"This is my grandmother's old pie holder," Annie Wayte says as she cups the porcelain white-and-blue nub shaped like a baby bird, beak open to receive a prized worm. "As she got older, I raided her kitchen more and more."
But whereas her grandmother may have relied on the bird for venting her suet pastry-crowned potpies back in Nottingham, England, here at the dreamy, rustic White Hart inn in rural Salisbury, Connecticut, chef Wayte taps it for a satisfying, surprisingly light guinea fowl potpie (see the recipe).
"I find it very comforting, the combination of meat and pastry," Wayte says. "It's like getting into a hot bath when it's freezing cold outside."
Back in the kitchen, she nestles the pie holder in the mess of gravy-laden guinea fowl, soft leeks and bits of mushrooms.
"It's in my roots," Wayte says of the potpie. "I particularly like the idea of sharing something, and it's the centerpiece of the table, especially in this place of sharing rustic, homey comfort food."
Seemingly everyone in this northwest pocket of Connecticut has a story about The White Hart, the nearly 200-year-old inn that had been in disrepair until Wayte and her fellow partners, who include big names like author Malcolm Gladwell and Redbook editor-in-chief Meredith Rollins, renovated and reopened it last year (take a photo tour of the space and the city here).
"I often say [the inn] is like city hall," Wayte says. "It's where people come to meet and talk. When we first opened, a lot of emotions came out of people. I had so many people crying on my shoulder, saying, 'I'm so glad you're reopening; my daughter got married here.' People were just over the moon that this place was opening."
Much like the locals around these parts, Wayte, who cooked in London and then Nicole's and 202 in New York City, has her own memories of the old White Hart: She would make the trek from her Tribeca apartment with the family in tow to the town of 4,000.
"We'd have a burger and a beer before we'd head home. That was always our goal on a Friday night. To get here before nine o'clock, before closing time," Wayte remembers. "Over that period of time, we brought family in here. We celebrated my son's birthday. It was a place to me that meant being together as a family."
Salisbury's small-town friendliness and openness, though, have been a bit of an adjustment for the chef.
"People aren't shy to tell you all of these stories," Wayte says with a laugh. "Having never worked outside of a city before, it's a very different ball game up here."
A "different ball game" means getting a call from her farmer asking if she'd like two bushels of yellow baby cucumbers and finding them on her counter an hour later, or spreading out and turning every scrap of half a pig into house-made sausage—a dream after working in tiny city kitchens. It also means still waking up to drilling in the morning—only not the kind you'd hear in Manhattan.
"Men out on the lake drilling holes to go ice fishing," Wayte chuckles. "It's not that often you wake up and see people ice fishing outside your window."
The sight may be something to get used to, but one thing in the small town is a constant: Wayte is continuing that White Hart tradition of gathering people, one steamy, fragrant potpie at a time.
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