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The Essex Spa and Cook Academy (Essex, VT)

Written by Mark McElroy

When I booked us into a “Fireplace Mini Suite” at a Vermont-based resort hotel, I pictured us in a cozy room, our twin wing-back chairs pulled up close to the hearth, basking in the glow of a crackling fire.

So I’m a bit disappointed when I discover our fireplace is electric, with a wall switch you flip to activate the dim holographic flames. Frankly, a flat panel monitor playing a YouTube video of a fireplace would put out more heat and light.

As it turns out, though, this is the most disappointment we’ll face during an otherwise happy stay at The Essex — “Vermont’s Culinary Resort and Spa.” (Well, we are also a bit disappointed that the outdoor hot tub has been declared off-limits. But after a staff member tells us the reason — the previous day, a guest’s warm, moist hand had adhered to the icy metal door knob — we decide we can do without an outdoor soak in sub-zero weather.)

The Essex offers a range of activities, but, especially in winter, everything revolves around food. And that makes sense, given that the hotel plays host to the New England Culinary Institute and two highly-rated restaurants (The Tavern, serving breakfast and upscale bar fare, and Junction, serving an $85.00 per place fixed price tasting menu in the evenings.)

Through a partnership with Greg Doremus of Vermont Guided Tours, The Essex offers culinary tours of the local area (wine tastings, syrup sampling, etc.), and there’s also a fine day spa (with exactly the kind of cozy, textured decor — and fireplaces! — I’d hoped our rooms would possess). But the big draw at The Essex are the classes at Cook Academy, and this is where we end up on the second night of our stay.

The classroom is a huge and inviting kitchen. The countertop surrounding the space is punctuated with stoves, ovens, sinks, and a glitzy glass-doored refrigerator. In the middle are several tables for four, already set for dinner, and a demonstration table.

Chef Brandy Allen — a salty, spunky young woman with a sense of humor as dry as a glass of Boyden Valley Seyval Blanc — steps us through the program. She makes a game of everything from demonstrating techniques (“Stir the batter like this, and you won’t get it all over you!”) to assigning prep work (“Somebody’s gotta chop the beets!”). Clyde and I get beet duty:

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Once we add a classmate’s honey-maple vinaigrette to our bowl of chopped beets (who knew they came in so many colors and varieties), we pair the salad with freshly-made butternut squash soup. One of our fellow classmates plates the work — taking some well-deserved ribbing for his sloppy plating skills:

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But it’s Clyde who ends up creating the hit of the class: perfectly grilled fillets. Chef Brandy cuts them from a side of beef just minutes before we walk in:

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Once the time comes to prep the meat, she steers me through the seasoning process (“When you salt ‘em, keep your hand higher, so it won’t be so hit or miss!”) and offers Clyde valuable pointers (“Once you put the meat in the hot pan, don’t poke it. Don’t mash it. Don’t cut it. Just let it sit.”). He follows instructions well:

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And soon we’re sitting down to a perfectly seasoned, perfectly grilled steak, topped with herbed butter and served over sliced root veggies and crumbled blue cheese:

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We eat so much, we barely have room for the delicious “gingerbread cake for grown ups,” which starts as a thick, ginger-laden batter:

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And ends up like this:

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Everything about the experience is perfect. Chef Brandy knows we’re all here to take a class — but she also knows we’re on vacation. So she farms out the easy stuff to us … while she and her assistants do most of the heavy lifting (including finishing the steaks in an oven). And that’s just fine, because we’re all busy chatting up new friends, drinking wine, and marveling at just how incredible our fresh, locally-sourced creations taste. (We all leave with recipes and aprons, too.)

The next morning, Clyde and I can hardly waddle to our spa appointment. Despite Vermont’s liberal attitudes, I had held my breath a bit when booking a “Couples’ Soak and Massage” for a same-sex couple. When we walk in, though, we’re greeted with authentic smiles, then whisked away for a romantic hot bath and relaxing massages. The entire experience is pitch perfect (including the way the session price includes a tip you can adjust on check-out, eliminating the need to scramble for your wallet right after your rub-down.)

While mid-1980’s room decor at the Essex could use a little updating, the young staff is energetic and charming, giving the place a warm vibe even in the middle of a winter storm warning. The day spa is as cozy and comforting as it is spotless, and the Cook Academy classes and chefs deserve their stellar reputation. Highly Recommended.

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Mark McElroy

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