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In the Kitchen: Catching on

Native Bostonian inspired by New England's seasonal delights

Martha's Vineyard restaurant presents Catch chef with
    new challenges. - Photo courtesy of Catch Restaurant
By Joan M. Lang
April 01, 2008

You might say that Chris Parsons has made seafood a lifetime study. The chef and owner of two Catch restaurants went on his first Cape Cod fly-fishing expedition at the age of 1, harnessed in a backpack on his father's back, and he hasn't strayed far from the water since.

"I grew up with seafood, and it's a big part of how I feel about New England and its food," says Parsons. "I wanted to reflect that in my restaurants."

Growing up in Boston and summering with his outdoor- and fishing-centric family on Cape Cod, Parsons grew up on the water. Although his professional training has taken him to Colorado and New York, he has resided in Boston since 1996, opening Catch Restaurant in suburban Winchester, Mass., in 2003 and coming full circle with the opening of Catch at the Terrace in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard last year. Both menus are inspired by the bounty of the local seasons, and both are prix fixe.

"The thing I like about cooking with seafood is that you can make it fast and simple, or you can take more time and prepare it with finesse," says Parsons. "It fits my style of cooking."

With experience has come an ability to pair seafood with bold ingredients and layered flavors, producing signature dishes like Wellfleet Oyster Pan Roast with peperonata, corn, Yukon potato, potato-chive biscuit and finnan haddie veloute, and Pan Seared Maine Scallops with soybeans, roasted pineapple, celery root puree, braised short rib ravioli and curry oil.

Look closely: There are references to New England clam chowder in the pan roast, and Asian influences in the scallop dish. Both recipes offer a window into the chef's creative process.

Another popular dish, which was created with the help of chef de cuisine Frank Francione, has a middle European tie-in: Black Bass, with corn-potato pierogi, maitaki mushroom, golden beets, seared cabbage and beet puree. New Brunswick Mussels, meanwhile, show clear evidence of the Portuguese tradition in Massachusetts, served with chorizo, tomato confit and lobster broth.

"I work with the whole plate, not just the fish," notes Parsons. "The sauces, accompaniments, garnishes, vegetables and starches. Each dish is conceived as a whole." And the menus at both restaurants change seasonally, if not day-by-day.

"You have to be flexible when you're working with seafood," he says. "One day monkfish might be tight because the fishing's been bad, or because your fish guy calls you up to say the snapper's looking especially good."

Over the years, Parsons has cultivated his suppliers judiciously, and he credits good relationships and open lines of communication with the success he's had in getting the best possible products. He works a lot with Browne Trading in Portland, Maine. But with the opening of Catch at the Terrace, Parsons has been trying to buy directly from local mongers whenever possible.

In fact, one of the reasons why he jumped at the chance to open a restaurant in Edgartown - other than to live and work on the Vineyard in the summer - is the ability to buy his ingredients in a truly local fashion. In season, he shops every day at the local farmers' markets, and he buys lobsters from Menemsha lobsterman and oysters from Sweet Neck Farm, although he's been somewhat stymied by lack of availability.

"It's interesting. You'd think that because you're surrounded by water on the Vineyard, there'd be loads of fresh seafood," says Parsons. "But because the market's so touristy, you have these big restaurants that buy pounds and pounds of fish, and I've been shut out sometimes."

Parsons hopes that by next year he'll have more clout with Vineyard fishermen and suppliers.

As befits its location in an upscale hotel, Catch at the Terrace - located in The Charlotte Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property - has a more ambitious and luxurious menu. The $68 prix fixe menu might include a choice of appetizers such as Sweet Neck Farm Oysters or Peekytoe Crab Salad. Entrées run the gamut from Herb Roasted Cod to Wild Striped Bass.

The prix fixe format has been so successful in Edgartown that Parsons has introduced prix fixe to the original Winchester restaurant, at three courses for $45.

"I'm not in business in either of these restaurants to do lots of turns," he explains. "I want to prepare the very best food I can and give my customers a wonderful experience."

He has found that prix fixe allows people to be more experimental and enjoy more courses. Once they've bought into the notion of a set number of courses by coming to the restaurant in the first place they're not constrained by the prices of individual items, ordering a salad because it's a few dollars cheaper when what they really want is oysters, he says.

"And from a business perspective, prix fixe makes each seat more valuable," explains Parsons, because you don't have people who are ordering just an entrée. This allows him to have one solid turn in each dining room and still make his nut. It allows him to keep a pastry chef employed because he knows every table will have dessert. It even helps with timing reservations.

As for balancing food costs and margins for overall profitability, there's a lot more give-and-take between the different menu listings.

"If I have real luxury ingredients on one dish, I can make it up with things that are less costly somewhere else," he says. And if he does want to offer something extraordinary, like caviar, foie gras or whole lobster, he can always charge a supplement.

Now that Parsons has had two restaurants for almost a year, he's delighting in the cross-pollination between the two menus. Dishes that work out at one restaurant can be retooled at the other one.

"As chefs, we fall in love with certain recipes," he says. "But maybe our customers don't respond the same way. I tried the oyster pan roast out at the Terrace but the customers weren't raving. But it's so popular in Winchester that I'd have trouble taking it off the menu."

After all, operating in two different markets is why the chef opened a second restaurant.

"It gives us more opportunity to be creative," says Parsons, "and please our customers."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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