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August 21, 2014

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Guest column: Ben Vaughn’s chicken salad on the grapevine in Cobleskill, N.Y.

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The Food Network

The Food Network star Ben Vaughn.

Food Network Star Ben Vaughn

The Food Network star Ben Vaughn. Launch slideshow »

The Food Network star Ben Vaughn is currently crisscrossing America in search of the most unknown, undiscovered and best-kept restaurant secrets, dining venues so special that customers dare not breathe a word for fear of having their treasures uncovered.

Ben is an undercover sleuth, but he also is a charming chef with a hit TV series, so he’s forgiven for exposing exclusives. Ben was here in Las Vegas last fall judging alongside me at the debut World Food Championships broadcast on A&E this spring. We’ll be teamed up again this fall for Round 2.

Ben, who hosts the Food Network’s “Health Inspectors,” was raised in Florida and began cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen before attending the Ft. Lauderdale Art Institute, where he learned from some of the country’s finest chefs. A James Beard-recognized chef, Ben heads to Las Vegas in June and will be hosting and cooking a series of pop-up dinners.

While here, he’ll put the finishing touches on his new book, speak at a culinary school and be on the hunt for somewhere special I might not even know.

Since he’s on a constant quest for the next breakthrough in taste, I asked him in my absence in Macau this week, for HBO boxing broadcast ring announcer duties, to put his zealous adventurous spirit in words for those with a discriminating palate to enjoy.

Here’s his just-discovered delicious revelation:

My ears always perk up when I hear a story about restaurateurs, their success and how they started simple. Simple but elevated with a BLT and chicken salad sandwich? In Cobleskill, N.Y., a couple fueled with passion, a sense of adventure and maybe a teaspoon of crazy found themselves trying to accomplish just that with Grapevine Farms.

“Ten years ago, you could have ordered either the chicken salad sandwich or the BLT,” explains Tracy Purcell, co-owner and the other half of the creative duo who operate Grapevine Farms in upstate New York. “It wasn't because we didn't want to offer a larger menu. It was because we couldn't. We were new, inexperienced and gun shy. We started with what we knew and allowed the business to demand growth.”

2013 World Food Championships: Finals

The final day of the 2013 World Food Championships on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

2013 World Food Championships: Food Fight

The 2013 World Food Championships Food Fight between three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Bates (in the blue-striped blue shirt) and NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell (in black glasses and a white shirt) on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas. Las Vegas chef Vic Vegas served as MC, and Campbell was the winner. Launch slideshow »

2013 World Food Championships: World Chef Challenge

The World Chef Challenge at the 2013 World Food Championships on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

What a perfect perspective for any Culinarian with the aspiration to open their own eatery. I love the philosophy behind minimal menus, but there is a caveat: A minimalist menu better be great. As Tracy and her husband Tim explained the obstacles they had to overcome in transforming an 8,000-square-foot farmhouse into a plush, three-story retail gift shop with bakery, cafe and wine cellar, I was secretly ordering the chicken salad sandwich.

When a restaurant is brave enough to only offer a BLT and a chicken salad sandwich and is successful for more than 10 years, there must be something extraordinary about this sandwich, and I want to get to the bottom of it. These days, the menu at Grapevine Farms boasts dozens of selections all looking tasty and well thought, but it’s the simple I understand and truly appreciate. It's courage mixed with fear I see in Tim and Tracy’s food and concept that are the reasons for their success.

This food discovery is completely by accident and my own confusion. In Cobleskill, my GPS is without Starbucks navigation, and my body needs caffeine fuel. So as I pull into the gravel parking lot, I’m a little nervous that the “coffee shop” my Siri has led me to might be an epic fail.

My gastronome adventure was anything but a fail, though. It’s a country shop offering incredible food, beverage and more. And, frankly, I’m shocked that this place exists in a town with a population not far from zero.

I feel like I have wandered into the same town Diane Keaton did in the 1980s movie “Baby Boom.” Not a bad place, but certainly a place I’m unfamiliar. Mix a little New York and New Jersey with Indiana, and you have a good description of Cobleskill. The largest industry in this town is a college campus, and this is the reason for my trip.

Let me first say my heart and stomach were swept away immediately by the mammoth offering of chocolate truffles, cookies, cakes and more. I hit the jackpot! Not only was this place in the coffee business, it had enough sugary treats to give Willie Wonka a cavity.

Now for lunch ... and my point. I see the reason for this gold-medal chicken salad. Tim was not too keen on providing many details. He gives me the quick-and-dirty Cliff’s Notes version. It begins with dried cranberries hydrated in Riesling and then hand cut wheat bread — the bread bites back, if you know what I mean. And all finished with ice-cold crispy lettuce, and warm vegetable and pasta salad complete my very large lunch plate.

Lunch continues, and Tim and Tracy are gracious hosts who give me the hundred-dollar tour and share the history of the old farm dwelling and how their careers and passion led them to opening such a brilliant market niche concept. The dining room is flooded with customers — every chair in the 50-seat room is full — with half a dozen waiting at the door. I didn’t even see a car in the street on my way here. From where and when did these customers materialize?

My descriptions won’t do the meal justice because it's part sandwich, part experience, but mostly people. Had I stumbled into Grapevine Farms and just eaten a chicken salad sandwich, I may have returned if I lived nearby. It was a pretty good sandwich.

But what I’m unable to explain is how my hosts created an experience with stories, memories and conversation that would make them my friends, not just restaurant operators. The well-honed concept would lead me back time and time again. I may not purchase a purse or a set of candlesticks, but the connection between food and people continues.

What gem might I unearth when I arrive in Las Vegas?

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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