When I walk into Chestnut Fine Foods one weekday to ask if I can have a mosey around with my camera, co-owner Patty Walker suggests to me, “You must come inside the kitchen and see my mother, Eleanor. She 89 and still works 12 hours days twice a week.” Tucked at the back of the store kitchen, I meet a cheerful face methodically adding ingredients to a mixer. As I snap away she waves her hands in the air and laughs satirically, “Do I get a contract? Patty, she wants to give me a contract!”
Inside this humble kitchen – while Eleanor dances, Patty casually swans around throwing pork tenderloin into a pan and her husband Fred begins to mix together a batch of bread dough as if it’s second nature – you might be deceived that this is just a family having a little fun cooking together. But don’t be fooled by their relaxed air – this is a family of kitchen heavyweights. Patty and Fred have been running the business for 25 years since they both gave up their jobs to follow their passion for cooking and food.
Completely self-taught, they’ve relied on lots of trial and error and, “lots of tasting,” Patty tells me. “Lots and lots of tasting.” Whilst both are of Italian-American heritage, Patty and Fred try not to stick to one particular cuisine. In the retail portion of the store, you’ll always find a new array of prepared dishes available to eat in the quaint café, or to take home. On any day you might find stuffed Portobellos, sesame-crusted seared tuna toasts, chicken caprese, pearl couscous with grilled veggies, cannelloni, black bean chilli or eggplant parmigiana. “It changes depending on what produce is available and what is the freshest in the market,” Patty says. “If it doesn’t look good, I won’t buy it.” As much as possible, they use Connecticut grown produce and allow the menu to follow the season. Along with all their prepared foods, they offer Connecticut and imported cheeses as well as locally grown and bottled condiments and relishes. After cooking for 12 hours a day, I wonder what Patty eats when she returns home at night. “I love potato chips,” she laughs. “I could give you a list of all those too?”
Fred also bakes every morning to sate his loyal bread lovers, so I’m lucky to snag a loaf of his herb bread, a voluptuous and flavourful loaf flecked with caraway seeds. With a slather of Meadow Stone chèvre, a beautifully crafted local cheese that Patty suggests, and some of my homemade pesto, the fresh, moist bread is a perfect meal in itself. Chestnut also offers an irresistible selection of cakes, bars and cookies, including a no-flour chocolate mousse bar with chocolate ganache, Captain Morgan’s banana cream cake and – my choice – dense lemon bars. The richness of the curd and syrupy kick of the buttery crust made it the best lemon bar we’ve tried, period. Chestnut does cakes to order and will happily take requests for seasonal desserts – they’ve previously done English puddings, Hungarian breads and Italian holiday favourites.
While their shopfront is popular, catering makes up the larger part of their business. They’ve done weddings in Manhattan, on boats and in parks with no running water along with functions at Yale and in private residences. In fact, during October they are holding 30 farmer to chef dinners in 30 separate homes, creating dishes from produce provided by local farmers. They also help organize the Saturday State Street Farmers Market, where you can grab local Connecticut produce – and some of Chestnut’s baked goodies.
Despite their infatuation with food, Patty tells me it’s their connection with customers that matters most. She tells me of one customer that recently stopped in to the store. “She told me, ‘My dad’s going to be 100 soon – you remember when you did his 75th birthday!’ I know it sounds really corny, but we really do love them,” she says. “It doesn’t always have to be about the big fancy wedding, it’s just that you connect with somebody.”
1012 State Street
New Haven CT 06511
(203) 782 6767
Open seven days and available for catering