Chef & Owner Tim LaBant of The Schoolhouse

After graduating from the Wilton School system and Wittenberg University, Tim began his culinary career in Boulder, Colorado where he developed his skills as a chef before leaving his passion behind for corporate America.

He moved on to accept a position with IBM, but after 3 years, yearned to return to the culinary field. He enrolled at Johnson & Wales University where he completed his formal culinary education, graduating with high honors and numerous awards. He went on to work with the Emmy Award winning Chef, Ming Tsai, best known for his popular television show “Simply Ming.”  Tim also developed strong skills in French cuisine during his years as a chef at the Four Star and Five Diamond L'Espalier Restaurant in Boston. There, he worked under Chef/Owner Frank McClelland, which helped him develop big flavors using unique ingredients and a combination of new and classic techniques. Tim also spent time as a stagiare in the kitchens of Le Bernardin, and Aureole in New York City. In 2007, Tim with his wife Julie opened The Schoolhouse at Cannondale. He has masterfully turned The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, as one of the town's most treasured historic buildings, into an elegant restaurant. He is taking his experience, technique, and artistry to a whole new level.

What inspired you to become a chef?
I had taken a corporate sales job with IBM right out of college and knew almost immediately that this was not the right path or a long-term career. I always loved to cook and experiment with ingredients as a kid, so when it was clear my corporate career was not going to work out I took the leap to go to culinary school.

What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
I would say my proudest accomplishment has been turning this tiny space of a restaurant into an award winning dining experience and crossing the 5-year mark. Most restaurants won’t make it a year and trust me I heard that more times than I care to remember when I embarked on opening The Schoolhouse at Cannondale.

Have any mentors? What have you learned from them?
From a business stand point my father and father in law have been amazing mentors. They have helped to coach me through many decisions that I believe, have been instrumental and pivotal in the growth and success of the restaurant. My wife Julia is my spiritual mentor and keeps me grounded when things might be completely chaotic around me.

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What are a few of your favorite ingredients to cook with and do you have a favorite dish you like to serve?
I really like to use pork because you have a lot of cuts of meat that can deliver with the right handling and preparation vastly different tastes and textures. I also like to work with any kind of greens, again there is so much that you can do to transform them into something completely unexpected and delicious.

Are you using sustainable sources for your dishes?
Yes we try to only cook with what is in season and from the local farms. Obviously I do have to source from small purveyors for some of the more unusual ingredients from time to time but I do try to stay true to my cooking philosophy and work with what is around and abundant at the time.

How did you choose Wilton, especially the Schoolhouse for your restaurant location?
After culinary school and a variety of internships around the country Julia and I decided to settle down close to our families in Fairfield County. When we returned to Wilton, CT the Schoolhouse Grill was closed down and run down and that is when I knew I wanted to open a restaurant and I wanted it to be there.

Being the owner and chef of your own restaurant can be a challenging task. Did you handle every aspect of your business?
My wife Julia is my business partner and our families have been instrumental in helping us to navigate the areas of business that are at times tricky. We as a team have handled every aspect of the business.

The Schoolhouse, besides being known for its wonderful cuisine, also prides itself for its excellent wait staff, which is so crucial for the dining experience. How did you choose the right people?
The only way to know whether or not you have the right people in place is to have them work a couple of shifts to see how they interact with the core team. It’s easy to say all the right things in an interview but seeing the person in action is the real test. I have been fortunate in that I have excellent staff and the turnover has been very low.

What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
Get as much experience as you can through internships and find a good mentor. Don’t show up in a kitchen thinking that you will be running the show, just keep your eyes and ears open and learn everything you can.

Do you change your menu seasonally? What’s the process in developing new menu entrées?
We do change the menu seasonally and sometimes daily. It depends on the season and when there is an abundance of great local produce I like to experiment and try new things when fruits and vegetables are at their peak.

On the equipment side, do you have a piece of equipment that you like to use that makes your job easier when preparing dishes?
The sous vide is an amazing piece of equipment that will produce perfectly cooked food every time.

The restaurant industry has a very broad range of foods…what’s your buying approach? Do you go out to bid on a regular basis or do you look for loyalty from vendors?
I try to source local for almost everything but then I have my vendors that understand the size of my restaurant and if I need one lobster they will make sure I get the best one they have.

Looking into your crystal ball… Where will we find you in five years?
That is a tough question. I am the dad of 3 beautiful children with a fourth due in April, so I will definitely be working and maybe a second and completely different restaurant is in the future. Each day is a gift and I am so thankful for all the success I have this far.