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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Mystic honors local chefs who are James Beard Award finalists

    From left, Chef David Standridge, of The Shipwrights Daughter, and Chef Renee Touponce, of The Port of Call and Oyster Club, both finalists for James Beard Awards, laugh as they step off the stage area after being honored during a Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce celebration Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Mystic River Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Chef Renee Touponce, of The Port of Call and Oyster Club, right, and Pastry Chef Jessica Spivey prepare Duck Rillett, toasted sourdough with strawberry, crispy ginger, and apple mint, for people to sample during the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce celebration, Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Mystic River Park. The celebration was for Touponce and David Standridge, not shown, who are both nominated for James Beard awards. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Duck Rillett, toasted sourdough with strawberry, crispy ginger, and apple mint, from Chef Renee Touponce of The Port of Call and Oyster Club, for people to sample during the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce celebration for her and Chef David Standridge, Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Mystic River Park. The celebration was for Touponce and David Standridge, not shown, are both nominated for James Beard awards. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Line Cook Shelley Litchfield adds the finishing touches to Rhubarb gazpacho from Chef David Standridge’s restaurant The Shipwright’s Daughter in Mystic that was available for people to sample during the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce celebration Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Mystic River Park. The celebration was for Standridge and Renee Touponce, not shown, who are both nominated for James Beard awards. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Rhubarb gazpacho from Chef David Standridge’s restaurant The Shipwright’s Daughter in Mystic that was available for people to sample during the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce celebration Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Mystic River Park. The celebration was for Chef David Standridge and Chef Renee Touponce, who are both nominated for James Beard awards. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mystic ― In less than a week, two Mystic chefs will be at an elegant ceremony in Chicago, waiting to hear whether they’ve won one of the most esteemed prizes in the food world — the James Beard Award.

    On Tuesday, they both got a celebratory sendoff at Mystic River Park. They were feted by state and local officials during an event hosted by the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce.

    The James Beard Awards are a huge deal; they have been referred to as the Oscars for chefs, a description repeated twice during speeches Tuesday. This is the first time that two chefs from Mystic have been finalists for the award.

    This marks the second year in a row that Renee Touponce has been nominated for a James Beard Award for her work as executive chef at The Port of Call. (She holds the same title at Oyster Club.) Last year, she made it to the finalist stage for Best Chef: Northeast, and this year she is up for Outstanding Chef — the first Connecticut chef to be included in that nationwide group.

    David Standridge, executive chef for The Shipwright’s Daughter, is in the category of Best Chef: Northeast.

    Touponce and Standridge are each one of five finalists in their respective categories.

    In an interview before Tuesday’s event started, Touponce said it feels different being nominated for the Outstanding Chef, after being up for Best Chef: Northeast.

    “I understand the gravity. I definitely understood it last year, but this one feels a little — it feels really humbling. I feel so incredibly honored, and I didn’t expect that to happen, that huge leap. It makes me realize that what I’m doing and what my teams are doing are making an impact and it does matter and we do have a voice. …. I get a little emotional when I think about it because it means so much to me and I know how much it means to be my team and the people who are supporting me,” Touponce said.

    Both The Port of Call and Oyster Club are “humming right now,” she said, and the community is very excited for her and Standridge.

    “Having guests come in and be cheering you on and rooting you on, being happy for you, it feels really good to know that there’s tremendous support behind me in all of this. I’m just proud to be leading the way,” she said.

    Touponce acknowledged that among the people who have been coming into her restaurants is celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who is filming the latest seasons of his cooking competition show “Hell’s Kitchen” at Foxwoods. He and members of the production crew have stopped in multiple times.

    “It’s really cool and it’s really great to have those people behind us and supporting us as well,” she said.

    Touponce said that being a James Beard Award finalist has meant lots of new opportunities. Last week, for instance, she was part of an event the Jacques Pepin Foundation co-hosted with the Julia Child Foundation in support of the Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. And she will be one of a handful of chefs who will be cooking for the event that follows the James Beard Awards, where nominees gather to eat, drink, network and celebrate.

    Standridge likewise said that opportunities to participate in events and to get out the word about what they do at Shipwright’s Daughter have increased greatly since becoming a James Beard Award finalist. Later this week, he’s heading to Martha’s Vineyard for the Martha’s Vineyard Food & Wine Festival before traveling to Chicago for the award ceremony.

    At the Shipwright’s Daughter, “We’re definitely way busier than we were last year,” he said. And he’s been “busy, busy, busy” doing interviews and accepting the aforementioned opportunities.

    He has been an executive chef for a dozen years, mostly in New York City, and hadn’t been able to get this level of recognition until now.

    “It’s super cool to be a finalist. I feel like it’s something you keep forever, whether you win or not,” he said.

    At Tuesday’s event, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz told the assembled folks, “I’ve already had a chance to sample David’s gazpacho and Renee’s mushroom pate (which were served), and I think what distinguishes their work is how closely they work with their teams, how they seek out the best local ingredients, and they each bring their unique life experience to what they make.”

    She said they truly put their heart and soul into their food.

    Bysiewicz also said, “We hope that what people take from their work is reasons to come to our beautiful state. … If you’re like me and you spend most of the day thinking about what your next meal will be, trust me, come to Mystic. You will not be disappointed. Renee and David, the state is so, so proud of you and can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.”

    She and the other officials wished the chefs the best of luck in winning their respective awards next week. State Sen. Heather Somers also noted that plans are in the works for a local awards viewing party.

    The James Beard Foundation doesn’t say why chefs were selected as finalists. The foundation website does, though, say 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.”

    The Port of Call website says that Touponce’s cuisine reflects her multicultural background, stating, “Her upbringing is a blend of Italian and Puerto Rican, with memories of rice and beans on the stove, a lasagna in the oven, and food bringing her family together. Her inventive, locally-sourced, sustainable cuisine, pays homage to the rich, coastal heritage of New England, investigating the ingredients of her region of Mystic and surrounding communities while recreating the flavors of her youth.”

    Standridge’s cuisine is “rooted in a deep commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. A champion of sustainable fishing practices, he incorporates local kelp, invasive species, and bycatch fish into his modern New England cuisine, minimizing waste while celebrating the region's seafood diversity,” according to The Shipwright’s Daughter website.

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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