By Katy Savage
After 34 years, Chef Claude Blais is moving on.
Blais sold his Choices Restaurant on Killington Road to two of his employees on Dec. 14. Dan Tolley, the bartender and Tim Galvin, the sous chef, are reopening the restaurant under their name on Dec. 17.
Blais, who had long been looking to retire, announced the ownership change on Facebook in November.
“I have no immediate plans on leaving and will be here on a daily basis,” Blais wrote. “In my opinion the biggest change will be me spending more time with our guests rather than the stove!”
More than 100 people commented on the Facebook post, sharing their memories and appreciation for Blais, who they said has always been there for them and others.
The restaurant has been a staple in town, serving brunch and dinner, with steak, fish and an extensive wine menu. All the restaurant’s pastas, breads and desserts are homemade daily. Blais named it Choices for the number of choices on the menu. There are close to 50 different options to choose from. He wanted to provide an “exceptional menu” for guests.
In addition to serving classic, award-winning food, Blais created a family atmosphere at the restaurant. He was loyal to his customers and they were, in turn, loyal to him.
Amy Ahlberg, a longtime customer, said she was nicknamed “crazy ring girl” after losing her engagement ring at Choices 10 years ago.*
Ahlberg said Blais helped her crawl on the floor in search of the ring. Blais also called off garbage collection the next day in case it was in the trash.
“That’s Claude,” Ahlberg said.
Steve Finer, a local customer, said Blais’ culinary skills were unparalleled and his humility and generosity made Choices a unique place to eat.
“He’s just an amazing person,” Finer said.
Blais also had a devoted team of employees, who said they were inspired by Blais.
Megan Wagner started working at Choices as a server before Blais sent her to the Culinary Institute of America for a crash-course in baking.
Wagner, a neighbor of Blais,’ said Blais always believed in her and always supported her at the restaurant and in life.
“He always came over and shoveled my walkway and mowed my lawn,” Wagner said.
Wagner said Blais is the reason she opened her own bakery, Dream Maker Bakers, in 2018. She’s remained friends with her former boss and he stops by to see her weekly.
“It doesn’t matter if we see each other for five minutes or have dinner for five hours, he continues to change my life every time I see him in so many wonderful ways,” Wagner said.
Wagner said Blais’ retirement was “long overdue.” She was also excited for the new owners.
“No one else would live up to Claude’s expectations,” Wagner said.
Both of the new owners came to Choices the same way — they were recruited by Blais.
Tim Galvin, 42, ran the Clear River Tavern before Blais approached him about a sous chef position seven years ago. Blais approached Galvin over the summer about taking over the restaurant.
“This will be a new experience,” Galvin said.
Galvin has always worked in the restaurant industry. He grew up in Poultney and started working as a dishwasher and line cook at a local diner when he was 15.
Galvin graduated from the New England Culinary Institute before returning to Killington and working at several restaurants, including Casey’s Caboose.
“I’ve always enjoyed what I do,” Galvin said. “I’ve never had the case of the Mondays.”
Meanwhile, Dan Tolley came to the area to be a radio DJ before he started bartending.
Tolley said he accidentally got hooked in the food industry.
“I started out doing this for a little extra money and the next thing I know it was a full-time career,” Tolley said.
Tolley was working as a bartender at the Nite Spot, but Blais “kept offering me jobs,” Tolley said.
Tolley has been at Choices for 14 years under Blais’ guidance.
“He’s an amazingly generous, loyal, caring guy,” Tolley said. “It’s dumfounding when you find a boss like that. It explains why almost on one ever leaves there.”
Blais, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked in Hyatt Regency hotels in California for about seven years before coming back to Vermont in the 1980s. Blais pledged to stay in Vermont for just one year but soon realized he couldn’t leave.
“Killington was a fun town and I liked the seasonality,” Blais said. “I was hooked.”
Blais worked at the now defunct Alpine Inn as a chef before he opened Choices on New Year’s Eve in 1986. The kitchen was equipped before the contractors were done with renovations.
Blais has been part of the community ever since — always there for customers, always participating in charitable events and always supporting other business owners.
Patty McGrath, the owner of McGrath’s and the Inn at Long Trail, said she’s been able to count on Blais for advice in navigating the ups and downs of the service industry.
If she needed supplies due to late delivery trucks, Blais is also someone she can count on.
“We will miss him,” said McGrath. “It’s important for all of us to do the things we’ve always wanted to do.”
Blais was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer over the summer. Blais said treatments have been going well and he has no negative side effects from chemotherapy.
“I was trying to sell [the restaurant] long before I was diagnosed, but that definitely made for an easier transition as to why now,” he said. “I was there since 1986 and that’s a pretty long stretch to work anywhere.”
Blais plans to stay at the restaurant through December. After that he said he wants to spend the winter driving across the country in his SUV with his dog, visiting friends in Boston, Washington DC, Florida, New Orleans, North Carolina and Nashville.
Tolley said Blais will have a place at Choices as long as he wants it. The food at Choices will stay the same. The restaurant’s 10 employees will also stay there, despite the pandemic.
“It’s probably the worst time you could possibly buy a restaurant in a ski town, but sometimes you got to do what your heart tells you to do,” Tolley said.
Blais wishes he could have a going away celebration to say goodbye to everyone. “I regret that I wasn’t able to have a changing of the hands party,” he said.
*The crazy ring girl did eventually find her ring, though it was in her purse, not a Choices.