The Essex is a unique culinary resort and spa in Burlington, Vermont, and where I learned to make the best French Onion Soup ever.
Color me curious when I heard about The Essex, Vermont’s Culinary Resort & Spa in Burlington. This unique hotel restored the vestiges of a former culinary school and combines cooking classes led by trained chefs with culinary-themed guest rooms, gorgeous grounds, and a luxurious spa for a relaxing and memorable New England travel experience that truly feeds your spirit.
Arriving the day before our cooking class allowed me the time to explore The Essex in all of its New England charm. Crisp temps and rustic harvest decor welcomed me and my senses thrilled to the sights and smells that only come when fall is in the air. My autumnal feast for the senses continued with a misty stroll of the grounds and, later that evening, a superb farm-fresh dinner at Junction, The Essex’s signature AAA Four-Diamond and Wine Spectator Award certified restaurant where locally grown produce, Vermont cheese, organic and sustainably-raised meats, and Maple Cream are the stars.
To start, the “BBQ on the Peach” cocktail bridged the seasons with its house-smoked Maplewood peaches infused in tequila, lemon-thyme reduction, and a smoked sea salt rim garnished with fresh lemon and a sprig of flowering thyme from the kitchen garden. The finale, Vermont is famous for Maple Cream and you absolutely must try it — to compare it to Bailey’s is practically sacrilege, and only used for a common reference — naturally tapped from area maple trees, Maple Cream tantalizes your taste buds and lightly coats the tongue with subtly sweet maple flavors, so unlike thick, cloying mass produced cream liqueurs.
It’s been far too long since I shared anything cooking related, so today it’s all about the amazing Cook Academy class that our group had with Chef Adam Walker and his tips and tricks for making the best French Onion Soup you’ve ever tasted.
The menu for our class featured Bistro Favorites: Steak with Demi Glace, Mashed Potatoes, and Crème Brûlée accompanied the first course of French Onion Soup for an incredible classic lunch à la Française. Besides tantalizing our tastebuds, my mind was blown at the number of tips and how to’s that Chef Adam shared during our two hours with him.
Chef Adam is a graduate of the Essex campus of NECI (New England Culinary Institute) that once occupied these buildings. His down-to-earth approach injected with humor successfully kept the attention of our group of social media fixated shutterbugs through the preparation of four courses in 2-1/2 hours.
There was “TV magic” involved as Chef Adam pointed out that due to obvious time constraints, the veal stock and a tray of Crème Brûlée ramekins were previously prepared. However, he shared some valuable tips on making veal stock and walked us through the process of making Crème Brûlée. While our group elected to watch Chef Adam demonstrate the cooking methods and not actively participate, please note that the Cook Academy classes are normally hands-on and are designed for cooks of every level. You can expect to acquire new cooking techniques or hone the skills you already have, plus learn industry insights that can help you entertain at home.
Classes are small, so each student receives personalized instruction. Most classes include a three- or four-course meal, and, best of all, you eat what you make and go home with the recipes. Class offerings vary throughout the year depending on the season and availability of fresh ingredients. Past courses have included cooking with Vermont beer, making fresh pasta, indoor grilling and vegetarian cooking as well as French and Italian wine classes. The Chef’s Kitchen classroom (shown below) offers an intimate space for up to 8 students, while the JK Adams classroom accommodates 12. See the list of upcoming Cook Academy classes.
A few cooking tips from Chef Adam:
Cook with your five senses: stop beating the eggs (for the Crème Brûlée) when you no longer hear the sugar scratching the bowl. This tip was pointed out several times during the class.
Use less egg yolks to avoid an overly eggy flavor.
Buy your blow torch at the hardware store, same torch (or better) and less expensive!
Don’t fill the pan too full of water, and move the pan very carefully (so the beaten eggs/cream are not disturbed).
For French Onion Soup:
When making browned butter (for the French Onion soup) – tiny, shiny, foamy bubbles form. When its quiet – remove the pan from the heat. Browned butter adds richness and another layer of flavor.
Use sweet onion – not yellow onions. Always use homemade stock!
For veal stock: use the big bones. Very specific- knees and hips – huge pieces of bone that a butcher can cut up for you. Plus some beef. More bone than meat. Mire poix. Thyme, bay leaf. 4 hours of slow roast on med-med high heat, skim solids off periodically. Veal stock – will not be salty like restaurants that use prepared beef stock.
For mashed potatoes:
Salting the water – very important that you use lots of salt! Only use Yukon Gold potatoes. Heat to gentle boil on Med-High, then lower heat to simmer potatoes so they cook all the way through and don’t break up.
For Veal Demi Glace:
The demi glace is key and more expensive than the steak you put it on!
Use Canola oil for sautèing, instead of your expensive Italian cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Splash of lemon juice to negate the bitterness that may occur when the pan is deglazed.
Wine tannins react with the browned bits “by product” from searing the filets. Can also use vinegar or beer.
The culinary school and restaurant at The Essex uses straight reductions for their demi glace – no cornstarch or flour added to thicken.
Tips for Herbs:
Freeze fresh herbs in ice cubes.
Dry your own herbs – you don’t know the origin of purchased herbs, they contain sticks, stems etc. and are all irradiated.
Toast your peppercorns to refresh flavor.
Best French Onion Soup Recipe
Homemade veal stock adds a depth of flavor that is a game changer in this French Onion Soup.
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 4-5 large sweet onions
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 4-5 cups homemade beef and/or veal stock
- 1/4 cup red wine preferably Cabernet or Merlot
- 1/4 cup dry Sherry or Cognac
- 4 slices toasted French or country style bread
- 4 slices medium thick Gruyere or Swiss cheese or 2 cups grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese divided
Heat butter and oil in a large soup pot.
Add onions and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, making sure the onions do not scorch.
When the onions start to brown (about 15 minutes), turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook until they turn a rich, dark brown color
Stir in the dry sherry or cognac.
Turn the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until the sherry has evaporated, then add wine and allow that to reduce by about 1/2.
Add stock and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle soup into 8 ovenproof crocks or bowls (appetizer portion) and place on a sheet pan. Lay a piece of thick sliced, toasted bread on top of soup and then one thick slice of Gruyere cheese (or about 1/2 cup grated cheese) over bread.
Place under broiler until the cheese is melted and bubbly brown. Alternatively, use a hand torch to melt and brown the cheese, if using grated cheese. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy of Cook Academy at The Essex Resort & Spa.
Our French Bistro dinner (that we had for lunch!) is completed by Steak with Demi Glace, Mashed Potatoes and Chef Adam’s insanely scrumptious Crème Brûlée — technique matters!
If you want to up your technique or find yourself in a cooking rut, spark your culinary creativity with The Essex Inner Chef resort package which includes:
Two nights accommodations for two
Two seats in a Cook Academy class
$100 credit for dinner for two at Junction
Breakfast for two at The Tavern ($16 value per person daily)
You won’t be disappointed and I guarantee you’ll come away with an arsenal of time-saving, flavor-boosting tips from the skilled chefs at The Essex.
The Essex also offers wellness retreats for a group or yourself, romantic retreats, gourmet getaways, and other special packages throughout the year.
The Essex Resort & Spa
70 Essex Way, Essex, VT 05452
Toll-Free: 800-727-4295 • Front Desk: 802-878-1100
Visit The Essex website for reservations and more information.
Disclosure: Our group’s accommodations and cooking class were hosted by The Essex Resort & Spa. All opinions are my own.