A Dash of Nostalgia

Cotton in the downtown Manchester mill district has become an institution. It’s the place to go for a good martini and the comfort of meat loaf and mashed potatoes in an trendy/retro setting. Even the New York Times and Bon Appetit have given the restaurant a nod, and it’s a regular stop for tourists exploring the region. For owner/chef Jeff Paige, who opened the restaurant in 2000, it’s the expression of what he loves about food.

How did you start cooking?

I was 13 when I attended a cooking class in Amherst at a kitchen supply store. Jim Haller, of Blue Strawbery fame, was teaching the class. It was an influential meeting and we have kept in touch through the years. I eventually went on to Levi Lowell’s in Merrimack, becoming the head chef, after I finished my degree at the Culinary Institute of America. I brought Haller in to give the staff a few lessons. At that time Michael Buckley worked for me. We were named best restaurant north of Boston by Fortune Magazine in 1988. For the next 12 years I was head chef at the Shaker Village in Canterbury.

How have you managed to get all the national media coverage?

It just kind of happens. I made an all-tomato dinner for Julia Child on her birthday at Nesenkeag Farm in 1990. Our friendship continued and Julia came up to Canterbury Shaker Village, when the cookbook “The Shaker Kitchen – Over 100 Recipes From Canterbury Shaker Village” was published in 1994. Later we did a segment together on “Good Morning America.”

Did you learn anything from Julia Child?

Yes, she said I didn’t use enough salt. I have taken that to heart, even here and now with my chefs.

What did you learn from the Shakers?

What I had hoped for – where food comes from. Jim Haller had told me what a great resource the Shakers were, having worked with the sisters earlier. They didn’t rely on the outside world for much, so they grew all their vegetables, raised their chickens and pigs and cured that meat, and dried the beans for use all year-round. They had more than 100 herbs, both medical and culinary in the garden. I also met farmers and artisanal cheesemakers that struggled financially while refusing to compromise on quality.

You recently published your third cookbook, what was the first?

“Cooking in the Shaker Spirit” with Jim Haller – he was a guest chef at the Canterbury Shaker Village in 1988 while I was the head chef. We worked together on the recipes then; it was a great time.

Have you brought the Shaker spirit to Cotton?

Yes, in many ways. First, just good food, prepared simply. That is what the Shakers were about and that is my driving force. Also, I try to use locally-sourced or naturally-raised foods as much as possible. Like the Shakers, I to try to keep foods simple. I buy good ingredients and try not to muck it up.

Should we really be eating like the Shakers?

Absolutely. The Shakers had a very physical lifestyle, but they knew the secret to good eating – fresh and all-natural foods. The difference is amazing. Just eat in moderation, as Julia Child always suggested. I don’t cut back on the cream. I use a 40-percent fat content product from Maine. There may be two quarts of cream in a soup but maybe only two tablespoons per serving.

Where do you get your vegetables?

In season I buy as much local fruits and vegetables as possible. The Farm and Flower Market on Webster Street, here in Manchester buys from at least six to eight local farms. They had great peaches and blueberries this season. I also buy from Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield. Farm manager Eero Ruuttila farms much like the Shakers did, without using pesticides or guns to control predators. The Shakers always planted more than they needed, knowing that a good percentage would be lost to theft or pestilence.

So, you have been into the local food movement for a long time?

Yes, Gail McWilliam Jellie and I tried to start the farm to restaurant thing in 1988, but it flopped. I guess we were too early. The restaurants back then weren’t interested. It is cheaper to ship garlic from China than to buy from local farms. We really needed the initiative. I am glad she finally got the Farm to Restaurant Connection to where it is now. I did one of the first dinners for them in 2004.

Have you changed the concept of Cotton over the years?

No. We have kept the quality and haven’t raised prices. I really still like the simple comfort food – stuff that reminds people of foods they ate when growing up. It may be just meat loaf, but it can bring back memories. The flavors are from the past, too, because I use all-natural pork and naturally-raised beef. My grandmother passed away last year. I might reformulate a dish with elbow noodles, cheese sauce and hamburger that she prepared when I was a kid.

What do you love on the menu?

Actually, everything, but our all-natural wood-grilled lamb sirloin steak with minted almond pesto has become my newest signature dish.

How is the martini bar going?

It’s great. We are still winning Best of NH every year. Preparing drinks is similar to preparing food – you try not to muck up a good recipe. We use good spirits, like Hanger One vodka that is infused with fresh fruit, not extracts. Cheap vodkas with extracts smell perfumey to me. We also make our own infusions from scratch with high-end ingredients, like our pumpkin vodka with roasted pumpkins, fresh vanilla beans, cinnamon, maple sugar, Kahlua and cream. This past summer we used California figs with Bourbon. Everyone can do that, but like food, with the different cooks and ingredients it comes out different.

You recently celebrated your second wedding anniversary with Peaches, what did you do?

We ate our way through Portland, Maine. All the restaurants were great, but I remember at the Front Room we had a fried egg sandwich with homemade French baguette, North Country Smokehouse bacon and Great Hill bleu cheese. Simple, but when you have great ingredients . hmm, it was so good. I keep a notebook of all the places I visit, just to remember great dishes.

Why did you sell Starfish in 2006?

I had it for four years and the right offer came along. It gave me a chance to make Cotton stronger. When you have two restaurants you wish you had one; when you have one you wish you had two. Peaches and I have ideas for other concepts . maybe a gourmet hamburger place with good bread, homemade condiments and great beef. Or, I might try Italian restaurant, not Italian American, but like you would actually find in Italy – fresh ingredients and keeping it simple. I love the grilled fish and braised meats that are great for fall and winter. I might try an Italian theme at Cotton on Wednesdays. It will let me know if people are interested. But, maybe they are content with the American style.

Why this new Cotton cookbook?

People are always asking for our recipes. We decided to use 25 dishes that people really like. In the space available we tried to convey that the food here is from the best sources and we have been doing that for a long time. We are working on a larger cookbook for next Christmas. This one is only $14.95, great for people who visit and want to take something back.

Tell us about your Cookbook Dinners.

We’ve had a variety of chef/authors here for book signings and in addition to our regular menu we prepare a few items from their cookbook – authors like Jasper White. Coming up on Dec. 5 are the Brass Sisters, the queens of heirloom cooking. A percentage of the profits go to the Kids’ Cafe, here in Manchester, one of my favorite charities. NH

Baked Onion Apple Cider Soup with Smoked Cheddar Cheese Gratiné

Serves 6 to 8

1 stick unsalted butter
5 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cups beef stock
4 cups fresh apple cider
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1/4 cup light brown sugar (omit if cider is sweet enough)
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
Butter as needed for spreading
6 to 8 slices of French bread, 1/2-inch thick
6 to 8 slices of Gruyère or Swiss cheese
2 cups grated smoked Vermont cheddar or traditional cheddar cheese

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until well caramelized, about 20 to 30 minutes, taking care not to burn them. Add the stock, cider and thyme. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the soup for 1-1/2 hours. Skim the top of the soup periodically. Season the soup with the brown sugar, if needed, and salt and pepper. The soup may be made up to this point a day ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.

To make the croutons, lightly butter the slices of French bread and broil until toasted on both sides. To serve, preheat the oven to 400°F. Place 6 to 8 ovenproof soup cups or crocks in a large roasting pan and fill them with the hot soup. Pour hot water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the cups or crocks. Top each cup or crock of soup with a crouton, a slice of Gruyère cheese, and 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated cheddar. Bake the soup until the cheese is golden brown and the soup is hot and bubbly. Serve immediately.