Food and friendship, the perfect pairing. In their new food memoir, Uncommonly Good: Stories of Food, Life and the Birth of Good Commons, co-authors Tesha Buss and Matthew Wexler highlight their treasured days of cooking together, sharing meals, and creating unforgettable experiences.
The longtime friends devoted nearly a decade to the project—mostly at Buss’s Vermont guest house/retreat home, Good Commons (4771 VT 100A, Plymouth, VT. Tel: 801-774-8651. www.goodcommons.com). There, the duo welcomed visitors to take in both the scenery and flavors of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Many of those guests loved the experience and requested recipes so often that Buss and Wexler found themselves collecting stories and cookbook ideas that led to Uncommonly Good.
“Time after time, guests rushed to the kitchen to share with us the memories that a Good Commons meal drew up for them,” says Buss. “One’s sense of smell heads right to the memory part of the brain. Once the sharing begins, the stories of life flow.” Unlike a standard cookbook, Wexler describes Uncommonly Good as, “A memoir of our journey, seasoned with humorous and poignant stories, and how we came to find ourselves on this amazing adventure in the first place.”
Here’s more from co-author and Chef Matthew Wexler about the new book, its inspiration, his work with celebrity Chef Bobby Flay, and why now is the perfect time to hone your cooking skills and specialties.
Uncommonly Good: Stories of Food, Life and the Birth of Good Commons is a “food memoir.” How did you collaborate on stories that are as much about experience and community as they are about gastronomy?
The framework for the book came together over time in terms of the chapter structure. We wanted to give readers insight into our backgrounds and how that impacted our business partnership and the evolution of the culinary vision at Good Commons, which is such a special and unique place. Tesha is a fantastic writer, but I took the lead on how to steer the storytelling, often diverting from apparent explanations of the recipes and, instead, concentrating on influences and anecdotes that could bring the experience to life for readers.
What are some stories that inspired you?
There are plenty of fun anecdotes, like when a passer-by knocked on the door asking for a carrot for his horse. But what stays with me all these years are the people. We hosted many four-course dinners during our seasonal food and wine weekends. Fish in Parchment Paper was a labor of love…and a lot of labor! All those ingredients, meticulously layered and sealed up in a heart-shaped piece of parchment, required a lot of hands. Guests hanging out in the kitchen wanted to help, so we put them to work. As the pre-dinner cocktails flowed, things got a bit messy, mainly when Jerry and Susanne, two of our regulars, were in tow as they always arrived with a few tumblers of Manhattans.
But what stays with me all these years is the tenacity and resilience it takes to run a small business. One autumn, a major storm blew through, ripping up the culvert that runs under the property and flooding the basement within minutes. Tesha had installed a sump pump for such an occasion, but the floodwaters’ force detached the hose. She waded into the frigid waters to fix it and dropped the screwdriver into the murky water. She screamed, “Grab me a butter knife!” I passed her the kitchen utensil and she saved the day (and the house).
There are 75 recipes in this book. What did it take for you to get them all on the page?
A lot of recipe testing! We had a pretty extensive repertoire from years of hosting yoga retreats, food and wine weekends, and other gatherings. But cooking for twenty is different than how a home cook might approach the kitchen. The first chapter, “We Are What We Eat,” draws inspiration from our midwestern upbringings, so readers will find a few recipes exclusive to the book that normally aren’t part of the Good Commons array. We also had a terrific copy editor, Kelly Suzan Waggoner, who meticulously ensured that the recipes make sense for the reader in terms of clarity of instruction.
The book showcases several elevated “comfort food” recipes. Which do you think will most surprise readers?
We have a chapter titled “Comfort,” but that theme runs throughout the entire book. Part of that interpretation comes from the idea of communal gathering (much missed in 2020), and what happens when we connect our emotions to our food consumption. Of course, the other part of comfort, particular to Vermont, is the long and cold winter. The property is in the heart of ski country, nestled between Killington and Okemo Mountain ski resorts, so we’re often making hearty dishes to fuel guests for a day on the slopes. One of the earliest recipes we developed was the Beef Bourguignon Shepherd’s Pie, which riffs on the French classic. Caramelizing the vegetables concentrates the flavors, and a big batch is excellent for freezing, too.
Because of my experience as a travel writer and Tesha’s passion for international flavors, we also wanted to express comfort through the lens of other cultures. Recipes like moussaka and chicken tagine are super comforting, and give home cooks the chance to bring new flavors into their repertoire.
How did you come to know Chef Bobby Flay?
I was directing and producing an Off-Off-Broadway show on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and one of the actresses I cast heard I was looking for a new “day job.” She worked at Bobby’s flagship restaurant Mesa Grill and suggested I apply for a job, and the rest is history. I worked there for nearly seven years and met the most incredibly talented group of artists, actors, writers and photographers, who were all pursuing their dreams while waiting tables or bartending to pay the bills.
Bobby is an artist in the kitchen. Everything on the plate has a purpose. He doesn’t shy away from bold flavors or presentation. Instinctually it just became part of my DNA as I became more acquainted with New York City’s dining scene. It wasn’t unusual for me to go for a late-night meal after my Saturday night shift and spend most of my night’s earnings.
I reconnected with Bobby a couple of years ago for a feature I wrote for Hamptons magazine. He was as passionate as ever, talking about how he had basically turned his East End home into a private restaurant for friends and loved ones. I reached out as we were putting the finishing touches on Uncommonly Good to see if he’d provide a quote, and he graciously responded with kind words that we’re proud to feature on the cover and a more extended quote in the foreword.
Vermont is central to the story of Good Commons and the book. But many recipes incorporate more international flavors. How has travel inspired some of these dishes?
We were dabbling in internationally-inspired dishes, but after Tesha joined me on a press trip to Greece and Turkey, we leaned into the idea as a fundamental part of our culinary philosophy. And not just because it gave us a chance to widen our palettes, but because it fostered conversations among our guests about a whole range of cultural topics.