Two Mystic chefs nominated for prestigious James Beard Awards
Two Mystic chefs are semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Awards, which were announced Wednesday.
Renee Touponce, the executive chef for The Port of Call who was a finalist for Best Chef: Northeast category in 2023, is a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef this year, competing against peers around the country.
David Standridge, executive chef at The Shipwright’s Daughter, is a semifinalist for the 2024 Best Chef: Northeast category.
They are among 20 semifinalists in each of their categories. Finalists will be announced April 3, and winners will be revealed during a ceremony in Chicago on June 10.
The James Beard Awards are one of the biggest honors in the culinary universe. Chefs have compared them to what Oscars are for actors or Grammys are for recording artists.
Touponce couldn’t be immediately reached to comment, but Port of Call owner Dan Meiser said that Scott Dolch, president and CEO of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, confirmed with the James Beard Award people that Touponce is the first chef from Connecticut to ever be on the Outstanding Chef list.
“Obviously, this is a dream come true, and last year, short of her hopefully someday winning the award, we didn’t think we could get any higher than that,” Meiser said. “And so for her to be part of this national conversation and be on that list with chefs from coast to coast, not only is she so deserving of that, but it is a huge deal for her, it’s a huge deal for our restaurant group, it’s a huge deal for the state of Connecticut and really putting a spotlight on how extraordinary this little part of the world is.”
Standridge mentioned as well what it says about the area that two chefs from Mystic are up for a James Beard Award.
“Mystic is an amazing town. … To have two chefs nominated in this tiny little hamlet is pretty amazing. With the population we have and the size of the community, it really speaks to the culinary community here, and for me, the larger community and how supportive they are of the restaurant,” he said.
Standridge, 49, said of being named a semifinalist, “I couldn’t be more excited. We’ve worked so hard to try to make something successful, and to get some recognition (is rewarding).”
He intentionally didn’t check the Beard website and figured someone would text him if he made the list – and then the texts started pouring in.
The Shipwright’s Daughter’s food is modern New England, and the focus is on sustainable seafood and on working with local fisherman and small fishermen in particular. Standridge said the restaurant tries to “educate people on making better choices around seafood and using the right species and trying to support the right fishing method.”
Standridge grew up in northern New Jersey and cooked avidly from a young age. He worked in the food business as a youth before going to college and becoming “a failed writer.” He primarily wrote poetry – “not a very good career choice,” he said with a laugh. He went back into the food business, spending two decades working in New York CIty at places including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Market Table, and Sonnier and Castle.
He moved to southeastern Connecticut in 2019 to open The Shipwright’s Daughter.
“I think we’ve been doing something special for a while now. When you’re in a really small town, it can be really hard for people to know what you're doing. It’s not like we're on a big stage. We’ve just been super lucky to be able to get enough attention,” he said.
‘That’s the mountaintop’
Meiser said he got a call from Touponce, 36, who was on a trip to Puerto Rico and then Florida, on Wednesday. She was crying. He was worried something was wrong. He wasn’t thinking about the James Beard semifinalists announcement, since it happened a few weeks later last year. But she told him she just found out she was a nominee for 2024 Outstanding Chef. He at first thought about the Northeast category she was up for last year, but she told him, no, it was for Outstanding Chef.
“I mean, that’s the mountaintop for any chef,” Meiser said.
The Outstanding Chef category is, according to the James Beard website, for “a chef who sets high culinary standards and has served as a positive example for other food professionals while contributing positively to their broader community.”
Meiser said, “I can't think of a better ambassador for Connecticut and everything that’s exciting going on in the food scene of Connecticut than Renee Touponce. … She is so talented and she is so deserving to be on that list with national chefs. But that doesn't end there with her. She’s more impressive as a human being and a member of this community.”
The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.
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.
As for the cuisine at Port of Call, Touponce said last year, “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.”
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