sense.
BFP: And then you were here—when did you get here?
BS: 90-93. And then I didn’t really go very far. I didn’t come back my senior year, but I did come back and teach my senior year, I taught Autocad, I was the assistant teacher, I taught the class every other week. And I lived—actually I lived where Pangea Lounge is right now. But when I didn’t go back to college I ended up just staying in the area and I washed dishes for the Main Street Café, which is where Pangea is now. So, kinda funny.
BFP: I know you worked in ceramics?
BS: Yeah, actually, I didn’t start that until later. Actually with my friend Andrew—we started a ceramics company making tiles, four foot square Raku tiles. And it ended up that I wanted to come back here, and I was doing all heavy construction stuff, this was over about a nine month period. He taught me how to throw, actually, and I made about 20 pieces, never glazed any of them, but about a year ago I bought a wheel and picked it up again.
BS: That’s great!
BFP: Yeah, it’s very therapeutic, I think it’s either ceramics or therapy. So, the two do the same thing for me.
BFP: I think there’s a lot of that, that’s a very Bennington thing.
BS: Yup, it keeps you sane.
BFP: What businesses in Bennington do you own?
BS: Oh, geez, I’d have to look at my resume. Let’s see, businesses you would know… Powers Market, Pangea Restaurant and Lounge, I own a restaurant management company that you wouldn’t know about but that’s actually how I got here at Bennington, was consulting, Allegro Ristorante, Carbon Zero, which is the hydro company, AOE, which is a property company that actually buys the land, another company called Power Four, where we have a partnership with a couple of commercial properties, and most recently, Hoosick River Hydro, which I actualy started with a partner to establish the Pownal Tannery Dam. So, that’s the next big thing on the horizon.
BFP: So, how did you end up teaching Autocad classes and working at the Main Street Café to… that?
BS: I’m a Bennington boy, I’m all over the place. I don’t know! I kinda look at it like, the hydro makes sense because I think something that I notice in most people that I know that go to Bennington is that they’re kind of all like, problem solvers, they like puzzles. And I think that was just something for me, that really just happened, that just evolved very organically, it started just as a little internal dialogue that started on Christmas Day in 2008, they were talking about oil prices and I just had this epiphany, that we live in a mill town. Why isn’t anyone harnessing that energy, why aren’t we driving electric cars, and it really became just, in as much as most of the businesses that I have, it started as a hobby. In that I was like, oh, why is this, why isn’t policy like this, why has nobody done this. I think, if I can keep our project online, we’ll be the first project back online in three and a half decades, and I had to change policy, but as something that you’re learning, I think I went into it without the frustration that people who have been working at it for a long time have, and I think that’s what made it successful is that I wasn’t frustrated. I was just asking questions and trying to elicit answers, and learn, which is kind of odd how the group of stakeholders was built. Carol Oldham, who, at the time, was the regional director for the Sierra Club New England, and I contacted her, I went to school with her, and she’s since changed jobs… but she was a great resource. I had a lot of great resources, Brian Campion, obviously, was able to put me into meetings with other representatives and senators and it was really kinda fun, it was really an interesting process, but I think that’s how I get to most of the things I get to. Because I just find something I like, and I do it. It’s kind of funny, because as busy as I am, which is crazy, because I really do work like 20 hours a day, all the things I do I enjoy doing. Like it really is a blessed life, because all of the things I do, whether they’re frustrating or not, I actually ultimately really do enjoy doing them. I don’t feel like I’m working because I just go to work and have fun.
BFP: What was the economy like in Bennington when you started college here?
BS: I think that probably the Bennignton economy, it was very different. I would say that the North Bennington economy wasn’t as strong, and the Bennington economy was a little bit stronger, but I think we were seeing the factories going out - there have been factories that have gone out since then, and great things like the Vermont Arts Exchange have taken them over. But even the Vermont Tissue Mill, it was operational when I got here and went to school. Surprisingly, a fellow who started working with me at the restaurant about four or five weeks ago, who was my first roommate here, he’s been in Paris cooking for the past few years—and the first time I went off campus, late at night, not sober, we wandered down to the Vermont Tissue Mill. It was the first place I walked to. And I’ve never, there was no connection to that in my mind, just one day I was like, this is the first place we visited. It was kind of funny—life is kind of funny like that.
