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Monday, December 17 Restaurants

Q&A: Westport chef is a James Beard Award semifinalist

Each year, the James Beard Foundation receives thousands of entries for its annual James Beard Awards, which honor people and businesses in all aspects of the food world from chefs and restaurants to media.

They have been called the "Oscars of the food world." This year, Westport's own Chef Brian Lewis of The Cottage is in the running for best chef in the northeast. Lewis is a semifinalist and will find out on March 14 if he goes on to the next round.

We caught up with him:

Q. How did you find out you were a semifinalist?

A. I’ve been kind of keeping my head down. I’m opening a new restaurant and The Cottage is so busy. I wasn’t waking up and checking online. I was working out at the Y one day and my publicist called me a couple times…and I didn’t answer, and she sent a text saying ‘you were nominated for best chef northeast.’

Q. How did it feel?

A. I was like Cuba Gooding Jr. screaming in the movie; I just let out a big “yeah!” It’s like a moment of disbelief. In life, you try for things and you want them and often it’s elusive. Opening a second restaurant and cottage is so busy. Even being nominated feels as much as I could ever ask for.

Q. What is it about your cooking that you think landed you on the list?

A. Strong depth of flavor and exploration. And staying delicious and being delicious. That’s the one word that has to speak on every plate, every bite. I don’t want it good; I want it excellent, great, delicious. The Cottage was a perfect canvas for me. My wife said ‘you need to find a little spot where you’re in there your sleeves rolled up and you’re cooking all day and night. It’s imperative and essential that I am in there cooking with my team.

I would be nowhere without my staff. I have an incredibly talented team. I can cook my butt off but there are so many pieces to the puzzle and they just do such a good job.

 

Q. What does this mean for your career and what will it mean if you make it as a finalist?

A. The Cottage is the reason I can open a new restaurant., and Westport and the surrounding area has been so supportive. It further validates and affirms what you’re doing. It rallies you around cooking deeper and stronger and looking for ways to better your work. I think that’s exactly what it’s doing for me. I’m opening this new Japanese restaurant in Westport, and I’m so delighted for The Cottage to have this recognition. And it will bring so much more should I go forward.

Q. What can you say about the new restaurant?

A. It will be opening in early spring. The location is just perfect and it compliments The cottage in a historic firehouse across the river. It has a big open kitchen and really charming and lively environment. It’s all exposed brick and has a cool industrial vibe. We added the right Japanese warmth.

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Q. Tyler Anderson of Millwright’s in Simsbury, CT is also a semifinalist.

A. Have you eaten there? I have known about his reputation. I have not made it there yet, plan to take my wife. I made sure to call him and congratulate him; he’s been up there on the list a couple times.

Q. How does it feel to see two Connecticut chefs on the list?

A. I think its amazing – I worked in NYC for seven or eight years and California and Europe. I truly believe many chefs in this area are doing work that is on par with NYC without any hesitation .

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