When Deborah Snow, executive chef and co-owner of the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland, compares her current clientele to diners 17 years ago when she first opened her restaurant, she notes that today’s patrons are savvier.
“As people’s ability to get product has changed drastically, we’ve become more aware of authentic tastes,” she says. “We know the Southwest and Mexican flavors of cumin and coriander and cilantro and chili; we know the Chinese influences of ginger, garlic and soy; we know Vietnamese and Thai influences. We have all those flavors now, and as a result our tastes have become more eclectic. We no longer use the word fusion, nor do we even identify a dish by locale the way we used to.”
She cites a five-spiced Hangar steak as an example of this, explaining that it’s now commonly understood that cumin finds its way into Southwest and Mexican dishes, and Middle Eastern and Indian ones, too; there’s no need to identify by region. For these reasons, Snow believes she’s gotten to be a better, more informed chef than she was when she opened the Blue Heron.
Seventeen years in, the Blue Heron is considered a Valley gem; it’s the spot for a destination meal for many. The building has flexibility, with both small and great rooms that can be booked for private events, allowing people to throw weddings, important birthday celebrations and office parties there. The flexibility allows people to choose Blue Heron for intimate events and quite large affairs as well. Chef Snow’s food has been recognized locally and regionally; her food has even graced the cover of Bon Appetit. But Blue Heron is also, for many people, a casual weeknight eatery. There’s burger and oyster night on Wednesdays, with half-price oysters and gourmet burger specials. Sunday’s Blue Plate Special allows diners to enjoy a three-course prix-fixe meal for just $25. “You could sum up the Blue Heron’s mission statement in three words,” says Kendra Nielsen, the catering and business manager. “Relax and enjoy.”
“There isn’t a dress code, given that the Valley is quite casual,” Nielsen says. “At the same time, people do come in for more formal occasions.”
The restaurant is housed in a stately, simple brick building that was formerly Sunderland’s Town Hall. Snow and co-owner Barbara White moved the business to this location in 2004. Before that, the restaurant occupied space in Montague Center at the Book Mill. The private dining room seats 10 to 20 comfortably, with a maximum capacity of 23, and the Great Room upstairs can accommodate up to 120.
“A couple of times each year, an event commands the entire restaurant—a wedding or a holiday party,” says Nielsen. “We’re open to that. What’s nice about our building is that it’s possible to hold a cocktail hour downstairs and seat people for supper upstairs, or to have a meeting in the private dining room and move into the restaurant or up to the Great Room for dinner. You aren’t stuck in one tight space.”
Little decoration is required to make the space feel special. “We decorate for the holidays very simply,” Nielsen explains. “Harvest theme, with gourds, and next, greenery, candles and things like that. The Great Room is so stunning that it doesn’t need more, although we work with local florists or planners as people request to create the atmosphere desired for their event.”
Besides private events on the premises, the Blue Heron caters events within a pretty broad radius—from southern Vermont and New Hampshire to Hampden County and northern Connecticut. “The nice thing is,” says Nielsen, “as people get to know our food from events they attend, they seek us out. It’s really easy to get to us from northern Connecticut. We’ve even had people drive up from New York City because they so enjoy the food and the experience at Blue Heron. We’re very moved when people tell us how much of a destination we are for them.”
Snow has designed the menu to accommodate those who want to try many different dishes. She has created Bites and Small Plates, and added Share Plates, so people can easily experience and share new flavors. “People are so much more interested in the experience of tasting each other’s food these days,” she says. “I love that people are interested in food and artisanal beer and wine and spirits; I am continually challenged to learn more.”
Nielsen explains that the notion of Farm to Table, with capital ‘F’ and ‘T,’ is something Snow grew up with, since she was raised in a farming family in Ohio. Snow praises the way Farm to Table has created more opportunities for farmers. She finds the Valley, with its farmers and strong interest in locally grown food, a comfortable and in some ways familiar home. “Food, farming, traditions passed from generation to generation, that’s in my blood,” she says.
Snow relishes the fact that she buys food from both older and newer farmers. “I’m impressed by the old-timers having hung in and impressed with the way many newer farmers have found their way to growing wonderful food on just a few acres,” she says. “I love how people are experimenting with different things. Red Fire Farm tried to grow okra, and some farms are experimenting with growing wheat. That’s a really neat thing. The growing season has been extended, and people understand the importance of food’s seasonality; you don’t find anyone frustrated that during the winter there won’t be raw tomatoes in their salads. They understand and appreciate the nuance of food.”
There remains, she imagines, room for growth by area diners. Valley diners show reticence about trying all the parts of an animal, for example. “In New York, you can go to a hip restaurant and find a dish called pork face, but here, that just wouldn’t fly, I don’t think,” she says. “When you buy a whole animal, you pay what’s called a hanging weight, so if you can’t use anything, that’s a waste of resources.”
Valley diners are likely to continue to expand their palates, Snow believes. She praises the return of cooking as a very positive trend. “I think as people understand food better—the youth, the so-called hipsters all the way to my eighty-year-old mother, who finds it fun to go try sushi—that there’s a demand for better food,” she remarks. “I love to cook tried-and-true favorites, both in the restaurant and at home, but I also love to develop new dishes, something I do at home and when I teach cooking classes.
“Certain dishes have remained on the menu—signature items, like a pork chop that’s somewhat smoked that has been on the menu for a few years. We team it with different accompaniments by the season, which keeps the food more pertinent and keeps me interested. If I wasn’t evolving as a chef, and continually challenged to do better, then it wouldn’t be fun.”•