Some of the savoriest places to eat, sip on a cocktail or sample delicious ice cream -- satisfying just about any culinary craving -- can be found in South County. It’s a vacation spot for the palate as well as the mind.
In particular, restaurants offer many varieties in menus, ambiances and locations for dining with friends and family or to satisfy the spur-of-the-moment itch to explore something different. Like the food they serve, these places to eat have a distinct zest for serving customers as well as demonstrating South County’s heritage of good food, say their managers and owners.
There’s pride in the hometown specialty of snagging fresh fish right off commercial trawlers in Point Judith as well as offering day scallops and recently caught lobsters. That’s not all, though, because South County offers other cuisine ranging from Mediterranean, Spanish and American to eclectic, clam and fish shacks, and even beach bars along the Atlantic Ocean.
However, the special ingredient bringing spice to these restaurants -- and South County -- are the chefs in the kitchen. They often work six- or seven-day weeks from June through early September. The hours can number over 80 a week for many chefs, and they serve hundreds to thousands of customers daily who visit their restaurants.
Leading the charge in the kitchen is the top chef — sometimes called executive chef or head chef — who creates the face of the restaurant in the plate each customer is served.
“In this business, the chef and the kitchen are the flagship of the restaurant. The challenge is consistency and doing it over and over and over,” offered executive chef Jeff Cruff, 43, at the Matunuck Oyster Bar on Succotash Road in Wakefield.
Some of these local behind-the-scenes choreographers of food selection, preparation and presentation set aside a few minutes recently to talk. They discussed themselves, their restaurants and their own mix of experience, passion for food and dedication to cooking and customers.
Special to South County
“We are super local. Our menu is very, very New England-centric as much as we can make it, whether it’s from a local mushroom farm on Moonstone Beach or our farm,” said Cruff.
Head chef Justin Anderson, 46, and sous-chef Zachary Dussault, 25, at the Breachway Grill on Charlestown Beach Road in Charlestown, agreed.
“We can ride down to the beach and see the food we are serving. It’s a five-minute ride,” said Dussault, with Anderson adding the strong local and tourist interest in seafood makes that an important item on his menu.
These chefs joined others mentioning that their menus draw heavily on the local farm-to-table offerings from area farms and fishing boats.
These are important parts of the menu for featuring South County to both locals or those vacationing, said Alex McBurney, 32, long-time chef at Crazy Burger Café on Boon Street in Narragansett, and Holly Sousa, 32, executive chef at Bistro by the Sea on Cards Pond Road in South Kingstown.
Whether they grow corn, zucchini, tomatoes or other vegetables, South County growers are a prized resource, all the chefs said, in addition to the fishing fleet bringing in daily catches from right off the coast.
“It’s always very fresh. South County always has the best seafood money can buy,” said McBurney, who pointed to his travels in other parts of the country that lacked a New England habit of fresh fish on the table.
Sousa said, “A chef I worked under previously taught me to utilize as many fresh ingredients as possible and to be as creative as I wanted to be. The vacation, local vibe and atmosphere of South County allows creativity and excitement that you can’t always find in other areas.”
Chefs’ Favorite Ingredients
Ingredients added to the basics of anything special can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary —whether love and romance, business and money or food and tasting. In South County, these chefs have their favorite ingredients to make their kitchens and restaurants memorable.
“Balsamic glaze, hands down. The entire staff knows it as well. It adds such great flavor to so many styles of items and dishes. I love it!” said Sousa.
But in Charlestown, there’s a split between fish and barbecue.
“Faroe Island salmon. It’s top level, best you can get,” said Dussault. Head chef Anderson said his personal preference is smoking “slow and low. I love cooking ribs and smoking brisket.”
Cruff at Matunuck Oyster Bar came at it a different way. “My two I cannot live without are salt and butter. It would be hard for me to make real tasty foods without those two things if they were not available.”
