MYSTIC — Two chefs from leading local restaurants have been nominated as semifinalists for national and regional awards by the James Beard Foundation.
Renee Touponce, executive chef of The Port of Call and The Oyster Club, has been nominated in the Outstanding Chef category, a national prize. She is one of 20 nominees from across the country who are judged on setting high culinary standards, serving as a positive example in the food industry and contributing positively to their community.
David Standridge, executive chef of The Shipwright’s Daughter, has been nominated for Best Chef in the Northeast category, which includes the New England states (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT). He is one of 20 nominees from the region evaluated on their efforts to create a sustainable work culture while setting high culinary standards and contributing to the broader community.
In a phone call with CT Examiner, Touponce said that connecting with local farmers and food producers was key to her philosophy of food.
“We work with so many great fishermen and artisans in our area. We support local farms and we’re always searching for the best ingredients and helping to share their stories, to be able to create beautiful dishes. Whether we’re working with Mystic Cheese Company, Seacoast Mushrooms, Stone Acres Farm or Wild Harmony Farm, it’s connecting with your farmers and being able to share their story and their work,” she said.
Touponce said that creating a healthy restaurant work environment was an important tenet in her work as a chef.
“Our kitchen culture is a huge part of what we do and we’re hoping to advocate and teach others to have a healthy kitchen environment where people are treated equally and that there’s kindness and equality throughout it. You know, that’s a huge part,” she said.
She opened The Port of Call in early 2022 and has been executive chef at The Oyster Club since 2021. Touponce has also been a chef with the 85th Day Group, a Mystic-based restaurant group owned by Dan Meiser, whose mission is “to shorten the distance from harvest to table.” She previously worked at the group’s Grass & Bone butcher shop and restaurant, and Stone Acres Farm.
Touponce was one of five James Beard finalists for Best Chef of the Northeast region in 2023.
Standridge told CT Examiner that he had long wanted to work directly with local small fishermen the same way he works with small farmers who grow local food.
“From the beginning, when I first moved here from New York, I was very excited. I’m like, I’m finally going to be where all the fish come from, because in New York you can get anything anytime but there’s no connection to the place,” Standridge said. “Our big motivation very quickly became to support [the fishermen] and try to, at the same time, educate the public on better choices of seafood that can make a difference not only for the fisherman, but also for eating more sustainably.”
He said he works with aquaculture farmers who grow crops like sugar kelp that have positive impacts on the environment. Standridge is also on the board of Eating with the Ecosystem, a nonprofit that promotes a place-based approach to sustaining New England’s seafood.
“Sustainability that goes deeper than our food,” is the mission of the restaurant, said Standridge, and that applies not only to the restaurant’s employees and staff but to the broader food industry and making restaurant work sustainable as a career choice.
He said the restaurant opened on June 19, 2020, the first day it was officially allowed during the pandemic. He said the pandemic shone a light on how prevalent burnout was among restaurant workers and he has taken steps to create a positive work environment for his staff.
“It was really great, honestly for so many reasons, to be able to have to take a very hard look at it and think how can we make this a sustainable job for people? How is this a sustainable career?” he said. “We’ve made a lot of changes here where it’s a good work environment and just having a place that supports the team is really, really important to us.”
Standridge said he has a sustainable seafood cookbook in the works as well as plans for another restaurant.
Coracora restaurant in West Hartford was also named a 2024 James Beard semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category.
Finalists for the James Beard awards will be announced on April 3. Winners will be announced June 10 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.