Battle of the Chefs 2016

One of my favorite Fairfield County foodie events is a throwdown between some of the area’s most talented chefs! Battle of the Chefs, benefitting Founder’s Hall in Ridgefield, involves a dash of audience participation and the chance to help over 3,500 people. Watch this video to discover what’s in store this year then click here to get your tickets!

CTBites Team Launches Fairfield County Chefs Cookbook

ctbitesI am tremendously excited to announce the launch of a new cookbook penned by the duo behind the award-winning website CT Bites“Fairfield County Chef’s Table Extraordinary Recipes from Connecticut’s Gold Coast,” published by Lyons Press, will go on sale tomorrow at local booksellers and Amazon.com.  

A beautiful representation of the area’s culinary treasures, the cookbook features more than 50 mouth-watering recipes and gorgeous full-color photos from Fairfield County’s diverse swath of restaurants – everything from four-star dining to burgers to ethnic specialties. Imagine being able to prepare a salad from Stamford’s Napa & Co, alongside an entree from Bonda in Fairfield, and dessert courtesy of Chocopologie – all in your own kitchen…it’s akin to Christmas morning for the food obsessed.

I had a chance to catch up with the author, Amy Kundrat and photographer, Stephanie Webster, to discuss the cookbook, their fortuitous partnership, and what’s next for CT Bites!

Fairfieldista: How did the two of you meet and how did you decide to launch CT Bites?

Amy: I’ve always been obsessed with travel and food and I realized I knew more about great food in other cities than my own back yard. I came across CTbites shortly after Stephanie launched it, and latched on for dear life. In those early days because it was one of the few places you could go to find like-minded gourmands who were curious and thoughtful about food culture. Stephanie and I work so well together because we are definitely food sympatico. For us, it’s about seeking out the best and the unique, not just casting a wide net.

Stephanie: I have always been obsessed with food. When I moved to Westport, CT in 2007, I immediately set out to find the best of everything edible in the 20 mile radius. Finding few credible culinary online resources, I decided the only solution was to launch my own. The site evolved into a multi-voice platform quickly as I realized, there was only so much I could consume or document alone. Amy joined the team very shortly thereafter, and together we created the blueprint and vision for CTbites.

Fairfieldista: How did you transition from Fairfield County’s favorite food bloggers to cookbook authors?

Amy: We’ve built the CTbites platform with the help of many great writers. Our goal has always to provide insight beyond what you may be able to glean yourself by walking into a restaurant and glancing at the menu and to go behind the scenes, do the legwork, and get to the deeper story. A book seemed like a great way to represent the essence of what we’ve accomplished in Fairfield County.

Stephanie: So much of CTbites’ success is relationship based. Our goal has always been to support the culinary community by highlighting the very best of the CT food scene. This book is a natural extension of the sentiment.

Fairfieldista: How did you select the restaurants and the recipes in the book?

Amy: If I could, I would have included everyone over the years that I’ve written about. Unfortunately print is not as forgiving as pixels. Our goal from the publisher was about 50 restaurants that represented the entire county, representing a spectrum of cuisines, approaches, and price points. I’m already thinking of how to update, reorganize and include even more chefs this in the next release!

Fairfieldista: The photography is absolutely gorgeous…what’s the secret to taking beautiful food photographs?

Stephanie: If you are not walking around with bounce cards and pro equipment, here are a few basics. 1. Always scout out a location with nice flat light, preferably near a window, but avoid harsh direct mid day sunlight. 2. Bring the focal point to the front, meaning don’t worry about keeping the entire frame in focus. Food shots look better if the Aperture is set large for a shorter depth of field. 3. As in any photography, you have to have a feel for the subject. I tend to get very up close and personal. It may just be a donut or bowl of pasta but make it the hero. 4. When in doubt, shoot overhead.

Fairfieldista: Speaking of photography…how did you get some of the more elusive chefs to pose for photos?

Stephanie: Perseverance…and patience. Chefs are a busy lot. You need to be flexible and work around their schedules. However, this challenge was made easier due to the fact that we have worked so closely with the local chefs via CTbites. We were able to leverage the relationships we had built with many of the local chefs over the past 5 years.

Fairfieldista: What was the biggest challenge in creating the cookbook? What was the most fun?

Amy: Wrangling, er, organizing the chefs was the biggest challenge. Reaching out to over 50 chefs and trying to convince them to give you a recipe was a bit of a challenge. Many of them don’t write down their recipes, or even want to. As a result there are some chefs missing that I would have loved to include. The most fun? Seeing it come together and hopefully reading/hearing about people making the recipes.

Stephanie: Ditto

Fairfieldista: What do you love to cook at home?

Amy: This will come as no surprise to those that know me, but I love cooking pizza. I’m constantly experimenting with dough fermentation and toppings. And I am also master of what I call the MacGuyver, cleaning out the refrigerator or pantry to create something worth calling dinner.

Stephanie: I prefer not to cook at all to be honest. I enjoy my food much more when prepared by someone else.

Fairfieldista: What do you love about the food scene in Fairfield County?

Amy: The people. I do this to meet and tell the stories of the people behind the food.

Stephanie: I would have to agree. The creativity and passion that drives our chefs, local vendors, and restaurateurs is inspiring. I have enjoyed getting to know each and every person in the CT food scene.

Fairfieldista: I realize this is like asking which child is your favorite, but what are your favorite restaurants?

