Veteran chefs design very different menus at two new restaurants in Amherst

Daily Hampshire Gazette. January 18 2015. Scott Merzbach.

AMHERST — In Amherst center, the chef at a new restaurant focused on northern Italian and Mediterranean cuisine is encouraging patrons to pair their food with a glass of wine.

In North Amherst, the chef at a new dining spot suggests customers ordering breakfast items and sandwiches, soups and salads enjoy their meals with a first-rate cup of coffee.

Though Vespa, at 28 Amity St. in the Amherst Cinema building, and Bread & Butter, at 68 Cowls Road in the Trolley Barn, will offer different dining experiences when they open this winter, their chefs, Thomas Schnapp and Brian Knox, respectively, have both put extensive effort into creating menus. They each feature what they describe as “simple food” that will be unique in the community.

Vespa, which is owned by Jonathan Welch of Amherst, anticipates a mid-February opening. It is the result of a discussion Welch had with Schnapp at The Farm Table restaurant in Bernardston, where for three years Schnapp served as the chef de cuisine.

Welch owned restaurants in the Bay Area of California before returning to western Massachusetts, where he operates a farm stand in Deerfield, M&M Green Valley Produce. In January 2013, he began offering his expertise to The Farm Table and met Schnapp.

“We started talking about something like this and then following through with the idea,” Welch said.

Schnapp said he began cooking professionally when he was 16 and has been a chef for more than 40 years, the last dozen in the Pioneer Valley. Prior to The Farm Table, he had been the chef de cuisine at the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland.

“It’s really the food that drives me as a chef,” said Schnapp, who will be running the kitchen and designing the menu at Vespa.

While the food will have an influence from the Provence region of southeast France and other parts of the Mediterranean, the main focus will be Italian ingredients,

“The soul of the restaurant will definitely be northern Italian,” Schnapp said. The wine list will be about half Italian and half New World selections, he added.

Besides local produce, some of which will come from Welch’s farm, Vespa will buy local meats and sustainable products, Schnapp said.

“The menu will be on the small side, but will change on an almost daily basis,” he explained.

The restaurant has only about 1,800 square feet, 800 of which is for the kitchen. There is dining space for 66 patrons inside and 40 to 45 on the outdoor patio that will be open in the spring and summer. Welch said Vespa will have between 15 and 20 employees, with about seven will be in the kitchen.

Schnapp said the size of the restaurant was right and that, being close to his home in Sunderland, he was willing to help start another enterprise.

“It’s a much easier thing to embrace. It’s close by and it’s not a great industrial restaurant,” Schnapp said.

Welch and Schnapp are still finishing up the interior, which will have orange and red walls, drapes over windows and black tables. A large wooden bar area remains largely unchanged from when previous restaurants were in the space, and the white metal ceiling that was originally part of an earlier theater is still visible.

Besides small pieces of ephemera to decorate the inside, there will be vintage lithographs, tying the Italian theme to the proximity to the theater. One depicts Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn riding a vespa, the small Italian scooter, in the film “Roman Holiday.”

“The concept behind the name is vespas are the epitome of Italian culture,” Schnapp said.

And for those who know Italy, Vespa will be an osteria-style restaurant, “Osteria is the equivalent of a wine bar, with great, simple local food,” Schnapp said.

This fits perfectly with its location being tucked down an alley, rather than having a prominent position facing the street, Schnapp said.

‘Simple breakfast’

Bread & Butter, Knox’s first independent venture that he is starting with wife Jaime, is expected to open by the end of January.

The restaurant name reflects the food that Knox and a small team, likely two other cooks and one prep cook, will make on a daily basis.

“We’re keeping it fairly basic,” said Knox, who worked most recently as a sous chef at Lone Wolf Restaurant on Main Street. “A simple breakfast and simple food. Nothing fancy, but done well.”

This means customers can order eggs any style, omelets, eggs benedict, hash and breakfast sandwiches. But being a chef, Knox is adding his own flair to each menu item.

“We’re trying to make everything we can from scratch,” Knox said. “That creates a better product and it keeps the price down.”

The restaurant will make its own sausage and brioche, as well as duck confit hash, with the leg of the duck cooked in its own fat until it’s “fall-off-the bone tender.” Knox said, and then mixed with onions and potatoes.

Knox began his restaurant career after attending college in Ithaca, New York, in the 1990s and he moved to Amherst in 2001. He worked for a time at the former Amber Waves, before moving on to the Black Sheep Deli and then to Lone Wolf. He was also the head chef for three years at a University of Massachusetts sorority.

“It’s been the love of cooking for people, the opportunity to do my own thing and have my own level of creativity with it,” Knox said.

The restaurant will have an emphasis on local and organic products, Mapleline Farms will provide milk, Old Friends Farm the greens, Kitchen Garden the sriracha and El Jardin the bread baked daily. A handful of products will come from a greater distance, such as Benton’s Country Ham from Tennessee, which is served at high-end restaurants in New York City.

There will be healthy eating options, including gluten-free pancakes and waffles, vegan omelets, vegan sausage and tofu scramble.

At the same time, Knox envisions a place where patrons want to return.

“We’re looking to create a destination restaurant, to make it the restaurant to go to,” Knox said. “We want people to be wowed when they come in the door.”

While Vespa is in a space that has been used by two previous restaurants, the Knoxes are carving out their own space in the new Trolley Barn building. The 1,100 square foot dining room will have space for 65 people, with eight seats at a bar.

He designed the small kitchen, which features windows that draw in light and a window that allows customers to peek in.

Jaime Knox’s father, Michael Zlogar, is the general contractor who installed a pair of leather-clad doors with circular windows that form the entrance to the kitchen. These were once used in the Greenfield Courthouse.

Counter Culture Coffee of Boston will roast all the coffee beans. “As much as we’re focusing on food, we wanted a place for coffee,” Knox said.

Jaime Knox said there is an appeal to getting a good cup of coffee, especially in the darkest days of winter. The windows allow in much light. “The southern exposure is absolutely perfect for a restaurant,” she said.

To reflect the location in The Mill District, Knox said he has given the inside a soft industrial look, with old beams removed from mills in Holyoke being repurposed as seats, including one that is 22-feet long and will rest in front of the windows. Reclaimed barn boards form one wall, and metal duct work is exposed on the ceiling.

The tables and bar will be made from concrete, fabricated by Brick Coworkshop artisans Kamil Peters and Michael Karmody in Holyoke.

The wooden chairs are reclaimed from a closed school in Easthampton. “They still had gum attached to the bottom of the seats,” Knox said.

Bread & Butter will be open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and stay open Friday nights serving “breakfast for dinner,” something Knox believes will be appealing for families. “Every kid loves breakfast for dinner,” he added.

The Knoxes are confident. “The community around here has just been fantastic,” Jaime Knox said. “It reinforced the idea that this will be a good neighborhood.”

Brian Knox said many still lament the loss of Daisy’s and Rooster’s, two bygone breakfast places in North Amherst.

“The general community was really missing it from the message we got,” Knox said. “We feel so incredibly lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor here.”