BFP: Just to clarify, that’s where the hydro plant is going?
BFP: So how did you end up back at Bennington?
BS: I joke, I made it all of two blocks in 20 years. I’m in a very very unique situation in owning Pangea Lounge. I talk to the staff, I talk to the faculty members, I talk to you guys as students, and I talk to a lot of alumni. I went to school at a time when Liz wasn’t very popular, and she wasn’t popular in my mind either. And I kind of went through an interesting transformation—I mean, Liz is pretty bright, and I kind of watched what she was doing, CAPA started as the Democracy Project, and Janet [Marsden] had actually talked to me a lot about what she was going to do, and I really, I started to get Liz, I started to appreciate her, and I think, I really—and this is the best way I can say it—I missed being part of the conversation. I missed the dialogue. You don’t find the dialogue you find here, anywhere else. And it’s, it’s very funny, there’s a woman that came back and visited, she was part of my class, we had a few mutual friends, but we were not part of the same clique, at all. She was the first person assigned to New Booth because she was so quiet, Campus Safety camped outside my window. So, very different cliques. And she came back and we saw each other and it was like no time had passed, and we gave each other a hug and she actually looked at me and she had kind of caught up with what I was doing and I had followed what she was doing, and she had come back to speak at CAPA, and she said, it’s the most interesting thing, I’m out in the world doing things with people who do what I do and communicating, and she said I can’t talk to them, or communicate with them as well as I can talk to anyone I went to Bennington with. And I think that’s a very interesting thing and I think that’s true.
BFP: That’s interesting. And so that was five years ago, that you came back here?
BS: Yeah, it was about five years ago. When did I start here, oh my gosh. I think I actually did a little bit of consulting, yeah, I did a bit of consulting in January of 2008, and Joan Goodrich had me come up and do some stuff, and Joan and Liz tricked me into coming back. That’s what happens. And I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been great. And this for me was a real puzzle to solve, because so many things weren’t in place that weren’t in place. Grab and Go, and opening up the meal plan, and trying to build a good program, that would sort of service all needs. And that’s the fun part, is that the needs are unique, with the vegans and vegetarians. I go to other colleges and look at their food programs and they have like, two vegans and they’re like, you have how many vegans? And I don’t know how many we have, forty or fifty, that’s actually into a hard thing, now you can build this into your meal plan, and actually try to do good stuff, for vegans, vegetarians, everybody. So Bennington is an interesting challenge, you can kind of embrace that thought.
BFP: What was the food situation like when you got here?
BS: Oh boy. I think that a lot of things that needed to happen just simply hadn’t happen. How best to word this… I spent three years before I was comfortable with the structures we put in place. It took that long. It took that long to build the infrastructures, the catering menus, to do the grab and go, to do all the things that just needed to happen from the ground level up, breaking down all the operating costs and the things that make sense that you can track and trend. And I think, one of the first things we did—what year are you?
BFP: I’m a sophomore.
BS: Okay, so before you got here, that room, the salad room, there was only one door in and out. So it was a logjam. So we opened up the doors on the side, we tore out the whole center wall, so just getting rid of the congestion and trying to make it less claustrophobic, I mean there was a lot we did, there was programming, there were architectural changes. Thankfully we have the best cooks here. The cooks here are so qualified and dedicated, you’d be surprised at how much they love doing what they do, they really do, and everybody, the managers, everybody, I couldn’t have done what I did without them, they all love doing what they do.
BFP: That’s fantastic.
BS: Yeah, it really is. And I think at other institutions that is not the case.
BFP: Was there a catering program in house when you got here?
BS: Sort of. Yeah. And it kinda got priced ad hoc, it was inconsistent, the trustees and Liz, whenever there was an event at Liz’s house, literally ate the same thing every time. Room temperature filet mignon and poached salmon, that was it. And that’s fine, but these are worldly people who are interested in stuff, so we were able to start trying some interesting stuff, lamb and duck and wild mushrooms, and they like it, and we like doing it. And getting Joe here is great, the executive chef. He and I have a very similar palate, so it’s easy for us to converse about stuff. And I don’t know if you know Helene, the catering manager here. She’s world class, she’s that good. She’s probably the best front of house manager that I’ve ever worked with, that I’ve ever even seen.
