Up in Vermont, a Weekend of Delicious Wellness

Retreat, eat, repeat

Photo credit: Taylor Mathis

Photo credit: Taylor Mathis

Vermont is a place I like to say I know well. I went to college there and have visited the shores of Lake Champlain and the farmy fields of Addison County often. I feel I should recognize every silo along Route 7 because I must have passed it a hundred times before.

Not so. Last August, wending and winding toward a weekend getaway at the retreat-and-vacation center Good Commons with my friend, Sherri Brooks Vinton, it became clear that I did not have the faintest idea where we were. Sherri slowed so I could read the house numbers tacked on weathered front porches and general stores along the way, hoping this was the right road in the right direction. And then, after a stretch of little-to-no evidence of village life, we pulled up to the picture-perfect crossroads that is Plymouth, Vermont. Catty-corner from a general store sits a lovely white house with big windows and a porch. Welcome to Good Commons.

Good Commons is the creation of Tesha Buss, a veteran of the New York theater world whose idea for the space sprang from her subconscious. Literally. She dreamed that she would open a wellness center.

She first looked around Manhattan, but during a serendipitous four-year stint at Vermont’s Weston Playhouse Tesha found an old house that she was sure was the place—despite the fact that it needed to be stripped down to the studs and completely rebuilt.

Tesha launched Good Commons in the summer of 2008 with a few yoga retreats; things took a delicious turn when she invited an old friend up to cook. She’d met Matthew Wexler when they were chorus kids together in Chicago, and he’d also gotten a serious culinary training in his mother’s kitchen.

Matthew had never cooked for more than four people, but his trepidation didn’t scare Tesha. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve never opened a retreat center before. What’s the worst that could happen?’” The Good Commons food weekends were born. From there, the culinary offerings have grown to four per year: two Food and Wine Rejuvenation Weekends, one Culinary Immersion Weekend and a Gluten-Free Getaway. In addition, many of the yoga and wellness retreats feature food and cooking as an element of the experience—either with a Good Commons chef or one from a partnering organization.

Prices start at $550 per person including three nights’ lodging, meals and activities—and transportation to and from Midtown Manhattan. The Culinary Immersion Weekend begins the moment city-weary New Yorkers board the Good Bus, a private charter exclusive to Good Commons attendees. If you think getting out of the city is too much work, the Good Bus couldn’t make it any easier— or more enjoyable. On the five-hour ride up to Vermont, passengers get their fill of gourmet snacks and wine and seasonal cocktails. Five hours of eating and drinking together makes fast friends of the 24 people onboard, even before the weekend has officially begun.

Tesha is a born hostess, and from the moment you arrive the house feels like home. The bedrooms are furnished simply with comfortable beds and majestic Green Mountain vistas, and although there’s a certain New England B&B feel, fear not: There’s nary a lace doily nor cheesy painting in sight. Guests share a light dinner followed by a welcome circle and toast around the fire, where they’re invited to share food memories.

Tesha and Matthew offer an experiential weekend. Mornings begin with yoga, meditation and Matthew’s delicious scones with fresh Vermont butter, then guests choose from among several Vermonty adventures, such as hiking and swimming at a local gorge, visiting a cheesemaker, picking produce for that night’s dinner at nearby Huckleberry Hill Farm or resting up at the house and helping Matthew get the evening meal underway.

By day’s end, guests gather around him at the kitchen island. Some ask questions, others dive in to peel or pare. Matthew toggles effortlessly from one task to another, waxing poetic on ripe summer plums while demonstrating how he wants the carrots chopped, then answering another query while checking on the tarts in the oven. It feels like a dinner party and a cooking class rolled into one. “Cooking here is theatrical, in a way,” Matthew commented later. And although he trained at the French Culinary Institute, Matthew says observing great chefs was instrumental in his education, and the open kitchen here offers that in spades.

The gorge-goers arrive, a little damp, just in time for dinner. Wine is poured, a cooler of local beer appears and at a long farmhouse table in the dining room conversations bubble up between new friends, including a young Brooklyn-based, chef- obsessed blogger; an older lifelong Upper East Sider inspired to finally check out her neighborhood; and a local dairy farmer who could convince a lactose-intolerant vegan of the benefits of raw milk.

After tucking into platters full of herby carrots, kale-and- noodle salad, roasted potatoes, and Moroccan spiced beef from a very local Scottish Highlander steer, and a slice or two of fruit tarts starring delectable plums, we poured ourselves one more glass of wine and headed into the yoga studio, which had been transformed into a demonstration kitchen.

My friend Sherri wasn’t just along for the ride. She’d been invited to teach a class on canning and pickling, demonstrating recipes from her latest book, Put ’Em Up! (available now from Storey Publishing). Guest chefs and instructors are a part of most Good Commons weekends. Following what was, thanks to the wine, one of the livelier canning classes I’d ever been to, most of us headed to bed, but a few raucous souls drifted out to the fire pit. Through my open window I caught snippets of conversation— mostly about gorge jumping and wondering if there was any of Matthew’s delicious fruit tart left.

The last morning, the newly bonded New Yorkers got back on the Good Bus and headed for home. From the looks of longing each one gave those scones, though, Tesha and Matthew should have no doubt that they’ll all be back in Plymouth the next chance they get.

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Nena Johnson is the Growing Farmers Initiative director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and a fan of Scottish Highlander cattle in both their floppy-haired and edible forms.