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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    Top of the food chain: Meet Mystic’s James Beard Award-winning chef

    Executive Chef David Standridge adds the finishing touches to the food in the kitchen of The Shipwright’s Daughter Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Executive Chef David Standridge checks an order slip while working in the kitchen of The Shipwright’s Daughter Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Executive Chef David Standridge adds the finishing touches to the food in the kitchen of The Shipwright’s Daughter Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Executive Chef David Standridge adds the finishing touches to the food in the kitchen of The Shipwright’s Daughter Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mystic ― Amanda Arling, who is president of The Whaler’s Inn, recalls how the hotel was gearing up to add a restaurant to the historic property a few years ago. She put out feelers into the community and the culinary world for leads on a potential executive chef, and someone she knew suggested David Standridge. He and his wife were looking to relocate from New York, and Arling was impressed when she saw his resume.

    At that point, Standridge was doing high-end catering, so Arling couldn’t go to his restaurant to sample his food. She asked if he could make some dishes for The Whaler’s Inn board of directors to try. But with the demolition going on at the inn at the time, there was no functioning kitchen.

    “He pulled together an entire multi-course tasting menu with nothing but a hot plate and a toaster oven. And I have never been more impressed by anything in my life,” Arling said, adding that it was truly one of the best meals she’d had.

    So the Whaler’s Inn hired Standridge as executive chef, and in June 2020, he opened The Shipwright’s Daughter at the inn.

    Four years later, he got another seal of approval — one of the most important ones a chef can get. He won a James Beard Award earlier this month, earning the honor of Best Chef: Northeast. The awards, handed out at a ceremony in Chicago, are to chefs what the Oscars are to movie actors.

    Standridge became the first person at a Connecticut restaurant to win a James Beard best chef award in 18 years, according to Scott Dolch, president of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

    And the world has taken notice. Business increased by 20% at The Shipwright’s Daughter when Standridge was named one of five finalists in April, and it has bumped up another 40% since he won the award.

    “That is great, but it’s also a lot of pressure on the staff. Now it’s like every day is a Saturday — which is wonderful,” Standridge said on a recent morning at the restaurant.

    He had been worried about being overstaffed, but now the restaurant has seen such increased business, the plan is to hire more people. As of now, there are about 16 or 17 people working in the kitchen and then another 15 or so working front of house.

    The big win

    While people compare the James Beard Awards to the Oscars in terms of prestige, the vibe at the ceremony was also similar.

    “If you’re nominated, you show up early and get to walk the red carpet, and there’s press and interviews. Everyone’s dressed to the nines. It was just a really great experience,” Standridge said.

    He had both been thinking about the possibility of winning leading up to the event but, on the day of the ceremony, he was trying to convince himself he wouldn’t win because he didn’t want to be disappointed.

    “Once you make the finals, everyone deserves to win, quite frankly. They’ve all done really good work. It’s up to the judges. Who knows?” he said.

    Introducing the Best Chef: Northeast category, the presenters talked about women in kitchens, so Standridge figured that meant the award would go to a female in the category.

    Then they called Standridge’s name.

    “Honestly, I was a little shocked,” he said.

    And he hesitated a little, a reflection of what had happened to him at the Connecticut Restaurant Association’s CRAzies Awards last year. He was nominated for chef of the year there, and when they opened the enveloped and called the name David, he stood up … only to realize the actual winner was David DiStasi from Materia Ristorante in Bantam.

    During his acceptance speech at the James Beard Awards, he spoke about how The Shipwright’s Daughter uses sustainable, local wild seafood, which is not easy. He noted that the restaurant opened in June 2020, "which was probably the worst time in 100 years to open a restaurant.”

    Standridge, 49, thanked the owners for supporting the restaurant during that tough time, and he thanked the team at the restaurant. He thanked his wife Kathleen for being the storyteller who got the word out about the work they are doing at The Shipwright’s Daughter. And he thanked their children, Olivia, 4, and Robert, 5.

    “When they came along is when my perspective as a chef shifted from doing what was best for me to doing something that was best for the community and for the next generation to try to leave this world a little better than I found it,” he said.

    After the ceremony, he attended the big James Beard Award party at Chicago’s Union Station, which was shut down for the event.

