It’s been almost 20 years since Jeff Roberts last worked at WesWings, but the chef feels as if he has barely missed a beat. Having been employed at several other dining establishments in the interim, he carries with him new techniques and new recipes that he looks forward to implementing at WesWings. To gain further insight into his varied experiences in food service, The Argus sat down with Roberts to discuss life between his employment on campus, the skills he has since acquired, and his newfound passion for risotto.
The Argus: Where are you from? Did where you grew up play a role in your interest in the culinary arts?
Jeff Roberts: I’m from Waterbury, which isn’t too far from here…about 20 minutes away. As far as my interest in cooking, it was kind of something I fell into after I graduated high school. [WesWings] was one of my first jobs.
A: When did you last work at WesWings and for how long?
JR: I think it was from ’94 to ’96 or ’97, around those years.
A: Did you work only during the year? If so, did you do anything else related to cooking over the summer?
JR: That’s correct. I always had some sort of job going on [over the summer]. Middletown had two other restaurants back then, [one being] Eleanor Rigby’s. It was on Main Street downtown, and it was a gourmet deli that did a lot of soups, sandwiches, catering, and stuff like that.
A: And you would spend summers working there?
JR: Occasionally, yes. Not every year, but after they had started it, they gave me the option to help out there.
A: So what initially brought you to work at WesWings?
JR: It was a referral. One of my best friends was a WesWings chef, and he had gotten an offer at [The Westover School.] He was leaving, but he wanted to find a replacement for here. He also owned a restaurant in Waterbury and that’s where I knew him from, since I was a little kid. I lived in the neighborhood and I would go and ask him if they needed any odd jobs done, and they had me doing a little bit of prep. and I started working more and more for him, and he recommended that I come here.
A: What made you leave your first stint at WesWings?
JR: I was very young, probably 20 years old at that time, and I was interested in going back to school. I didn’t think I could stay up here and work and go to school at the same time. I went and gave school a shot, but I ended up going back to work anyway.
A: What were some of the things you did in between your two stints at WesWings?
JR: Most of the time I was doing cooking-related things. I was a chef for a few years at Bella Luna restaurant in Middlebury, Connecticut, and that changed over to different owners and a different name, La Dolce Vita. I also worked at Rumsey Hall School in Washington Depot, Conn.
A: What then made you decide to come back to WesWings?
JR: Two years ago, I heard that the chef here was leaving. I had a job in Wolcott at Bin 300, and that was my last job. Heidi [Heidkamp] used to come in and eat there and she was the manager of WesWings. She had heard from [founder] Karen [Kaffen-Polascik] that one of the WesWings chefs was leaving, so I contacted Karen and [co-founder] Ed [Thorndike], left them my resume, and wrote them a letter. Something else fell into place for them, but they kept my name on file. A month ago, Karen contacted me to see if I was still interested.
A: How did it feel being back here on your first day? Did you have to adjust to working at WesWings again?
JR: I got really comfortable really quickly. I was fortunate enough to have former chef Bill [Nardi] here for one week. He was able to walk me through how they were doing things, and if I had any questions he was right there to answer them, so it was a very smooth transition.
A: Now that you’re fully integrated back into the WesWings staff, how would you say working here is different the second time around?
JR: The dining area is definitely upgraded from how it once was. There used to be a couch, a coffee table, a huge TV. The patio area out front wasn’t there, but the kitchen area is still basically the same. I don’t think the Japanese maples outside grew at all… they’re the same size as they were when I was here 20 years ago. Those are just some things that I noticed.
A: Do you feel more confident in any particular skill than you did the last time you were employed at WesWings?
JR: Absolutely. I’ve worked with a lot of really good chefs. Some have studied in Italy and in France, and that’s where I got most of my skills from, by working side-by-side with some really talented chefs.
A: What skills are you most proud of that you’ve acquired?
JR: I would say the ability to use seasonal vegetables and to incorporate them in different ways. You can have different ingredients in a dish, but you can still taste each individual item in every dish.
A: Do you have any original recipes that you’ve brought to WesWings?
JR: I do! We’ve been doing risotto lately. Connecticut Magazine has a section where they give awards out and they recognize a restaurant for being the most romantic restaurant, the best Italian restaurant, the best French restaurant, and Bin 300 had the best risotto for three years in a row. Risotto is something that you can’t really prepare ahead of time, and if you did, it would just become a pasty, sticky mess. You kind of have to make small batches throughout the night and just have all of your ingredients ready, and that’s how I’ve been doing it to keep it fresh.
A: Does your risotto have different variations?
JR: Absolutely. There are so many different combinations you can use. I’ve only done it twice so far here, and it’s worked out very well. The first time I did it, it was with rock shrimp, corn, and crisp pancetta. The second time was with grilled chicken, zucchini squash, spinach, and grape tomatoes. Every time I do it, it will be a different combination. The next time, it’ll probably be with butternut squash.
A: What would you say is your favorite part about working at WesWings overall?
JR: My favorite part is that I just really enjoy it. I look forward to coming to work every day, and even though there are long days, I know that we’re going to have the breaks that the kids get, and that’s what I look forward to also. We work hard during the school year, but the rest of the year, we’re free to spend time with our families.