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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Mystic chef becomes James Beard Awards finalist

    In this file photo, 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. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Renee Touponce, executive chef at The Port of Call in Mystic, has become a finalist for one of the most prestigious honors for chefs, the James Beard Awards.

    Touponce found out earlier this year that she was a semifinalist for the awards. On Wednesday, she learned that she is now a finalist.

    She will travel to Chicago for the June 5 ceremony, where the winners will be announced in an Oscars-like ceremony.

    “I’m so overjoyed with so many emotions right now. It’s such an honor to be in this position, and myself and my team are all on cloud nine right now. We’re on top of the world, and I’m so proud and thankful – so many emotions,” Touponce said on Wednesday afternoon.

    Her category for best chef covers the Northeast. She was one of 20 to be named a semifinalist in that region, and that total was narrowed to five finalists.

    Touponce and several co-workers and friends gathered in the Oyster Club bar on Wednesday morning to watch as the James Beard Foundation did the announcement of finalists live on Instagram. They were huddled over their phones and constantly refreshing the pages, though Touponce wasn’t looking at her phone and was instead waiting to hear the news from one of them.

    And then, as Dan Meiser — who owns 85th Day Food Community, the Mystic-based restaurant group and catering company whose venues include The Port of Call — recalled, “I looked at Renee and I said, ‘Guess what? You’re going to Chicago.’ It’s beyond our wildest dreams … We’re all in goosebumps and really good shock mode over here right now.”

    As soon as she heard that she was a finalist, Touponce began to cry, and everyone hugged her.

    She said it was wonderful “to be surrounded by all my people and my team. As soon as it happened, everybody just showed up and embraced me, and we’re all just so happy.”

    Putting the finalist status in context, Meiser said, “Just to be a semifinalist (for the James Beard Awards) is every chef’s dream. So many people work so hard to try to be in that conversation, so for Renee to have moved on to this next level – we knew how deserving she is and we knew that it was a possibility, but it’s very surreal at this moment that it actually happened.”

    As they were waiting to learn whether Touponce was a finalist, Meiser recalled telling her, “You’ve done everything you could possibly do. You’re the right person at the right moment, you’re deserving, you’re as talented as anyone out there. But at the end of the day, it’s not up to us. There’s a group of people that each have a vote, and I hope to hell that they see you for who you are and your work gets noticed for what it is. If they do that, then you’re going to Chicago.”

    And, he said, “Thankfully, that’s what happened.”

    Touponce, 36, grew up in Torrington and now lives in Westerly. She has been executive chef of Oyster Club since 2021 and then added the same job at The Port of Call to her plate the following year. Her James Beard recognition is for her work at The Port of Call.

    She had worked for 85th Day Food Community since 2017, having also at the company’s Grass & Bone.

    The James Beard Foundation says 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.”

    Touponce said, “I’m so thankful and I’m so proud of my team, and I’m just happy to be representing Connecticut and Mystic and the work that we all do here, and this space and everything it stands for and represents. I couldn’t be prouder, and I cannot wait to go to Chicago and be in a room surrounded by so many other talented chefs. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m so thankful for.”

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