    Dolch noted that Standridge is only the second person to win a James Beard chef award for his work in Connecticut, with the first being Jean-Louis Gerin of Greenwich in 2006.

    “Yes, we’ve had incredible finalists and semi-finalists, but to have David bring that home to the state — we’re just so thrilled and happy. I hope it’s the start of many more,” Dolch said.

    Developing the cuisine

    When the owners of The Whaler’s Inn hired Standridge to establish a restaurant there, they only gave him one real directive in terms of cuisine: They wanted to bring world-class dining to Mystic. Standridge’s idea was coastal cuisine, farm to table and sea to table, and working closely with fishermen.

    “Restaurants are organic. You can design a space, and that’s something that people can decide on — what it’s going to look like. But the concept, especially if you’re doing local ingredients sourced the way we source them, it’s kind of a marriage between what you want to do, what’s available and what customers will buy,” Standridge said.

    His original concept was to have a menu that would change daily. Steak would be on there one day but maybe not the next. What he learned: Customers want more consistency. They need some idea of what will be on the menu if they are going to come in for a meal.

    Standridge also had to develop more consistency for the sake of the kitchen staff, who were stressed by this approach. At the start, the dishes for a given night would be based on what fish the local fishermen brought in that morning.

    “It was utter chaos. The fish would come in at 11 o’clock. It had to go on the menu at 5. And we didn’t have any planning around it. It was just like: Whatever we got, let’s make a menu!” Standridge said.

    Four years in, the menu is much more stable.

    “We don’t know what (fish) we’re getting today, but it’s not like a new fish is going to show up on the scene. So we kind of know what we do with different fish, different seasons. We have it down,” he said.

    Slipper limpets and green crabs

    Now, Standridge said, they have The Shipwright’s Daughter where they want it to be.

    “We have our ways to be adventurous, like we have a tasting menu we can do whatever we want on, and keep the (main) menu a little more user friendly,” he said.

    The most popular dishes at The Shipwright’s Daughter had tended to be, funnily enough, not the fish that Standridge meant as the venue’s signature. Instead, they were more often offerings like the 14-day aged Rohan duck or steak.

    But with all the James Beard Award attention, which recognized the restaurant’s fish in particular, people are now ordering fish dishes much more.

    “That’s the power of these things (the James Beard Awards). And they’ve thought it out really well. They want to empower people who are doing things that are good for the community and trying to give back. And that’s why they’re recognizing restaurants like ours. Once you’re kind of anointed as, ‘This is what they’re doing, and we think they’re the best,’ then people are coming for that rather than just wandering in,” he said.

    The Shipwright’s Daughter team is excited for the fishing season to get going in earnest. A lot of the fishermen they use are in small boats and so don’t go 100 miles out; they consequently need the water to warm up before they can get fish. Pretty soon, tuna should be coming into the restaurant, as well as just more variety, from scup to black bass. (During the winter, Standridge noted, it tends to be fluke and monkfish.)

    Asked if any dishes have fallen flat, Standridge said no — there are just different versions of selling well.

    “On the other side, we’ve done some weird things, like slipper limpets,” he said.

    Those are also known as slipper snails, and they are both delicious and “super sustainable,” he said. People digging up clams usually toss the slipper limpets that are covering the clams. The Shipwright’s Daughter put them on the menu last year, offering them in a style similar to escargot: in the shell with garlic, parsley, butter, a toothpick to pick out the snails, and toast.

    “They really sold well right off the bat, which is a testament to the front of the house staff, because they’re behind everything that we do, and that’s who’s selling it,” Standridge said.

    Green crabs — which are invasive to this area, having come from Europe years ago — are a big focus for The Shipwright’s Daughter as well. Green crabs do a lot of damage in the environment, Standridge said. The Shipwright’s Daughter crew usually make a stock out of them, which they use for bouillabaisse and sauces, among other things. Only one local fisherman harvests green crabs for consumption, and The Shipwright’s Daughter uses about 100 pounds of them a week.

    As for finfish, Standridge wants whole fish — not ones that already been filleted — and fish that has not been out of the water for more than two days. The folks at The Shipwright’s Daughter have to scale, cut and debone the fish themselves, which is more work but is ultimately better, he said.

