by Joshua Jerome
BARRE — Dustin Smith opened Morse Block Deli almost a year ago with a vision to provide downtown Barre with an eccentric deli experience, and that’s exactly what he’s done. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Smith uses his diverse educational background and life experiences in providing local diners with some unique offerings.
The young chef explained to me that it was a long, deliberate journey to open the deli, which began while he was attending Castleton State College, “I was working at a restaurant and studying biology when I realized I loved cooking and biology was boring.” With this revelation, Smith transferred to the Culinary Institute of America to pursue his newly found passion for food and cooking. Upon graduating from culinary school, Smith headed off across the country on a quest to experience the hottest trends in American cuisine.
After four months on the road soaking up the culinary trends, Smith was amazed at how art was becoming integrated into the presentation of dishes. So he returned to Vermont and again enrolled at Castleton to pursue a degree in graphic design. Smith worked at three restaurants in the Killington area while finishing his degree and used this time to hone his skills.
After graduating, Smith knew he wanted to stay in Vermont because of the burgeoning agricultural sector. After a short stint in fine dining, Smith landed in a farm-to-school position. That allowed him to work directly with farmers, which, Smith said, “created a better appreciation for farmers and their role in the local economy.” Eventually, he started doing small catering jobs on the side and enjoyed the experience of working with clients, and it sparked his desire to be entrepreneurial. A trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, helped focus Smith’s energy after he experienced the former steel capital’s rejuvenated arts and culinary scene, and the concept of Morse Block Deli was born.
When he returned from Pittsburgh, Smith began working on his business plan and looking for the right location. After several months, he found his ideal space in downtown Barre. The old Morse Block was built in 1898, and part of the charm that captivated Smith was the four-lane bowling alley in the basement of the building. Today, part of a lane serves as the checkout counter for the deli.
I asked Smith how he approaches creating dishes, and he said “simplicity is perfection” and that he “lets the fresh quality ingredients speak for themselves.” The placement of each ingredient in sandwiches and soups is meticulous and helps bring a visual attractiveness to the palate-pleasing fare.
Morse Block Deli is not just a deli but also an art gallery. Incorporating his passion for art and food, Smith has used his space to help exhibit works from several artists around the state. His next installation will be the works of another local artist, Carolyn Enz Hack. Smith has also introduced the pop-up dinner concept and plans to do more of them. His next big move, however, is launching the Smith Catering Co. That concern will provide high-end catering focused on sourcing in-season local ingredients for dishes for weddings and private party affairs.
With everything that is going on with the deli, the pop-up dinners, and the catering company, I asked Smith if he enjoyed cooking when he’s home, “Yeah, sometimes, but I really like it when my girlfriend Vinca cooks for me,” and with a smile he goes on to say, “Those are some of the best dishes I’ve ever had.” No pressure Vinca.
The writer is executive director with the Barre Partnership.