BFP: Do you do any catering outside the school?
BS: Very little. We may do a couple things, but maybe, once a year. We really focus on the college. And the catering is grown. We’ve actually doubled our catering potential in the last two years.
BFP: I was actually just talking about how when I graduate, how excited my parents are going to be by the commencement dinner, it’s always really nice.
BS: It’s fun, it used to be a buffet. And this is one of the things we did. And this is why Helene and I get along—I do a lot of catering at Pangea, tons of catering. So my experience is very different from sitting up a buffet of room temperature food, which is kind of what happened. But in making an argument of “can we plate this,” here’s an interesting thing that Helene and I saw that if you put 890 people in a line, and they all are making decisions and talking. I think in 2009, it took 47 minutes to get everybody through the buffet line. And so people were standing in line, and we’re running around, and I just didn’t like it. So I couldn’t do it the next year. I think it was the next year—whenever I got Helene here we just said like, let’s just do a plated dinner, let’s do like, an actual restaurant experience where the order is taken at the table, the interesting thing that happened is that that year it was a large graduating class, so I think there were about 1368 people, and the dinner was plated and served in just under 15 minutes, everything was out. Because we just were able to set it up and execute it the way we wanted to execute it and I think it went very well, so that’s kinda where I think that having people who we kinda challenged each other on all this stuff, but we were all thinking insanely big, of like, let’s just do this crazy thing. It seems crazy, but we can do it.
BFP: Where did you learn to cook, and be in the restaurant business?
BS: That’s kind of an interesting story too. I learned to cook from three people. At the Main Street Café, I worked there for seven years, that was all Italian, wasn’t super great, but the guy that taught me like, knife skills and ethics and all that stuff taught me very well, he was the sous-chef there. If you check out Facebook you can see, my knife skills are all right, the Pangea account. Then I ended up falling into a really unusual situation at the Cambridge Hotel over in New York. I ended up leaving the Main Street Café and going to the Cambridge Hotel and there was just a huge amount of funding to open it. And they hired this guy Joe Truex, who had worked at La Cirque, he was running the Red Eye Grill at the time, in Manhattan, he had a lot of experience and he could really cook. Horrible person to work under—he was definitely a drunk and a bully—but he could really could. And I worked with Walter Luque. And Walter was this like the wildest romantic you could ever met in your life, he’d opened 37 restaurants, he started the Plaza Proche, he re-opened The Mirage, he started the first five diamond in the world, he worked at the French Culinary Institute—he was replaced by Jaque Torres, there’s a name you’d know, he was the precursor to Jaque Torres. Walter has diplomatic status in Egypt because he can cook that well. He studied with Ducasse in France, lived in the alley behind the restaurant for two years, from Uruguay, immigrated to France, worked there for three years, he would walk into work every day and taste three glasses of stuff, and he’d have to break down the ingredients into ratios. I could make him dinner and he could tell me everything in it. Ingredients, everything, it was totally Jedi training. So I had cooked for seven years and then I met these guys and it was like this whole world opened up. I’d been working at the Main Street Café I’d been working for Jenny Holzer and Mia Westerland and a whole bunch of sculptors and doing great stuff, I mean we were making sculptures that were going into the MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, I mean, I got to live at Storm King for a month and do an installation, so that was great, but when I met these guys I actually kinda walked away from the sculptural element and just dove into cooking, and I just fell in love with it. So that’s really how I learned how to cook, I just did it on the job. I took a low paying job that I had to work 18 hours a day but I got to watch these guys do what they did, and they’re so good at their craft.
BFP: Do you think that your ability to do sort of the “Bennington” thing to just sort of make things happen comes from not having formal restaurant training?
BS: I don’t know. I think more than anything it all stems from having a Bennington education. Which, again, you have to be the right person to get that education. I mean, people who don’t belong here really don’t do well here, you have to be a little strange, I guess, I think Bennington more than other places—this isn’t my phrase, but I can’t remember who said it, but it does two things, Bennington, rather than teaching knowledge, teaches you how to learn, and I think that that’s critical, because it teaches you to ask questions and it teaches you to accept critique. I think that’s something that isn’t—I’m sure it’s taught, but I don’t think it’s a mission statement anywhere else, it’s a mission statement here, it’s what happens. The other thing too, Pete Dinklage, when he spoke here, I went to school with Pete, and Pete nailed it, in his last commencement speech, and I’m gonna paraphrase and get it slightly wrong, but he said “Look around the room. Everyone you need to be successful in your life is in this room.” And that’s totally true. I’m still in communication with all these people that I went to school with, and they’re part of how I’m successful, really. I mean they really are instrumental in that. I don’t know, it’s just kind of great.
