Q&A: Chef Chris Viaud
Former Top Chef contestant brings new flavor to NH's fine-dining scene with Pavilion in Wolfeboro
Chef Viaud is a busy man, as the chef and owner of Greenleaf, a farm-to-table restaurant in Milford; Ansanm, authentic Haitian cuisine, also in Milford; and now Pavilion, a fine-dining establishment in Wolfeboro. From being a student at Johnson and Wales to working in a French fine-dining restaurant in Boston, Viaud has refined his culinary craft, focusing on locally grown produce that inspires his creative dishes.
How did you get your start?
It was a very interesting journey from not even knowing that I wanted to become a cook or a chef, taking that leap into culinary school blind without having worked in restaurants before, or anybody really in my family having restaurant experience, and just going through the motions of applying to college and then getting to the kitchen for the first time in culinary school, learning from some of the professors.
It was throughout the course of schooling is where the interest really sparked where I was able to use food as a creative outlet, and I started to gain more interest in learning more about being creative in terms of thinking differently about food as opposed to just your normal steak and potatoes. It really allows the freedom to explore food through a unique means by telling a story.
Working in professional restaurants while still in school and then transferring directly into the restaurant scene, going into a fine-dining restaurant in Boston definitely fueled more of my passion. I was working with some incredibly talented chefs who pushed and guided me along the way, helped inspire me, motivate me, and really encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and excel at what I was best at.
And I’ve had some learning moments along the way for sure. I became a chef of a restaurant that was opening after leaving the fine-dining restaurant, and that didn’t work out. It was with a team of ownership that didn’t really have any restaurant experience, and we just didn’t see eye to eye. So that was a learning moment for me.
That led me into other opportunities, working with different farm purveyors and farm-to-table catering companies where I met my previous business partner who found a location in Milford that was looking to either turn into a bookstore or a restaurant. So, we took a tour of that space, fell in love with the history of the building. It was a historic bank building and it had potential. The landlord was willing to put in the effort to help make the space really ours and fit to the kind of cuisine that we were offering. It’s crazy to think that was four years ago that the first restaurant was open.
Why did you decide to focus on farm-to-table dining?
Farm to table was never really something that I was even focusing on in the beginning. When I was working in Boston, yes, we had access to some local produce, but it was always through distributors or purveyors. We never had the hands-on approach of going out to the farms.
And when I was opening my restaurant, I knew that my business partner was heavily involved in the farms. He had a farm-to-table catering company called the Farmer’s Dinner. So I worked with him for a little while with that. And from there he led me in the direction of connecting with all these amazing farms.
I found that it was right to just be able to connect where we were in the restaurant scene and the food that we were going to be producing. So, helping to share the farmers’ stories by connecting with the farmers, learning about their history, why they do what they do, the produce that they’re growing, why they love growing it, and how we can translate that into a dish, that’s awesome.
We work with Three Rivers Farmers Alliance, which is a co-op that allows us to have a better outreach through New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Can you share more about your restaurants?
Green Leaf is an upscale casual comfort, farm-to-table dining, where we source a lot of our products from local farmers and we stick to planning our menus throughout the season.
Then, there’s Ansanm, which is a tribute to my Haitian heritage. Our family is heavily involved in that business, where my parents are at the forefront of all the food preparations and the menu. My sister is the director of operations of all three companies, so she’s heavily involved in everything. She helps keep me in line and stay on task.
Ansanm focuses on traditional Haitian food as well as a modern interpretation of Haitian flavors by incorporating dishes that are more familiar to American palates just by using Haitian ingredients and techniques.
And then we have Pavilion. It’s the same concept as Green Leaf where we stay true to sourcing from local farms and plan the menus around the seasons, but the atmosphere is a little more upscale than what Greenleaf is. It’s a beautiful contrast of being in all these different spaces and working with different individuals in each location. That helps to motivate me to keep doing what we’re doing.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
Right now, I just put on (the menu) a barbecue pork loin dish — a take on southern barbecue. I did a roasted strawberry barbecue sauce. It’s served with cornbread that just gets griddled with butter and finished with sea salt. Fresh strawberries, a watermelon. And then I took the watermelon rinds and pickled that and mixed it in with Chowchow, which is a mixed pickled veg. And then it has a charred salad aioli with braised bok choy in the style of braised greens.
What advice would you give younger owners or chefs when they’re just starting out in their career?
Sounds cliche, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. There were definitely some points along the way where I wish I had more available resources to me. At the time when I was jumping in, it was like going in blind.
