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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Mystic chef is semifinalist for one of the culinary world’s biggest awards

    Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Port of Call, works on an order of the Fish of the Day at the restaurant in Mystic Thursday, February 2, 2023. Touponce is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and was named Chef of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Port of Call, laughs with a coworker as she pays attention to the grill at the restaurant in Mystic Thursday, February 2, 2023. Touponce is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and was named Chef of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Port of Call, plates a Smoked Hot Dog at the restaurant in Mystic Thursday, February 2, 2023. Touponce is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and was named Chef of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Port of Call, works on plating a Seacoast Mushroom Salad at the restaurant in Mystic Thursday, February 2, 2023. Touponce is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and was named Chef of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Port of Call, shows an order of the Fish of the Day at the restaurant in Mystic Thursday, February 2, 2023. Touponce is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and was named Chef of the Year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mystic ―Renee Touponce, executive chef at The Port of Call, is a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards, one of the biggest honors in the culinary world.

    Her category for best chef covers the Northeast. She was one of 20 to be named a semifinalist in that region, and she was one of two from Connecticut (the other was Christian Hunter, from Community Table in Washington, Conn.).

    “It’s such an unbelievable thing and such an honor,” Touponce said during an interview Wednesday at The Port of Call. “I’m so proud of myself and my team and this space and the journey – it’s just a culmination of everything that has gotten myself and the phenomenal people I have with me to this moment.”

    For people who aren’t familiar with the James Beard Awards, Touponce compared them to Grammys for musicians or the Oscars for actors.

    It’s that big of a deal.

    “As chefs, we always have dreams and goals and hopes that we get recognition for our work, and this is one of the greatest recognitions you could receive. There’s so many talented, great people in the world. To be selected or nominated is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

    The James Beard Foundation doesn’t say who nominated the chefs or why they were selected as semifinalists. But the foundation states that the awards honor “chefs who set high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities, and who are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions while contributing positively to their broader community.”

    Finalists will be announced March 29, followed by a ceremony on June 5 in Chicago.

    Touponce has been executive chef of Oyster Club since 2021 and then also took on the same job at The Port of Call, which opened in early 2022. Her James Beard honor was for her work at The Port of Call.

    She had joined 85th Day Food Community — the Mystic-based restaurant group and catering company owned by Dan Meiser — in 2017 and had previously worked at the company’s Grass & Bone before joining its Oyster Club and Port of Call.

    Meiser said Touponce is “so deserving” of the James Beard honor.

    “What she and her team at Port of Call and Oyster Club have been working on and have accomplished in the last few years — we all knew how deserving she was of this, and it was so wonderfully refreshing to have the gold standard, the national organization, the James Beard Foundation, recognize her for that,” Meiser says, noting that it’s the biggest culinary honor in the U.S.

    Considering the number of restaurants and chefs that exist in the country, the sheer amount of competition to make the semifinalists list is staggering, he said.

    Meiser said that Touponce is as talented a chef as he’s been around.

    “What she’s doing in her kitchen in terms of molecular gastronomy, fermentation, preserving, the different techniques that she and her team are employing in the dishes is at a level that’s competing with the best restaurants in the country,” Meiser said.

    On the personal side, he added, Touponce is an extraordinary human being and leader who is powerful, kind and a great mentor.

    Pulling into Port

    The Port of Call was the first time that Touponce was involved in a restaurant from the start. She, Meiser, Bailey Pryor from The Real McCoy Rum and beverage director Jade Ayala discussed the vision and direction for The Port of Call, which is a collaboration between 85hth Day and Real McCoy.

    “When you step into this space, you feel like you’re on this beautiful ship. We wanted it to be like we were traveling around the world, pulling in influences from all over the world,” she said. “By no means am I trying to say I know everything about every cuisine out there, but I do know I’m very curious and want to constantly be learning.”

    Even when creating a dish, it remains a process. She said it’s “trying and changing and doing it over and over and over until you get where you think this is perfect. Even when we are there, we want to keep pushing to even make it better and better.”

    Surreal moment

    Touponce and her partner, Ayala, were visiting Ayala’s family in Florida when the James Beard Award semifinalists were announced. When Touponce saw a text from her PR representatives, saying “Renee …” with a photo of the James Beard link, Touponce recalled, “I started to become super emotional, almost like no way, this isn’t really happening, is this?”

    Ayala scrolled through the list of semifinalists on the web and confirmed Touponce’s name was in fact there.

    “I just started crying, and she hugged me super tight, and it was just a very emotional, surreal moment,” Touponce recalled. “And I’m still processing it all.”

    Ayala is beverage director for both The Port of Call and Oyster Club. They have been together for seven years; both were hired separately for Oyster Club, and no one knew for the first six or seven months that they were partners.

    “We both are extremely passionate about what we do. To be with her through the journey before this and during this and where we are now … She is so supportive, and to have her be there in that moment (when the James Beard honors were posted), with someone that I love and understand and is just always there for me, was amazing,” Touponce said.

    Cooking brings back memories

    Touponce, 35, now lives in Westerly. She was raised in Torrington, with a mother of Italian background and a stepfather of Puerto Rican heritage. She remembers the family making lasagna, and empanadas and bacalaitos.

