Stephen Toevs (pronounced tay-vz) is the new Executive Chef at Bistro 24 at the Ritz-Carlton.
Originally from Bristol, Rhode Island, from an ethnically Portuguese family, Toevs cycled through a variety of jobs and career prospects from petroleum to construction before he set his sights definitively on the world of professional cooking. And he's been unstoppable ever since, attempting to speak to his customers and to help them create memories through every meal. This week he shares his personal philosophy, aspirations for tweaking the menu and starting a competitive barbecue team at the Ritz, and a family recipe.
First things first, many people are wondering what you'll be changing on the Bistro 24 menu.
I haven't been able to make any changes to the menu but I will in September and have an official roll-out in October.
Is the Cobb salad staying?
Yes, that's a power lunch staple that has to stay. I won't touch lunch and breakfast. I'll tweak it a bit, some things that are not moving, some things that are. But I really want to start with dinner. Dinner's my opportunity to say, "Hey, here I am."
Phew, we were really worried about the Cobb salad, are you a fan yourself?
When I came here to interview for the first time we had lunch at that table and I ordered the Cobb salad. I always order a Cobb salad cause it's like, "I want to see how they do it!" And the Cobb salad here is really good....The two interviewers, they ate like crazy, I ate like nothing. I had two bites. I went home, I was so hungry and dehydrated.
How come you're not touching lunch?
[Lunch is] a power lunch with lots of regulars so you have to almost ask the regulars what they want to see on the menu and what they don't. Otherwise they're just going to order whatever they want anyway and we're going to give it to them. There's things on the dinner menu that are going to definitely stay, like the steak au poivre, but I want to make frites better. The margarita pizza will stay, but I want to tweak that a little bit.
How do you know a power lunch when you see one?
You'll always know a power lunch because they only eat half their food and one person's always talking, while the other person's eating....Or one person talks the whole time, the other person just eats, and that food goes in the garbage or gets put in a to-go box....They definitely prefer the sushi, because it's light, and sushi has almost become a kind of comfort food. Burgers and sandwiches because they're easy to eat, they don't require a knife, they don't require small pieces....Salads, definitely a power lunch staple.
All right, so tell us what you bring to the table.
My style of food, it changes very often. Right now it would be New American Regional because of all the places I've lived. I like to take all the things from where I've lived and of course my childhood, and put them on paper in a new creative way.
You mentioned that you're from a Portuguese family, what makes Portuguese food special?
I would have to say that Italian food and Mediterranean food and Spanish food are very similar, but Portuguese food really emphasizes on fresh seafood and really, really clean flavors. Lots of olive oil, olives, dried cod, anything fresh from the sea. When my great-grandfather came over from the Azores, a huge population of Portuguese people settled in the Fall River, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Rhode Island area. When they all came over, they came over from the islands and they were all fishermen by trade
John Child Jr.
When I was like ten years old or eleven years old, I set up a movie camera in my basement, and I imitated Julia Child making - in a Julia Child voice - I called myself John Child Jr. and I made conch soup, cause my dad was boiling conchs on the side. And I did this whole thing where I imitated Julia Child and I made "snail soup".
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I was 15 years old, I asked my Dad for money and he was like "No, I'm not going to give you any more money, you need to get a job. I have a friend that works in a restaurant and he needs help." So I worked at this fish and chips place, in this two-compartment sink and I washed dishes
So did you always want to get into the restaurant business?
I left home to move away to go to college in Ohio to study petroleum engineering. I studied petroleum engineering for about a year and a half, and I played rugby at [Marietta Collge] which is a division three school. I pretty well damaged my knee and I had to come home, and I was in a lot of pain so it was time to get surgery. At the same time I was really naive about student loans and what it cost to go to that school. It was a private liberal arts college. It was extremely expensive for a middle class family and I was on my own. So I didn't know that I was racking up huge amounts of debt. So I didn't return back to that school, however I did do an internship with Texaco out in the Gulf of Mexico, like I was fully immersed in the petroleum program even as a freshman going into my sophomore year.
Find out how Stephen Toevs eventually became a chef in the second part of our interview tomorrow.