BFP: I’m glad you brought up Peter Dinklage, because I have to ask, how was it going to school here during the symposium.
BS: You know, it’s interesting. I was a junior when the symposium really happened, there was a bunch of people protesting stuff and I really didn’t get too involved in stuff. It was interesting, and I didn’t understand it really. Bennington changed, but as a woman who lived next door to me in Kilpat pointed out, the world changed. Bennington does radical things, and what Liz did was radical, but the world was changing. You were watching fraternities at other college start to disappear or become the colleges became much more rigid in how they policed them. And for a reason: people died, it was really like, what are we doing here? Yeah, Bennington was always the work hard party hard place, and I think that yeah, it’s good to let loose and everything like that, but I think that things were a little crazy, a little off the rails, and of course when you’re the one that’s off the rails, you can’t look at Liz telling you you’re off the rails and agree with her. But Bennington was a bit off the rails, and needed to change, it really fundamentally needed to change, and I guess time really will tell whether or not that was successful, and when you look around, look at the campus, the campus is thriving, the faculty here are amazing, top notch faculty, and the college is healthy. So maybe there were five ways to get there and Liz chose one, and it worked, so, if you love Bennington, you want Bennington to do well, you have to get on board with some kind of change. And what she did worked, it worked well.
BFP: Are the stories of “Before the Purge” as crazy as people think?
BS: Crazier. Crazier.
BFP: Booth was horrifying and everything?
BS: Actually I missed Booth, my first term here was the first term after Booth was disbanded, the fall of 1990. But things were definitely just nuts, things were very crazy.
BFP: What are you doing next?
BS: Really focusing on the hydro now. Obviously the restaurant keeps me very busy, especially in the summer, Vermont Tissue is now licensed for the hydro so we’re going to go into construction on that, and then we’re going to start feasibility studies on the Pownal project, which is a much bigger site. I just really got into it. I like water, just as something to be near in general, so I like what I’m doing, it’s fun. I’ll get bored with it and I’ll make rockets or something, I don’t know. So yeah, that’s the next thing on the horizon and who knows what’s after that. I have a daughter now, and she’s just a little over a year, and that’s a game changer for me. I really want to be able to spend more time with her. So I can’t keep doing the hours I’m doing. So my real plan is that I’m going to start backing off, and leaving Bennington is one of those first steps.
BFP: Do you think you’ll stay in Bennington, Vermont?
BS: Yeah, I think, we live in North Bennington, we’ve been there for about twenty years, but I don’t see any reason to leave. I think I’ve been at Bennington College for about two months, and I actually had the thought go through my head like, wow, I might like to live here. I just fell in love with the area, it was an amazing sense of community. North Bennington in particular, it’s not a flattering tale of it, but Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery… she went to Power's Market and wrote that in two hours. It’s not a flattering version of it, but it’s a really interesting mix of white collar and blue collar and people who are worth billions and people who are impoverished, and people who never graduated high school mixed with college professors, and it’s just a really interesting mix, it’s not segregated like you would think, you find yourself talking to people who under different circumstances you wouldn’t be talking to, and it’s that conversation you have over a cup of coffee at Power's with somebody that you wouldn’t normally meet—it helps you I guess to change the way you look at the world because you get a perspective that you wouldn’t normally have gotten, and I think I like that, I don’t know what I would do without that.
BFP: You’re from California?
BFP: That’s far away!
BS: It is! I’m totally with Bugs Bunny, nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Like I just don’t like it. I ride my bike to work or I walk to work, I think being in a car for an hour or two a day just makes me completely pathological. Like I understand road rage. Sitting in a car that long for me is horrible because I couldn’t get anything done. So I think, there’s a lot about this area, the community, but also the geography, everything’s close. And really beautiful.