Stove Top ClambakePhoto Credit : Heath Robbins
This is a story of two men who found an unlikely home on Cape Cod, and in doing so, changed the way their community eats. One of them is a native son, raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts, but lured away at a young age to New York, where he became a darling of the glittering Manhattan restaurant world. The other came from the edge of central Europe, seeking shelter from a war. Both have since put down roots in the Cape’s sandy soil, raising their families here, and doing work that allows Cape Codders and wash-ashores to all eat like kings (or at least like city folk) and gives local farmers a new market for their goods. Having tasted some of that food for ourselves, we asked these two, Matt Tropeano and Vojin Vujosevic, to tackle a most authentic Cape Cod meal: the clambake. Only, we wanted a New England clambake that anyone could make at home, on a stove, far from the salt air. They complied, with a menu so delicious that it stands as a Yankee classic.
The story of Pain D’Avignon, the business that Vojin (rhmes with “coin”) started and where Matt is now executive chef, really began in the early 1990s, as the former Yugoslavia stood on the brink of war. Vojin was a young college student in Belgrade, an inveterate traveler who had already visited America many times as a tourist and exchange student. His parents suggested that it might be time to go back. “Nobody wanted to go to war,” Vojin says. “It made no sense to anybody. My parents thought it was very wise that I come back to the U.S. and continue school and ‘plan on not coming back for a while.’ Those were the words of my father.”
Vojin pauses to make himself a cup of espresso—his third or fourth of the day. He’s standing in the kitchen of the house he shares with his wife, Diana, and two young sons. It’s a modern Cape, airy and white, with a big deck that serves as an outdoor living room, dining room, and kitchen from May to October. From there, the view is of gardens and trees and the blue waters of Follins Pond. It’s a lovely spot, but getting here was an uphill climb.
Vojin landed in New York in 1991 and found a community of Serbian expats working at a French bakery owned by Eli Zabar of the eponymous Upper West Side food emporium. “We thought we’d do something similar in Massachusetts because there was no great bread there,” Vojin says. “And Boston was more European, more of a place that I would like to live and spend time in.” So he and three friends searched for a storefront on Beacon Hill. When that proved too expensive, they looked south. “Someone said, ‘Cape Cod is the place to be,’” Vojin recalls. “‘It’s beautiful, it’s big, it’s touristy. Open up a bakery there and then you can move to Boston.’”
The group set up shop on Main Street in Hyannis, hired a baker, and spent the next few months learning his secrets. “Working 20 hours a day, you learn the trade pretty quickly,” Vojin says. “That’s all we did—bake bread. For the first year, I baked bread for nine months with no days off.” Soon they were selling to restaurants and shops on the Cape, then in Boston and New York. Eventually, the other partners sold their shares of the company and Vojin became the sole owner. By 2009, the bakery was housed in a 20,000-square-foot space on Hinckley Road, near Hyannis Airport, and Vojin decided to add a café/restaurant.
Meanwhile, Matt Tropeano had left Massachusetts to make his way in the kitchens of Manhattan. “I knew that I wanted to work there and experience all the classic French restaurants I’d read about,” Matt says. “I worked one night at La Grenouille and thought, ‘This is it.’” Under La Grenouille’s legendary owner, Charles Masson, Matt rose from line cook to executive chef in eight years. He earned three stars from Sam Sifton in the New York Times. It was time for another challenge. His next project, a modern French restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, was lauded for its food but was poorly located and awkwardly designed; it closed after a short time. Meanwhile, Matt and his wife, Andrea, were still coming to Falmouth every summer to see his parents and to let their kids run free on the beach. “In the back of our minds, we thought, ‘There’s an opportunity here,’” Matt says. He’d long known of Pain D’Avignon from his La Grenouille days—they served Vojin’s bread there—and when he heard that they were looking for a chef, all the pieces came together.
“Vojin and Diana are great,” Matt says. “They have similar backgrounds, similar attitudes toward life and love of travel.” It’s rare for all four friends to have time off during the busy summer season, let alone all at the same time, but on the day of our visit, we were lucky to bring both families together. Matt prepared the lobster, salads, and steamed potatoes, and everyone feasted and recounted the twists and turns that had led them here, to this unexpected life. Vojin’s mother, visiting from Serbia, joined in the fun.
Since taking over the kitchen, Matt has expanded the restaurant’s local sourcing so that up to 75 percent of the produce comes from area farms in season. Cynthia Cole of Wanna Bee Farm in Barnstable credits Pain D’Avignon with keeping her operation in business. “We sit down in January and go through her seed catalogue and pick out what she’ll grow for us,” Matt says. Andrea laughs: “Matt’s become a farmer since we moved up here.”
“My buddies in New York think, ‘Okay, now he’s a hermit,’” Matt says. “And in a way, I’m kinda doing that. On the Cape, people love good food and they haven’t had it, so we get to create our own standards. I think I’m cooking the best food I’ve ever cooked before. We’re not using tweezers and doing amuse-bouches, but we’re doing some complex flavors and simple, delicious food.”
That same philosophy applies to the recipes you’ll find here. Nothing froufrou, but familiar ingredients combined in new ways: tomato and watermelon together in a salad, potatoes and spicy sausage steamed in white wine, and a “clambake” you can cook in a lobster pot. It’ll inspire you to revisit classic New England cooking with fresh eyes. As Matt says, “Sometimes you have to go away from things and then come back and see them differently.”
Editor’s Note: Since this story went to press, chef Matt Tropeano departed Pain D’Avignon to open his own restaurant in Hyannis with his wife, Andrea. Called Spoon and Seed, it’s a “farm-to-table breakfast and lunch restaurant,” he says. “We serve American comfort food, thoughtfully and simply prepared from scratch.” Among the menu items: a local catch of the day (like striped bass with summer corn and potatoes). Meanwhile, Pain D’Avignon continues to serve its delicious breads, pastries and bistro fare under the direction of executive chef Christophe Gest.
Pain D’Avignon, 15 Hinckley Road, Hyannis, MA. 508-778-8588; paindavignon.com.