“When I serve Cabbage in Cream, my men guests are ecstatic,” Helen Corbitt, then the Director of Restaurants for Neiman-Marcus, wrote in 1974.
Why they were ecstatic, I have no idea. The recipe gives no indication it should be appealing to anyone. It does, however, give us an idea of how much food (and society) has changed in the past 50 years. We’ve made considerable strides since hostesses cooked Ham Steak with Onion Gravy for dinner parties and Fettuccine Alfredo was a revolutionary new dish from Rome. Not “Italy.” From “Rome.”
In and around Westport, the past 10 years have shown considerable change in dining; it’s fair to say we’ve become a hot spot for innovative chefs. This reputation is partly due to CTBites.com, a popular foodie blog started by Stephanie Webster 11 years ago. With little competition, the site went gangbusters and is now considered the go-to for finding the next great meal.
Westport Lifestyle: Why are great restaurants popping up in Westport?
Stephanie Webster: We’re a sophisticated audience of migrant New Yorkers. People here like to take chances with food and are excited about trying different things. Ten years ago, menus were old-school, but now they’re Korean, Ethiopian, Japanese, Mexican - cuisine the chefs are passionate about. A chef’s job is to push us to try new things. (Brian) Lewis lived in Japan to study Japanese cuisine, and (Bill) Taibe has been passionate for years about Mexico.
Dining is huge because it’s our entertainment for the night, so people want something that wows them.
WL: How has social media impacted restaurants?
SW: Instagram is absolutely pivotal in changing the food scene, creating outrageous, visually stunning food. Chefs follow each other and know the trends. They also create dishes that photograph nicely; so much of food you eat with your eyes.
WL: What role, if any, does our Farmers Market play in all of this?
SW: The Farmers Market has an enormous influence on fresh food. The brilliance and drive of Laurie Cochran in the farm-to-table movement makes it easier for chefs to access and use local farms and products.[Laurie] even kept it open during isolation so farms could be open for sales.
WL: We witness the rise and demise of so many eateries here. What is the “secret sauce” for a successful restaurant?
SW: Westport’s a tough audience. People are picky, they have opinions, and they expect the very best. To succeed, the owners have to be strong business people and make sure the front of house and back of house are running seamlessly.
I tell chefs “go through a soft opening.” If a dish is too slow or salty [diners] tell their friends and don’t go back.
I get texts all the time from readers, “I’m going to Hoodoo Brown BBQ. Do you know if they have anything for a vegan gluten-free dinner?” And, “I just ate at XXX restaurant you had written about last year. I did not see the bone marrow entrée you mentioned. I was very disappointed to not find it on the menu.” I mean… it had been almost a year, lady.
WL: Yeah. Westporters are a tough audience. What’s the biggest complaint you hear from restaurant owners about us?
SW: Chefs are always happy to make substitutions or accommodate diets, but sometimes diners go too far and compromise the dish. That’s the biggest complaint. Also, some people who go to the same restaurant often expect to be treated in a certain way, like demanding a table or walking in without a mask.
WL: How has Covid impacting the industry?
SW: It’s fascinating to watch what they’re doing during Covid. There’s only so much outdoor seating, so they’re focusing on good meals that are also good for takeout, figure out packaging and make sure it travels well.
And there’s a lot of excitement for less conventional, fun instagram-worthy food trucks.
WL: I love the trucks.
SW: I do, too.