Other favorite ingredients vary by season, said Cruff and the other chefs.
“In the fall or late summer, there’s tomatoes, sea bass and native corn. I kind of get excited about the things that are coming up, so my ingredients change by the season on that level,” Cruff added.
McBurney was pointed about his favorites. “I’m a real die-hard for sesame, ginger, shallots — all my recipes begin and end with those.”
The Chef Makes a Difference
In addition to ingredients that build a culinary experience for customers, chefs have backgrounds, experiences and attitudes that also individualize their kitchens and give a special flavor to their restaurants.
“I bring with me a great variety of experiences in different hospitality settings, restaurants and catering that have absolutely helped me make our unique restaurant style work for our team and our guests,” said Bistro by the Sea’s Sousa, who has been executive chef there for five years.
“Our restaurant is located on the grounds of a theater and we need to serve all our guests at the same time and make sure they have an amazing meal. Our time frame is very limited for our theater guests, and their expectations are no different than if they were at other restaurants,” she said.
Dussault, chef for eight years at The Breachway Grill, said he brings a clear sense of commitment each day to work. Anderson says his experience has taught him to deal with whatever is thrown at him.
“Very little waste is one of my big challenges and we really thrive on our specials,” added Anderson, also at The Breachway for eight years.
Cruff, who has been at the Matunuck Oyster Bar for 10 years, said the words of a teacher long ago — who challenged his thinking about food preparation -- come to him each week.
“She said, ‘You cannot invent any new food. You have to do something with the food that’s there.’ It’s kind of stuck with me,” Cruff recalled.
“We’re not re-inventing anything,” he said. “What I try to do is have consistency in our food and preparation. We have all in one a fish shack, a farm-to-table plate, semi-fine dining with really great wine. We’re capable of doing that for up to 1,500 to 2,000 people a day with most of them leaving quite happy.”
McBurney, whose combined time as chef at Crazy Burger stretches over 12 years, said that he likes to have a “very specific touch” to what he does. It includes timing the introduction of seasoning or herbs to a recipe or preparing water used in such a way “so that people can taste every single flavor in it,” he said.
He and the other chefs explained that using their passion and interest in food makes the job exciting and rewarding.
Excitement in the Kitchen
Dussault and Anderson like bringing their kitchen to customers — through events like the Charlestown Seafood Festival — that gives them the opportunity to meet those enjoying their preparations.
“The base of The Breachway Grill is that we’ve been here for a long time, everybody knows who we are. It’s important that we’re out there selling the food to the people. We’ve got a wonderful relationship with the customers and they want to see us out there,” said Dussault.
“They say, ‘Hey, let me get a lobster roll, let me get a couple of sausage and pepper grinders [from him]’ rather than from a bunch of people who they don’t know,” he said. Anderson said that a start-up of a catering business is also an exciting part of the work in the kitchen now, too.
Sousa said, “Right now the exciting part of my work is working with the team of young people that we hire each year. It’s exciting to give back to the profession and mentor and train some of the younger staff members we have.”
“We are so fortunate in South County to really attract some amazing high school and college students and to watch them grow and develop over a year, and even more, is very exciting,” she pointed out.
At Matunuck Oyster Bar, working collaboratively with staff, giving gratitude for their hard work and having this year a new planning approach for managing operations is what’s most exciting, said Cruff.
“The new system is providing smoother operations — especially during this very, very busy time of summer — and that always helps make things even better for the customers,” he added.
At Crazy Burger, new direction from management is making his kitchen exciting, said McBurney.
He said he is experimenting with changing the menu a little and creating a broader dining experience by promoting a more relaxed dining atmosphere while still offering the fast-paced quick burger for lunch or dinner.
“The whole Crazy Burger mentality is to bring new, fresh foods to life,” he said. “Let’s try to get as many people in here trying it. It’s a small restaurant. You get people talking. Once people talk, it’s hard not to feed them. Everybody wants to try something new.”