    Coming up: Standridge is working on another project for downtown Mystic. It will be a more casual and family-friendly venue, but the values will be the same as The Shipwright’s Daughter in terms of sustainable seafood.

    Cooking as a kid

    New Jersey native Standridge’s first job in food — such as it was — was at the Wave Pool Snack Bar at the now-defunct Action Park in New Jersey, which, he noted, had a reputation as the world’s most dangerous water park. (Standridge said they paid park employees to test the rides, although he never took his bosses up on that.)

    But he was interested in cooking long before that first gig. He, like most other Gen X children, was a latchkey kid whose parents both worked, and he figures his older brother was supposed to be watching his kid sibling. But instead David’s brother occasionally went out, leaving David to his own devices — which involved viewing a lot of TV, particularly PBS cooking shows featuring the likes of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

    He would watch them and practice.

    “A lot of it was: I want to eat something, they didn’t have whatever I wanted in the house. Cookies were the main thing. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a cookbook there, the ingredients are here.’ And I just started cooking my own food a lot,” Standridge said, adding that he cooked his own pasta after seeing it done on TV.

    He noted that his parents were both good cooks as well.

    Early career

    As much as he always loved to cook, Standridge didn’t pursue it as a career at first. He was trying to be a writer and worked in publishing as well as on boats for a while.

    Early on, he had three jobs: he was working at a coffee shop, was a marine operations manager, and was a production editor for an academic press — all while he was finishing up the last two classes he needed in college. (He earned his bachelor of arts degree in English from Montclair State University.)

    And then, he said, he sort of fell into restaurant work.

    His boss at the coffee shop was consulting on the coffee program at Eleven Madison Park and brought Standridge into that. Standridge followed that with some bartending and serving.

    When he was 25 or 26, Standridge went to Culinary Institute Lenotre, a culinary school in Houston.

    “It was tiny. It was great. The chefs were Michelin-trained. They were French. There were three people in my class. All we did was cook all day. There were no classrooms. Eight hours of cooking, five days a week for 20 weeks. We went through the whole French canon, from country — all the techniques — to very refined,” he recalled.

    After that, he worked at the Four Seasons in Houston for three years and co-owned a catering company.

    “I had so much creative freedom in both. I was the lunch fish guy, had to do four specials a day. You walk in and figure it out,” he said.

    He moved to New York City and said he was lucky to get a job at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a two- Michelin-star venue. He started as a low-level cook and, by the time he left six years later, he was sous chef.

    “After that, I could pretty much do what I want with that on resume,” he said.

    He was a chef at Market Table in the West Village, since he wanted to work someplace with a neighborhood feel and where he could have his hands in more things. Then he worked at Café Clover, a trendy, health-focused restaurant.

    The road to Mystic

    When he and Kathleen had their first child, he decided he needed a job with more regular hours and so worked for about a year for a catering company called Sonnier & Castle. They did some big events, including the opening — attended by 10,000 people — of Hudson Yards in New York City.

    But Standridge didn’t particularly love the catering job. And then the opportunity for The Shipwright’s Daughter arose.

    During a trip to Mystic, a family friend of Kathleen’s — Moira Deasy of Mystic — encouraged the Standridges to move here. Deasy texted David a week after the visit: “She’s like: The Whaler’s Inn is opening a restaurant. You should talk to them. I already sent them your resume.’”

    And while the chance to essentially create his own restaurant appealed, so did the location.

    Standridge used to love traveling to Mystic when he was younger. He worked on boats out of the Harlem Yacht Club in City Island that would sail all around Long Island Sound and up to Maine. It was on those boats that he learned about Mystic, albeit from the water.

    “I just love the New England coast. It’s beautiful. I love the water, I love the beach. I love the fishing and the industry and the history around that. That’s always appealed to me – ‘Moby Dick,’ the whole thing, except the middle part,” he said with a laugh.

    “I had kids and wanted to raise them in a place like this. Honestly, the kids are so spoiled — they think everybody grows up in a place like Mystic. They’re going to see later: ‘What, you didn’t have Santa coming in on a tugboat? What was wrong with your town?’ This is paradise for families, I think,” he said.

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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