• Gourmet food on paper plates
    By Emma Lamberton
    Special to the Herald | July 21,2014
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    Sissy Hicks thought she could hide away in the sleepy, small town of Middletown Springs. But small towns are intersections of life, and visitors are beginning to ascertain a secret gem of the town: Sissy’s Kitchen. Word is getting out because of people like Stacy Lastrina, who moved from Pennsylvania to be closer to Sissy and her wonderful food.

    “I tell everyone I meet about Sissy’s being the best experience and food around,” Lastrina said. She and her husband, Tom, were already looking for a Vermont farmhouse, but had no set area for their search. However, after a stop at Sissy’s Kitchen, Lastrina told her Realtor that their new house “had to be within bike riding distance from Sissy’s.”

    “I fell in love,” Lastrina said. “There’s no better place in the world for gourmet food on paper plates.”

    A friendly woman with a big heart, Sissy manages the sometimes chaotic conditions of her kitchen with a smile, and an occasional, well-deserved cuss. Despite a hard front, Sissy’s caring nature is evident as she makes a point to personally connect with the community, employees and friends. Not many restaurant owners know their supplier’s delivery men by name, but Sissy makes a point to not only remember names, but to also send every delivery man away with a handful of cookies.

    Sissy, whose years in the kitchen earned her a silver braid and double-knee replacement, began her career washing dishes at the Barrows House in Dorset. She watched and learned until, in her mid 20s, she began helping prepare food. “The chef there introduced me to vegetables and things, ideas,” Sissy said. “He started me on the basics. I hadn’t thought much about food before then. I developed taste.”

    Then one night the chef left, and Sissy got the job. After working as head chef for several years, Barrow House was visited by Joe Allen, owner of the worldwide restaurant chain, Joe Allen Restaurants. “He liked the way I cooked, liked my work ethic. I was naive, right off the farm. He asked me if I wanted to work with his restaurants,” Sissy said.

    Sissy worked in Allen’s restaurants in London, LA and Toronto, but after a few years moved back to Vermont. “I couldn’t stand the city anymore,” she said. She bought the Dorset Inn when she was only 30 and cooked there until moving to Middletown Springs and opening Sissy’s Kitchen in 2008.

    Sissy’s Kitchen attracts a wide demographic of customers because Sissy combines her knowledge of fine, gourmet food with the use of local, organic ingredients. Sissy also makes an effort to supply gluten- and dairy-free dishes. “It’s becoming more and more prevalent,” Sissy said. “I try to please everyone (by providing) local, good meats and vegetables.”

    Sissy makes everything from scratch, from the bread to the mayonnaise, even growing her own vegetables and spices behind the shop. “She’s very talented,” said employee Dan Warnecke. “She knows the flavors of things and the way they should be. She knows recipes, but she can improvise because she knows flavors. She’s a pretty tough and pretty talented lady.”

    However, talent accomplishes little without preparation in the restaurant business. “It’s all organization. It’s all totally broken down,” Sissy said. Sissy’s schedule starts at 6 a.m. when she puts her muffins and scones in the oven. Then come desserts, dinner preparation, lunch orders for the shop and making dough for the next day, because it needs 14 hours to rise. Finally, at 7 p.m., the counters are wiped down and the kitchen closes.

    One popular option at Sissy’s is the Reuben Stecca, a limited, specialty sandwich that is set out front to tempt customers. The sandwich is served hot, and contains the typical Reuben fillings of corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. (For those wanting to create your own at home, Sissy’s Russian dressing is made from mayo, ketchup, and sweet relish. Portion to desired taste.) What makes Sissy’s Reuben special is that the filling is rolled in rye dough, and the sandwich bakes while the bread rises around it, trapping in the juices and flavors of the filling. It is a good idea to call ahead for this sandwich — a maximum of eight are served per day.

    Despite her talent, Sissy does not have enough hands to do all this work on her own. She employs many local high school and college students. “I like to support the local community,” Sissy said. “Everyone needs work. To me this place is a nice stepping stone from school to the real world and a real job. I think people benefit from it, and,” she added, “people can walk to work.”

    Warnecke, a business major at Castleton State College, has culinary aspirations of his own. Working in the kitchen, he is learning how Sissy makes her jams, desserts and dinners. “Sissy’s tough, but she’s a great teacher... I think the things she’s teaching me are good bases for growth to create my own dishes and make new stuff,” Warnecke said.

    Sissy’s wisdom goes beyond the kitchen, said employee Connor Eaton. “She has a lot of insight for other things than cooking, like life (in general), and how to be a smart person. She’s really good at what she does.”

    While the food is amazing, it is just the beginning of what brings people to Sissy’s. Not many shops staff full-time greeters, but Sissy’s has two, and they like to have their tummies rubbed. “I’ve always had labs and bassets,” Sissy said, “They add another feeling to the shop. It makes it like home. A lot of people come back to see the dogs; that’s how popular they are.” Maile, a stocky basset whose long ears are perpetually wet from dragging on the grass, has a favorite chair in the storefront where she often perches. Baby is a friendly black lab. Whether her fur is whitening from age or dropped flour, it is hard to tell.

    The feeling of home extends from the dogs waiting in the driveway all the way back to the kitchen. The most common question patrons ask is: “Is Sissy in the back? I want to go say ‘hello.’”

    “A lot of people know Sissy and she’s very friendly with everyone,” said Eaton. “People are always in the kitchen going to talk with Sissy. It’s a fun environment.”

    Lastrina often frequents the kitchen but admits: “Getting things done with her ‘open kitchen door’ policy can’t be easy. I think she needs a bouncer.”

    While this may have some truth, Sissy enjoys the occasional visitor, especially meeting those new customers recommended by old patrons and friends. “They get the vibe if I’m too busy,” Sissy said, “It’s the kind of atmosphere I want. I like to see people.”

    Sissy likes to make the shop feel like home, allowing customers to eat out on the porch, in her spacious garden, or in the barn, restored as a party space. “The feeling (that you are) in someone’s home, eating their food clearly made with love on a sunny day on (Sissy’s) front porch... is priceless,” Lastrina said.

    Sissy hopes the feeling of home is what people get from Sissy’s Kitchen. “The reason that I named my cookbook “Flavors from the Heart” is because when people ate my food they said it tasted like I cooked from the heart. That’s what I want.”

    Sissy’s Kitchen is located at 10 West St., Middletown Springs. Hours of operation are Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are takeout or dine in the garden; dinner is takeout only. With adequate garden seating but minimal covered seating, availability is weather dependent.

    Emma Lamberton is an intern at the Rutland Herald. She also works part time at Sissy’s Kitchen.
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