Norwalk Aquarium Chef Among “Best Chefs You’ve Never Heard Of”
NORWALK, C.T. When you’ve been working in the hospitality field for 36 years, it might seem more like a dig than a compliment to be named one of the 10 best chefs in America “you’ve never heard of” by a foodie blog. “I was definitely tickled,” says Brad Stabinsky of the honor bestowed on him by The Braiser last year. “But I didn’t take it as a backhanded compliment because I never strived to be a celebrity chef. I think the best thing I can be is an educator, so I have always taken the most pride in my mentorships. I’ve worked hard, but I was never looking to get rich from the work or to sign autographs,” the 55-year-old chef says with a grin.
We caught up with Stabinsky during a break just before the lunch rush at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk where the executive chef from Stratford, CT juggles the kid-friendly sandwiches, chicken fingers and soups in the sleek cafeteria with the elegant meals that are served at the catered events thrown in the museum of the sea. The Maritime Aquarium has become a popular site for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social occasions that can gain an extra bit of pizzazz by being held after hours in the beautiful museum, with food overseen by one of the state’s best chefs.
Stabinsky came to Norwalk after a celebrated run at the bistro at the Chamard Vineyards in Clinton, where diners and critics raved about everything from the chef’s special lamb chops (served with pomegranate-laced red wine and a puree of celery root and parsnip) to the hugely popular Four Mile River Burger. In its citation, Braiser made it clear that Stabinsky brings his “A-game” to every dish, but “leaves annoying at the door” and noted that he is “at the top of his game, respected by (his) peers and, most importantly, (has) a cooking heart” without selling his soul to “the TV devil.”
You only have to spend a few minutes with the amiable chef in his kitchen, guiding his staff in the early prep for an event two nights later, to see what the food blog meant about his combination of graciousness and skill. Stabinsky would rather talk about what he calls “generational cuisine” than the food fads that have come and gone over the past four decades. He cites major food trends like the arrival of the lighter French nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s and the new informality at high-end eateries spearheaded in the 1990s by such restaurateurs as Danny Meyer at the Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan.
The chef, who studied at the Beringer Vineyards’ School for American Chefs and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California was also an early adopter of the farm-to-table movement and the near obsession with finding the perfect wine for each meal.
One of the trends that Stabinsky benefited from was the rise of the American chef in the 1970s and 1980s. “When I was coming up, I worked with talented European chefs before Americans started gaining the respect they deserved. It was a time when (French) haute cuisine dominated and it could be difficult to get some of the ingredients.” Stabinsky saw the importance of the arrival of nouvelle cuisine, which simplified and lightened traditional French cooking. “That wasn’t a fad, it was a whole different way of looking at food. When done right, it was a beautiful thing. … That was a generational change.”
After more than three decades of working in restaurants, Stabinsky was ready for a big shift last year, when Culinart Group hired him for its Philip Stone Caterers division at the Norwalk Aquarium. “I did it primarily because I’m 55 and decided that I wanted to spend more time with my wife of 30 years. … I decided as I looked at the next 15 to 25 years of my career life, I didn’t want to kill myself,” he says of leaving the Clinton bistro, where 75-hour weeks were standard. At the aquarium, Stabinsky has been able to oversee the preparation of great food, as well as being an advocate of the continuing culinary education he has always believed in.
One of the chef’s favorite projects last year was a delicious demonstration of the dangers of invasive fish species. The so-called “lion fish” that are kept under control by predators in their native Southeast Asia have exploded in numbers in U.S. waters, where their venomous spines make them invulnerable. “It was a way to have fun and to educate people about invasive species,” Stabinsky says of the 25 pounds of lion fish ceviche that was served in martini glasses next to a tank filled with live lion fish. “It was very tasty,” the chef reports. “It has a texture like tilapia and a pleasant mineral finish.”
Stabinsky laughs when I ask if we might see this delicacy turn up at Whole Foods in the near future. “I doubt that because there is a lot of prep time where you have to be very careful because it’s a venomous fish. It has 26 spines, 18 of which are poisonous and as sharp as hypodermic needles. You need to wear heavy gloves when you prepare them.”
As the chef heads back into his kitchen, I ask him what he would eat if he knew his next meal was his last. Stabinksy gives me a wry look and laughs. “So much would depend on my mood that day. Lamb is my favorite meat, though, so I would probably want a perfectly roasted Colorado rack of lamb with a nice bourdeaux. Then adios.”