When we first started, we were in contact with the Small Business Association to help out with any available resources that might be available in the state. They guided us along the way throughout the course of the process, but a lot of it has just been figuring out as we go along, There’s no right answer in terms of how you run and operate. Each business is so different that there’s no point-blank solution to what can be said about the steps that you need to take. But having somebody who’s willing to sit down with you and has gone through the motions of starting a business or multiple businesses can help ease the process, ease the burden.
So having a business mentor is a huge piece of advice, and hopefully that business mentor will guide you in the direction of all the other mentors that you need throughout the course of business, making sure you have a certified accountant to help ease the process of going through all your bookkeeping and everything like that.
Having the people in the right wheelhouse to help guide and showcase where you should be going really is helpful.
What was it like being a contestant on Top Chef?
On season 16, Adrienne Wright was one of the competitors, and I worked for her in Boston at Deuxave. So when she came back from filming, I was at her premiere episode party and she was telling me how great the experience was. She was like, you have the personality for it. You’d be great. You have the talent, you should definitely apply. And I was like, now’s not the time. That was right before opening up Greenleaf.
Fast forward two years later, she sends me a message saying, “Just so you know, I submitted your name for casting. And they could possibly be reaching out.” Ten minutes later, casting sent me a message. And of course, I was like, I guess now’s a better time than any. We went through weeks, months of back-and-forth interviews, application process, auditions. It was an interesting time because it was during Covid, so there was no real opportunity for in-person meetings.
And then it was probably like two weeks after I made the decision that I was going to open the bakery. That’s when they called and I was selected. After I got off the phone, I literally ran out of the building, ran to the parking lot, called my wife, and I actually drove over to Greenleaf where she was working as a pastry chef, and I just told her the news.
And through (the show), it was all a blank. It went by so fast. Between getting that call and keeping to their schedule, on top of opening up the bakery, maintaining Greenleaf. And then by the time that I was ready to leave for Top Chef, the bakery was open for three weeks. And it was difficult because I only was able to tell two managers that I was leaving. And the reason I gave everyone else was, “Oh, I’m going for a conference for the weekend,” but I ended up being gone for two months. That process was very time consuming, but the whole experience was worthwhile.
Was it more stressful than fun?
Both. It was a learning opportunity. I learned a lot about myself as a person, as a chef, and which direction I wanted to take my food moving forward. But we were in the middle of a pandemic. We were dealing with the wildfires out in the West, because we were in Portland, Oregon. And also that was during the time of the protests for George Floyd. And having very little communication with any of the restaurants was difficult. Hoping and praying things were okay when I got back.
I’m a huge advocate for supporting New Hampshire businesses and showing that especially in the restaurant community, there are a pocket of U.S. chefs that are doing incredible things outside of the normal steak and potatoes and lobster rolls and lobster shacks and stuff. But New Hampshire can be known for something better than just those, you know?
There’s a few of us chefs that have been on Food Network and on Bravo and highlighting the New Hampshire restaurant scene. That’s what continues to motivate us and hopefully inspire and motivate the next generation that we can still do what we love to do while working in this Granite State.
What leadership qualities do you believe that chefs or owners should embody in order to achieve success and build a strong team?
Patience and compassion. Nowadays, where the staffing pool is very minimal, you have to be open to change. Change the way that we look at how we operate the business. Take a look at the way that the employees wish to live their lives is a huge factor. Everybody wants to have a better balance of home and work, which is perfectly acceptable, and we just have to be willing to accommodate to that.
So, patience in terms of understanding everyone’s needs, being open and willing to listen, and compassion, listening to what their needs are and trying to work that into the business. How you can lead and inspire from a personal level. Yes, the business side of things is always going to come first. But it’s also the employees who are the driving force behind your business.
What else do you want to share?
The importance of the diverse dining scene that we’re starting to see now in New Hampshire is incredible. And the reason for Ansanm’s success is because of the customers who are willing to try something new. It’s incredible to see that people are willing to take risks by eating things that they’re so unfamiliar with. And with every opportunity that I have with traveling and going to speak about food and cuisine, I often use those opportunities to speak about Haitian cuisine and culture as opposed to the farm-to-table aspect.
Everybody knows what that means to source locally, but not too many people know that there’s a revolution in terms of dining. And New Hampshire is part of that, because we have Mexican chefs that are doing incredible things in the state. And to see that the community is willing to support all these diverse cuisines is awesome as well.