What happens when a chance meeting unites two chefs who are madly passionate about food? Café 56 is born. Those who have been lucky enough to visit this intimate restaurant are familiar with the hand-lettered chalkboard featuring the daily specials, soft music playing in the background, and warm welcome from chef and owner Sabrina Cortes and pastry expert Ed Thereault. Only then does the food come in: a melange of fresh, interesting ingredients that are combined into creative dishes that Cortes has labeled “food of the Americas.”
We wrote about Cafe 56 last year, with a full review of their exceptional cuisine and unique atmosphere, but this time, we wanted to get to know the people behind the magic, especially resident pastry chef, Ed Thereault.
Wesstuffed: Ed, how did you meet Sabrina and decide to team up to open a café?
Ed: Well, I was a florist for 25 years before I decided to go into the culinary field. The flower industry has changed a lot since the. In Connecticut, there used to be 600 flower shops; now, there are only about 200. I decided to go to culinary school because food was always important in my family. I have very fond memories of my grandmother cooking wonderful things. I met Chef Sabrina when I enrolled in the Connecticut Culinary Institute. She was the savory foods instructor. I never studied with her, so the first time we spoke was when I asked her for advice on what to serve at my wedding!
Sabrina: Ed and I seriously met around Christmas of 2011 in a grocery store. We knew of each other, but not well. It turned out that he was my neighbor, and after the wonderful conversation in the grocery store, I offered him a job here as the pastry chef.
WesStuffed: Ed, why did you choose baking and confectionery instead of savory?
Ed :I honestly love all cooking, and could not decide which to do. So, I literally flipped a coin – tails for pastry, heads for savory. Clearly it landed on tails, and here I am!
WesStuffed: How do you come up with ideas for those amazing desserts?
Ed: When I make things, I simply imagine what would make people happy when they eat. I believe that cooking is exactly like floristry. You have raw materials that have a certain value to them, but no one wants me to give them a sack of flour, a bag of sugar, and a stick of butter to go make their own muffins. They want me to transform those raw materials into something more beautiful. It’s the same thing with flowers: trying to work with a perishable material to make a lasting memory – that’s what I’m always thinking. A flower arrangement dies within a week or two; a bite of food is gone the moment it’s eaten. Making food, making pastries, it’s about creating those moments for people, so that when they bite into something, it’s special.
WesStuffed: How do you ensure that your creations are consistently good every day?
Ed: You know, when I first started baking, I was terrible at it. I made horrible piecrust, for example. I was upset, because my mother, who doesn’t even cook, made better crust that I did. I went out and bought ten pounds of butter, and tons of flour, and just practiced. Now, I make “perfect” pie crust (with perfect being subjective of course; perfect to me and many people who eat it.) Obsessive practice and dedication will always reflect in the food. After a while, the process becomes second nature, so now I don’t have to consciously think about what I’m doing, but rather play on new flavor combinations and new foods to make.
WesStuffed: It says on your website that you source “fresh, local ingredients.” How does that affect your seasonal menus?
Sabrina: Because this is a small-scale restaurant, I source all of my produce myself and try to keep as much of it as possible local. When I need to, I go very early in the morning to a grocery store by the gates of Hartford so that everything is as fresh as possible. No produce lasts more than two days here, and all the bread that we don’t make ourselves is also local.
WesStuffed: Do you incorporate a lot of vegan and vegetarian food into your menu? There seem to be a lot of Wesleyan students that practice vegan lifestyles, and having a vegan-friendly place in Middletown would be a great draw!
Sabrina: We are very vegetarian friendly. One of our daily offerings is the Rio Grande salad. It contains fresh greens, beans and rice, and avocadoes. We offer a vegetarian tacandwich every day too. Generally, for every meat offering, we try to have a vegetarian offering. On Fridays, especially, we emphasize meatless or seafood dishes and vegetarian foods. If you really think about it, cuisine of the Americas is very vegetarian! In my opinion, vegetables have much more flavor than meat, and the true beauty of cooking is to bring out flavors in vegetables that people didn’t know existed.
WesStuffed: What are your plans for the future for Cafe 56?
Sabrina: Right now, we are still focused on summer cuisine. People don’t want heavy, carby, and calorific food in the summer; so, we’re focusing on lots of salads and grilled foods. We also have frozen desserts and fruits every day. In the future, we’re considering bottling our dressings and sauces, because many people have asked about that. It’s tricky though, because produce changes character so often! A lemon in May does not have the same sourness as a lemon in December, for example.
Ed: Something we’ve been doing and continue to develop is a monthly dinner (on most days the restaurant only serves breakfast and lunch). Usually, we do it on the second Friday of the every month. We pick a different place in the Americas to showcase, and it allows us to make foods that we can’t do for lunch or breakfast. It also exposes people to new dishes. So far, we’ve done Peruvian, Guatemalan, Louisiana Creole, and Mexican food, among others. This month, on August 2nd, we are going to have a Caribbean meal. There are two seatings, one at 6:00, and one at 8:00, and it’s very affordable, with the entire three or four course meal plus tax coming out to $25. The atmosphere in the restaurant for dinner is like a party, and so it’s really fun!
WesStuffed: What defines the food philosophy of Café 56?
Ed: We want people to enjoy their food; to not only eat it, but to remember it. A lot of what we do is trying out new things and finding out what people like. For example, Chef Sabrina made a nopales (cactus leaf) salsa once. Nopales is not something that most Americans have experience with, so we didn’t know what kind of response they would get, but when the plates came back, they were clean! All of the salsa was gone! It felt great to know that our customers loved the food and that it made them, well, happy. Making people happy: that’s what it’s all about.
Sabrina: Ed and I are here before 5 AM, every day. In the winter, we don’t see any light, because we are here before sunrise and stay until after sunset, but it’s worth it. We are dedicated to making good food and providing service, so that when people leave, they feel happier.
-Anh Van ’14
102 Court Street, Middletown, CT 06457