Three Interviews with Connecticut James Beard Award Semifinalists

Amy Kundrat

Chefs Tyler Anderson, Bill Taibe, and Joel Viehland were recently recognized by the James Beard Foundation as semifinalists in the 2015 Best Chef: Northeast category. On the occasion of their nomination, we asked each of them to answer a few questions, from the serious (key influences and mentors) to the hypothetical (a CTbites blank check to open a new restaurant).

Want to know where Chef Tyler Anderson's next restaurant could be, who Chef Viehland would love to cook for, and who is one of Chef Taibe's biggest influences (hint: he is a chef in one of his kitchens)? 

Read on for this and more from three of Connecticut's best chefs.

Tyler Anderson - Millwright's, Simsbury, CT

Congratulations on being named as a 2015 James Beard Foundation semifinalist. What does this recognition mean to you? Ever since I was a young cook winning a James Beard Award has been a goal of mine. I have been fortunate enough to work for some great Chefs who were winners themselves, and needless to say I wanted to be like them. Being nominated as a semifinalist the last two years lets me know we are on the right track to winning the award, it’s time now to push a little harder to reach the next level of voting. It’s also great to be included with Joel and Bill two really great chefs. I also love that CT had three nominees this year. There is certainly something great brewing here in the CT restaurant scene.

Millwright's location inside a historic 17th century mill seems intrinsically tied to your New England "sophisticated comfort food" menu. How important is place and history to your culinary approach? The space and history mean everything. If a cooking concept is forced on a location that doesn’t “vibe”, there is always a disconnect in the experience. Great restaurants tell a great story and our goal is to make Millwright’s a great restaurant. Although I am originally from Southern Ca. and have worked all over the country, New England is my favorite place to cook and live. I love it here and now it’s my home, so it felt natural to create a New England restaurant.

Who were some of your mentors as a chef? I have been fortunate enough to work for many great chefs, but I consider Sarah Stegner (two time James Beard Award winner) and George Bumbaris (Bocuse D Or finalist) my two main mentors. I was fortunate enough to work for them at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago and then to go open their own restaurant Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook Il. Chef Sarah taught me to purchase great local product and cook it the best way I knew how and Chef George taught me a lot about old school, lost art French technique and some about the business side of running a restaurant.

CTbites just handed you a (hypothetical) blank check to open a new restaurant in Connecticut. Where and what will it be? If the check you are handing me could cover a loss every year :) then I would open a 24 seat tasting menu only restaurant in New Haven, an atelier of sorts. If we are trying to open a financially viable restaurant then I open a California Cuisine restaurant in West Hartford. Lots of cooking over wood, simple, delicious, relatively healthy food, with a crazy raw bar and charcuterie program.

Joel Viehland - Community Table in Washington, CT

Congratulations on being named as a 2015 James Beard Foundation semifinalist. What does this recognition mean to you and the Community Table team? It's a huge honor for all of us that are nominated. To be considered among the top 20 in our region is great recognition for all our hard work. I'm happy we're not the only ones from Connecticut selected.

You've been at the helm of the Community Table for 5 years. What do you think sets Community Table apart in CT?  It's been 5 years so far and I think we've been very fortunate to have great ownership who support the concept by choosing to purchase only from local farms. Also we like to cultivate a spirit of creativity in our kitchen by changing the menu as often as possible and allowing our cooks to get involved in the creative process. We also try not to take ourselves too seriously.

You've lived and cooked in very different parts of the world, from New Orleans to Denmark. How would you describe your culinary approach and how have these locations influenced you at Community Table? Of course everywhere I've been contributes to what I cook. Milwaukee and Chicago taught me the roots of Italian and German cuisine which is the foundation of everything I do. New York taught me how to develop my palate and respect for ingredients. New Orleans taught me depth of flavor and complex spice work. Denmark taught me restraint, and subtle sophistication at a very high level.

What's your winter menu like these days, what are you most excited about? Lots of braises and comfort food. Working on some new soups that I'm excited about.

If you could cook for anyone in the world, who would it be? This is a tough one. I really want to cook for all my former chefs who have helped me along the way. To have them all in one room and to be cooking for them would bring me great happiness.

Bill Taibe - LeFarm, Whelk, Kawa Ni, Westport, CT

Congratulations on being named as a 2015 James Beard Foundation semifinalist. What does this recognition mean to you and your team? I have been nominated 4 times now, but for some reason this one is the most satisfying. I have 3 restaurants with 3 different chefs, doing 3 different styles of cooking. All following the basic rules of our mission, but all different none the less. 

Arik Bensimon (LeFarm), Anthony Kostelis (The Whelk) and Jeff Taibe (Kawa Ni) have all worked so hard to make these unique and individual restaurants successful. I accept the nomination for all of us.

This includes our amazing cooks, waiters and waitresses, bus staff, bartenders, host and hostess’s. There is an amazing group of people supporting these crazy ideas I have. They never say no, and they always accept and reach for the goals we have set for ourselves.

Kawa Ni is your newest restaurant. Tell us about why you decided to open a Japanese-inspired restaurant, after your successes at leFarm and Whelk? We wanted to learn something new. It is different than what we are used to. We needed a challenge. I have always loved the Asian food culture. All aspects and areas of it (respect, tradition, perfection). I thought Japanese would be a great place to start.

Tell us a bit about your style of cooking. How can I tell when I walk into leFarm, Whelk, or KawaNi, that Bill Taibe is behind the menu? Ingredient driven menu. All 3 restaurants are built on the same model. Best ingredients we can buy prepared the best way we know at the current time. We are always learning, evolving and developing new ways to cook. I love the passion I see in this company right now. We have some pretty F’in talented people doing some pretty cool stuff. Food and bar.

What and who are some of your biggest influences (cooking or otherwise?) I really try and create relationships with the people who supply us with the tools to work. I like to know as much as I can about everything we serve. We put a lot of trust in people. When we buy fish it’s because someone told us it was the best they have or when we buy bread we need to trust that they will deliver a product we are proud to serve. I have always looked at myself as a buyer. I am the middle man in a sense. I cook what you give me. Arik Bensimon (LeFarm) is the best at this. I have never met a chef who can do some much with so little. We have been working together for many years now, and I am always so impressed with his ability to make something taste so good so easily.

Why is Fairfield, County and/or Connecticut a great place to be a chef and restaurant owner? This is becoming a great place to be in the restaurant business. Our local agriculture is getting stronger and more efficient. More cooks are coming into the area for a less hectic way of life. But the obvious reason would be the amazing supportive customer base we have built since opening LeFarm. We love our customers. I am so proud to see the relationships that have been made between staff, customer, vendor, farmer, grower. There is something special happening and I am just thrilled to be a part of it.

CTbites just handed you a (hypothetical blank check to open a new restaurant in Connecticut. Where and what will it be? I can’t tell you that. ;)