words // alex mackay | images // ben sarle
Chad Rich is a man happily obsessed with tiny details. From top quality ingredients, to a vast selection of premium beers and cocktails, to the sourcing of his business card, this is someone who seeks perfection at every step and won’t stop working until he achieves it. Fortunately for his diners, this particularity is something from which they can reap rewards.
Thus is the setting for The Prohibition Pig, the new barbecue-inspired restaurant that occupies the former location of The Alchemist, a locally revered pub and nationally recognized brewery that was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene last August and subsequently vacated. Faced with the daunting task of replacing a neighborhood staple with something (gasp!) new, Mr. Rich has successfully escaped the shadow of a Central Vermont giant. He has reinvented the space from the flooded basement up and created a business that seems as if it has existed forever yet benefits from the innovation, excitement and creativity of something new.
The opportunity to start with a blank slate in an established location isnʼt lost on Rich, who saw the communityʼs attachment to the previous tenant and the central location near Burlington, Stowe and the Mad River Valley as major reasons that Waterbury was right for the launch. “Running a restaurant in this location is something Iʼm honored to be able to do. Iʼm so thankful to all the people in the community that have been supportive and I love having a business in a town with so many great people around us.”
With a long background in the restaurant industry, Rich has been partial to barbecue since his family traveled the South looking at schools where his brother could play college baseball. Rich’s father had long been trumpeting the tastes of southern barbecue, then a regional delicacy in a time before The Food Network brought the cuisines of foreign lands to our living rooms on a steady weeknight rotation. When the Riches were finally able to eat as a family at an authentic Carolina joint, Rich’s mom thought the chopped pork looked like something out of an upset stomach. “I thought she was going to get us kicked out of the place because she was laughing so hard,” Rich remembers, with a laugh all his own.
Rich’s reaction to southern meat was vastly different than his momʼs. This and future authentic barbecue experiences were precursors to long-lasting relationships with hog farmers and pit masters as he began to create a baseline for his own take on an American favorite. His ideas developed over the course of many jobs and even more business plans, and when the time seemed right, he was willing to take a risk and start the long, arduous process of making his vision a reality – a fact lost on some customers still hoping to walk into The Alchemist.
For those needing to relive some of that old 2011 charm, there are eleven former Alchemist staff members working throughout the kitchen, restaurant and bar, a fact that Rich has relied on a since The Pig first opened a few months back. “Having these people back has been a huge plus for the business. The skill set was there, they are all pros and we didnʼt need to do nearly the amount of training we would have done in a normal opening.”
In the tradition of other high-end taprooms around the state, The Pig has an impressive, even intimidating, 24-brew selection, with different regions, styles and strengths represented in-depth. You can get everything from Schlitz served in a chalice to thick, dark, ABU heavy brews served in a glass better fit for a port than a porter. The Pig offers half sizes, maximizing your opportunity to sample while lightening the financial load. And what better way to leave room for cocktails?
The cocktail list of classic favorites and in-house inspirations feels like something from a hipster mixology den in Williamsburg or The Pearl circa 2006, with concoctions indirectly alluding to Hemingway passages, wealthy grandparents and hot jazz. But the drinkable offerings at The ProhibitionPig are well researched for a refreshing and balanced taste. Most notable are “The Last Word” – a combination of gin, chartreuse, maraschino and lime – and the “Penicillin Cocktail” – contrasting bright, sweet notes of ginger, honey and a smoky, earthy finish of a Laphroig floater. Yes, thatʼs right, a Laphroig floater. Equally impressive is Richʼs ongoing development of a selection of non-alcoholic “Slow Your Roll” cocktails based on a wide variety of bitters and served complete with a grown-up presentation for the one driving home.
Rich feels strongly that serving premium beer and run-of-the-mill spirits defeats the purpose of doing either. Instead, he does serves both premium beer and spiritsboth. “There is a time and a place for both great beer and great cocktails, and we want to give people the option to come in here and choose.” This means that the bar itself becomes a notable space of its own, with substantial offerings and points of major accomplishment. For customers not necessarily looking to gorge on large portions of meat, the beer and cocktail area of The Pig can serve as a mainstay for cultural rituals like the after-work drink, a beer with friends or a classy first date.
The food menu is chock full of barbecue standards like hush puppies, brisket and pulled smoked chicken as well as innovative spins on Southern fare like fried pimento cheese balls with chili pepper jam and a burger with a fried green tomato and housemade bacon. The ingredients are sourced locally but not necessarily advertised, an issue Rich is constantly reexamining. The integrity of the food is what is most important to him, not necessarily the branding of it. “Local food should be what we expect. I almost wish restaurants had lists next to their food if it wasnʼt coming from a local source.”
Most of the meat is smoked in a custom built smoker that can fit a half hog when necessary. A caddy of sauces and spices comes to the table along with dinner, and these flavor additions range in taste and viscosity from the spicy vinegar end of the spectrum all the way to the tangy sweet tomato side.
Speaking of sides, The Pig’s are a mix of the expected and the new, with standards like collards, baked beans and coleslaw as well as Brussels sprouts, corn relish and mini sweet potato muffins served warm with maple butter. The possible combinations of dinner and sides are extensive, and with parties of two or more sharing is probably the order of the day. The sourcing, preparation and seasoning of the food is once again a labor of love, with complex spice and dressing combinations accompanying both meat and vegetables in spades.
The atmosphere, food and drink at The Pig add up to convey that Rich and company have set out to “do things right” from start to finish, an approach that deserves praise and encouragement in a food world of lowest common denominators despite emerging trends. The staff and management of The Pig are dedicated to serving items that have had their own history, however brief, within the restaurant itself. The drink menu may seem cliché to some in its urban style, but itʼs comfortable to the bartenders and extremely well executed. The products are sourced with integrity and presented as such. The menu is born of creativity, and with it the willingness to work out kinks that are the result of trying something new.
The plan is to keep the innovations coming and make The Pig another Vermont standard for locals and tourists alike, a draw for people coming to the state to celebrate food. Richʼs plans extend to a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar at Sunday brunch starting on Memorial Day, a still in the basement to join the trend of local craft spirits accompanying local craft beer, and a line of sauces available for retail sale, another addition to the ever growing list of products proudly displaying the moniker “Made in Vermont.”
In the end, a night at The Prohibition Pig is personable, filling and fun. Handsome space, potent drinks and satisfying food, all driven by a man constantly looking for ways to improve – the sort of business that is rewarding to visit and easy to support.