Meet Connecticut’s Best Chef: Renee Touponce and Her Amazing Dishes
Being considered for a James Beard Award is one of the greatest honors a restaurant or a chef can achieve. A great example is the work that Chef Sean Sherman and his flagship restaurant Owmani has achieved in the past few years here in the Twin Cities. In fact, Owamni was named Restaurant of The Year by the James Beard Foundation in 2022.
While I was in Connecticut, I was introduced to a person that was feted as a finalist for one of the James Beard Awards recently. Her name is Renee Touponce and she is the Executive Chef for both The Port of Call and the Oyster Club – both in Mystic.
Touponce was one of nominees for Best Chef Northeast in the 2023 James Beard Awards. She already was awarded the Connecticut Restaurant Association Chef of The Year for 2022.
The introduction to Torrington, Connecticut native Touponce was by the way her achievements as an LGBTQ+ Executive Chef. An invitation to meet her at the Oyster Club for a chat and to dine at The Port of Call was accepted.
Touponce’s culinary education came from the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vermont. From there, she rose through various kitchens across Connecticut for 20 years. That was until she and her partner considered looking for a place by the water. The historic seaport of Mystic became that place. First, it was the Oyster Club. The Port of Call opened up later.
What is the difference between the two restaurants that share a common narrow alleyway? “Oyster Club is a farm-to-table restaurant,” explained Touponce. “We source all of our ingredients local here from fishermen to Artisans. And then we also make everything here in-house. And our menu is ever-changing from whatever is coming in from our farms. We curate a menu that changes every day, and it features different fish, different pastas, different proteins. We break down whole animals and just do everything here in-house.”
“Then, Port of Call is our newest restaurant that’s going on a year and a half,” Touponce further explained. “The concept of that restaurant is a traveling ship from around the world. It focuses on port cities and its smaller plates, there are some larger plates and it’s cocktail-forward, so it’s a little more swanky, it’s much smaller than this space. And we get to do things such as like tamales and empanadas and papas rellenas and things that are a little more meticulous in the prep, but faster in the execution.”
Touponce recognizes that the Oyster Club and The Port of Call are “two very different worlds, but they definitely work hand-in-hand.” The staff usually switch between the two dining rooms and kitchens. Driving this is what makes Touponce an award-winning Chef. “I just learned as much as I could within this company to just better my skills and better my craft and make new relationships,” Touponce explained. “And then I feel as though that journey brought me to where I am now and being successful as the executive chef of Oyster Club. And then I was lucky enough to be a part of the curating process for our new restaurant and sit together with a group of amazing humans and create that space and that vision and make that come to life. And within a year of us being open over at Port of Call, so many great things have come to surface, and I feel like I was really able to put my imprint on that space because it wasn’t existing before me.”
In turn, Touponce finds inspiration that is rooted in her upbringing. As she explained, “I grew up in a mixed home of Puerto Rican Italian. So that’s where a lot of Latin American food comes to surface over there is from traveling to Puerto Rico with my stepfather and making this food in my home all the time. And then also my partner, she is Puerto Rican, and my chef de Cuisine, he’s from Bolivia and has spent some time in Peru. For our first menu, you see a lot of that style of cuisine because that’s who we are, that’s where we’ve traveled, where we’ve been, where we’ve experienced the most.”
“We wanted to make food that you eat,” continued Touponce, “almost like street food, food that you eat with your hands, food that you eat on the go, things that you see in stands and markets and can be shared, can be in different ways. And then using local ingredients to our area and re-imagining those as if you were at those ports is how we came together with all of that.”
What makes Touponce’s culinary creations very special? Take for example her take on a staple of American food – the hot dog. Forget what you think what a hot dog is when you are served this one! This American classic gets a special bao bun that seats the meat, with added flavor from a Bonito aioli, spicy kimchi, shallot and kelp crunch. The combination of which will change your perception of this American classic the next time you go to the ballgame.
Her creativity extends to dishes that are signatures that reflect the vibe at The Port of Call. Take a bowl of mussels, for example. Add a coconut Thai green curry and have the shells swim in them. The result is a great mix of a Thai curry and some delicious mussels. This is a creative take on two different types of cuisines melded into one fabulous meal.
You can cook Carne Asada various ways. Touponce takes the approach of taking a excellently cooked piece of steak and cutting them into small pieces larger than a quarter. The result is a delicious dish complimented by crispy sweet potato, mojo rojo, and lime. That is a main course you should have without question.
One thing that Touponce makes clear about her dishes at both restaurants are they are locally sourced from farms, fishermen and women, and other sources. The exception would be the citrus and a few other items that would have be brought in outside of New England. “We’re very fortunate to be in a place where we have so many great relationships with our farmers and produce is coming in every day,” explained Touponce, “especially now at the peak of summer. So we are definitely utilizing all those ingredients and using those on the menus.”
Along with the food, you get atmosphere. That evening at The Port of Call, we were treated to live jazz music. The place was buzzing that night.
Touponce did mention that the bar in the basement below The Port of Call’s main dining room, called the Dive, also hosts drag nights, as well.
Aside from the restaurants, the menus, and the team, Touponce made it clear the pride she has in being an LGBTQ+ Executive Chef. “I think first starting with being a woman, being a leader, and being in an executive role and also being queer,” explained Touponce. “I am very proud to be those things where before, even just being a woman in a kitchen and feeling accepted and having a voice was a hard journey to navigate through. So, to be a woman that’s a leader, but not just a woman leader, to just be recognized as a chef and to understand that, to be a good chef, to be a good leader, it doesn’t matter what your gender is, I think that is extremely important and something that I advocate for.”
“I feel like now more than ever,” concludes Touponce, “using my voice to advocate and support and stand up for my people and what is right is very, very important to me.”
When you’re in Mystic, Connecticut – or nearby – make sure to make reservations at either the Oyster Club and The Port of Call for an amazing culinary experience. And, make sure to compliment Executive Chef Renee Touponce and her staff!