Amy: There is no one absolute, so I am going to dodge the question by saying there are favorite restaurants for moments, cravings, and occasions and they are all in the book. For brunch, I adore Sugar & Olives. If I am craving Italian, I head to La Zingara. My favorite neighborhood restaurants (which are not in my ‘hood) are Match and South End. When I have out of town guests, which feels like once a month, we head to Community Table. For coffee, it’s Espresso Neat, hands-down. For a weekend errand lunch, you can’t beat a 109 Cheese & Wine sandwich….I can tell you a favorite for each craving!

Stephanie: Hmm….That’s a tough one. I can tell you where I eat most frequently these days. You will most likely find me weekly at Bodega, Valencia Luncheria, The Whelk, Rainbow Thai in Westport, Fortina in Armonk, The Spread and Match.

Fairfieldista: What else can we expect from the CT Bites team? Is there another book on the horizon?

Amy + Stephanie: Expansion. We have two new markets we are expanding to in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Fairfieldista: Where can people buy the book locally?

Amy: Local bookstores, online on Amazon and B&N, as well as Barnes & Noble in Milford and Westport, where we will be hosting two book signings in the coming months.

April 27: Barnes & Noble, Milford

May 17: Barnes & Noble, Westport

May TBD: 109 Cheese & Wine, Ridgefield

[Other events, To be scheduled but we are looking at Stamford and Norwalk]

Southern Comfort

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I am in love…with a watermelon margarita.  Refreshing and slightly sweet, with just a hint of mint.  Sound good?  You bet your grits it is! It’s one of the luscious libations on the cocktail menu at SoNo’s newest belle, Mama’s Boy Southern Table & Refuge that opened on North Water Street earlier this month.

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Mama’s Boy is not what you would expect when you think “Southern Food” – there are no overly saucy ribs that require a post-meal bath via wet-naps.  Instead, you’ll be treated to an entirely new experience; an inspired menu featuring southern comfort food with a modern twist.  Classics like shrimp and grits are interpreted in a bright, fresh new way – southern white shrimp is plated with Falls Mill grits, house smoked Tasso (a spicy, peppery pork), spring onion and creamy pimento gravy.  Get the idea?  This is low-country food done with high-style.

Similarly, the decor is sophisticated country.  Paneled in reclaimed wood sourced from a deconstructed Florence, South Carolina water-tower, and lit with modern industrial pendant lamps, the space is bright and airy.  Outdoor seating is punctuated with wooden boxes overflowing with bright, colorful flowers.  The bar features a marble top and a row of ruby covered metal bar-stools.  The environment feels like a warm embrace…a refuge from hectic everyday life.

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Mama’s Boy is Greer Fredericks baby.  A Stamford native, Fredericks has southern blood flowing through her veins – her family has deep roots in the South (she was named after the city of Greer, South Carolina – home of the famous Greer peach).  “I’ve always had a fondness for the South,” she explains, “I have a passion for the blues and have always been drawn to it – the Outer Banks, the Delta, Charleston, I’ve always felt a real connection with the area,” said Fredericks.

Although she’s spent her formative years in Connecticut, Fredericks seems to have inherited the gene for southern hospitality.  Her warm, welcoming personality is perfectly suited for her career in the restaurant industry – she’s worked in a number of local restaurants including Grand in Stamford and North Star in Pound Ridge.  Fredericks toyed with the idea of opening a southern-style “juke joint” somewhere in the area, but the timing and location just never seemed right.  Eighteen months ago, she had just accepted a position with the Hard Rock Hotel in Panama City, Panama.  After loading all her worldly possessions onto a barge in preparation for her move down “south” Fredericks discovered that she was pregnant and had pneumonia – and that was the end of her move.  She decided to take a time-out to decide what she really wanted to do.

Her soul-searching paid off – the restaurant space on North Water Street, right across from the Maritime Aquarium became available, “Everything happened very organically, there was a real synchronicity to it,” explains Fredericks.  Although it’s not the tiny juke-joint, she had been dreaming of, she seems to have a hit on her hands – on the three (yes, three! I told you I was in love with those watermelon margaritas!) occasions that I’ve been there, the restaurant has been buzzing and the food has been consistently delicious.

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The chef, Scott Ostrander, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, worked his way from his hometown in Albany, to major cities below the Mason-Dixon line: Alexandria, Charlotte, Savannah, and finally Jacksonville, before Fredericks enticed him to head North, “I lured him with the promise of Connecticut winters. I told him, ‘Picture yourself drinking hot-buttered rum by the fire’,” Fredericks jokes.  He’s from Albany, so I suppose our winters are mild compared to what he’s used to!

Ostrander, describes himself as a “born-again redneck” , but clearly, he has a sophisticated approach to southern food, “For the longest time, Southern chefs cooked anything but Southern food.  Now they’re embracing the south and using southern ingredients,” Ostrander explains.  He’s embraced the farm-to-table movement, exploring local farms and farmer’s markets and getting to know the farmers.  He says that about 70% of the ingredients that he uses in his kitchen are locally sourced.  The menu has options for vegetarians and 50% of the items are gluten-free or can be made gluten-free.

Remember that Frederick’s original inspiration was a juke-joint? Well, you don’t think a good ole’ southern girl would let her dream completely die?  Not at all – great music is part of what makes this place special.  On May 30, guitar great Andy Aledort and his band the Groove Kings will be playing their version of southern rock, jump blues, and funk.  And she’s just getting started, expect more great music this summer.

In creating Mama’s Boy Southern Table & Refuge, Fredericks said she wanted to create, “A safe-haven, a hideout, a place with a welcome-home mentality, it’s a state of mind.”  This is exactly the kind of southern comfort that Fairfield County needed.

Mama’s Boy Southern Table & Refuge – 19 North Water Street, South Norwalk  -203-956-7171    mamasboyct.com 

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