    “Growing up, the culture of food and noise and that environment of a lot of people in the kitchen cooking in chaos or in good memories – that was always something that was a part of my upbringing,” she said.

    “All these things that brought us together in our kitchen — in those moments when you’re growing up, you’re just a part of it and you don’t really think too much about it. Then, as you get older, now I think, ‘Wow, what an impact those moments had on me that I didn’t recognize (at the time) … A lot of the food we do here (at The Port of Call) brings me back to those memories and those moments and the nostalgia of my youth. It’s definitely personal. It’s a memory. It’s this feeling you get when you cook,” she said.

    When she was in high school, though, Touponce was thinking about maybe studying psychology or following the ROTC program she was already involved with. But a friend interceded.

    “My friend told me, ‘You’re always cooking with your family and you’re always cooking for us, for your friends, and you’re a really, really great cook. Have you ever thought about going to culinary school?’ We were in the library — I remember that moment,” Touponce said. “I thought about it and how happy it made me when I cooked, and I just went for it. And here I am. So thank you to that friend.”

    Touponce attended the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction, Vermont. She interned at Apricots in Farmington, and had her first sous chef position in 2010 in First and Last Tavern and then at Firebox in Hartford.

    She has been a part of the 85th Day Community for the past six years, “kind of just working my around” the company.

    “I worked over at Grass & Bone and did the Dinners on the Farm and I worked the pasta station and butchered. I’ve just done a little bit of everything,” she said.

    Dishes close to her heart

    A couple of dishes that she’s particularly proud of and that she said are closest to her heart are related to feelings of nostalgia; one is smoking pinchos, and another is bacalaitos.

    While the food at Port of Call might be smaller plates and, considering the space, people might think of the offerings as bar food, but they take a lot of work.

    “There is an incredible amount of technique that goes into it, from fermenting to curing to preserving to aging. These are all skills that I’ve learned along the way. I’m trying to introduce those techniques into the food that we do here,” she said.

    She used to make bacalaitos in her house with her mother and stepfather. The dish is more of a starter or a snack. The salted cod fritter is very flat, thin but fluffy. When she was a kid, they didn’t make it all from scratch but rather used a powdered mix from the Spanish section of the supermarket.

    “Now, being able to make that from scratch, using local ingredients, we salt and cure our own fluke because fluke is one of our local fish in this area. After we do that, we reconstitute it with water. We’re using good-quality ingredients,” she said.

    Touponce talked through the dish with sous chef Jorge Baldiviezo, and they tried recipe after recipe as they developed what they now serve at The Port of Call. Touponce wanted to get it close to that powered-mix box version, to have it reflect the memory of what it tasted like when she ate it at home, but also to have it be better and elevated.

    “The moment we got to as close as I could remember it using all these fresh ingredients, I was standing on the line with him, and I looked at him, and it was this teary-eyed, emotional moment for me because it brought me to my youth. It’s crazy to think how powerful food is,” Touponce said.

    As for pinchos: Touponce’s family often traveled to Puerto Rico, and one of the most common street foods there is pinchos. It’s a kabob of pork, beef, or chicken, slathered with a Puerto Rican barbecue sauce, topped with warm bread and wrapped in tin foil.

    “I remember thinking this was the most incredible thing I had eaten when I was younger. I’m just trying to recreate that here and doing my version of it and hoping that I do equity and justice to that memory,” she said.

    Leading two kitchens

    Discussing being executive chef for both The Port of Call and Oyster Club, which are right next door to each other, Touponce said, “I really trust my sous chefs. They are my backbone and my everything. I really spend a lot of time with all of them.”

    She usually walks through The Port of Call at first and meets with Baldiviezo, discussing the upcoming day and what needs to get done and ordered. Then she heads over to Oyster Club, where she goes through the same process with sous chefs Chad Hobert and Nick Teague.

    “I’ll have these conversations and curate a menu there and delegate tasks to them to then delegate to the team,” she said.

    She said she is very much involved in both venues and cooks at both; she is hands-on and part of the teams.

    ‘We did this together’

    Empanadas are Touponce’s signature offering. Whenever she does an event in the field, she does some form of those. At The Port of Call, it’s squid ink empanadas. At Oyster Club, it’s beef empanadas.

    “I always joke that wherever this journey takes me, if I retire, I just want to have an empanada stand or an empanada truck on the beach,” she says with a laugh, “and I’ll just sling empanadas for a couple hours and then relax on the beach. That’s my end goal to whatever this journey is.”

    As for whether she has a plan for the future, she said, “I’m kind of just going along for the ride. I know that right now, in this moment, I’m fully committed to this space and to Oyster Club and to my teams,” she said.

    “It takes a tremendous amount of work to build teams and have people that support you and are extremely talented and go on this journey with you. Right now, the teams I have here and at Oyster Club are everything to me. I can genuinely say I love every single person on my team. And they’re so important to me. I truly understand that this isn’t just me – we did this together, and it’s all of our work. It’s our journey. And I’m very grateful and very happy and very proud to be their chef and very proud of all of them. Whatever ride I go on in this moment, they’re going on that ride with me.”

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