Chef Brian Lewis at home in The Cottage
Updated 2:59 pm, Friday, February 17, 2017
Brian Lewis is a celebrity chef, even without his own cooking show, and his star has only grown brighter since he started cooking out of The Cottage in Westport a little more than a year ago.
But rave reviews, like the excellent he got from the New York Times last April, can only tell so much. For instance, he and his wife, Dana, have twin sons, Jude and Jax, who turn 3 in March and who got their first haircuts in the barbershop that had been next door.
The haircut detail is relevant because just before Christmas the Cottage expanded into the barbershop, adding a 10-seat bar and a 10-seat window banquette. Lewis says the option to lease the barber space was crucial to his original decision to accept chef Bill Taibe’s flattering invitation to buy what had been the 36-seat Le Farm.
Lewis squeezed in a few more seats, but not enough to satisfy his ambitions. “Forty seats, that’s a starter restaurant,” he says. Lewis has been running restaurants all around the country since his mid-20s, most notably at actor Richard Gere’s Bedford Post Inn in nearby New York.
“What I did at Richard’s place, that was like a Ph.D. in being a luxury chef,” Lewis says, explaining he was involved in the “ideation” of the inn’s two restaurants. “In a sense it was too much, because it was unlike what I have now. I’m fully immersed in just cooking my ‘blank’ off.”
As if to prove the point, Lewis conducted the late-afternoon interview while chopping nuts for the evening’s dessert, Bittersweet Chocolate and Praline Crunch, a pleasure he later described as a “daily ritual that has become a real joy.”
Lewis exudes vitality, which he says comes from having twin sons at home and a rigorous exercise program he shares with his wife, a nurse (and who, like him, is the child of a nurse).
They work out at the same cross-fit club in Norwalk, and Lewis has vowed that for his birthday in June he and some friends will do a Tough Mudder. The fact that Lewis’ explanation of a Mudder — “a 10- to 12-mile obstacle race where you electrocute yourself” — is fairly accurate and that he is attracted to that kind of challenge is relevant to his career.
First, there’s the sheer physical stamina the kitchen demands. “I mean this business has its reputation for the right reasons,” he says. “It’s very tough, very demanding. But if people say it’s tough to be working nights and weekends, I’d say, ‘No, it’s tough getting up to be working at a desk 9-to-5.’”
Lewis says he acquired this “total passion of mine” at age 13, when he was sidelined by a football injury and wound up working at the three-star Mona Trattoria near his home in Somers, N.Y. His interest in the Mudder suggests his affinity for adventure, for what’s new. He met his wife, who is originally from Newfoundland, Canada, where she was camped temporarily as a traveling nurse, and where he had gone because he could find work near beaches. Once married, they settled in Scottsdale, Ariz., where in the early 2000s Lewis ran restaurants, the Greene House and the Vu, that emphasized farm-to-table and so-called modern American cuisine.
Now he has reached a place where he can reject labels. “What would modern be?,” he asks, yawning to emphasize his boredom. “Contemporary is just another word for modern. And farm-to-table? I’m painfully over that phrase.”
He says he recently insisted to one food writer, “I’m an American chef, and by that virtue I’m going to be cooking my cooking and it’s American.”
At the same time, he continues to emphasize local or specially sourced food. One of his favored produce suppliers, listed under Friends on the Cottage website, is Millstone Farm, a neighbor in Wilton. The Wagyu brisket steam buns on his menu take their name from the Japanese breed of cattle that have acquired such cache farmers identify each one slaughtered.
Lewis, who has degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University, says he has come to realize that for a long time, despite the steady accolades, he was “a young chef learning to be a chef.” It was finally at Gere’s, he believes, “I found my footing.” But not until 2012, when he opened the elm in New Canaan, did he become both chef and owner, with a couple of partners. At the Cottage, he has only a silent partner, who does not want to be named.
“I’ve done much bigger projects than this. But there’s never been anything that made me as happy as this, in terms of the whole experience,” he says.
Westport is part of the experience. He says he and family spend a lot of time at Compo Beach and he finds Westport a “little more downtown, as a metaphor” than the rest of the area.
“At some point your guests define you,” he says, adding that running a restaurant as chef and owner requires striking a balance between reliability and innovation. He compares the balancing act to a musician who must play tunes his audience expects, while remaining fresh himself.
He extends the music analogy to describing the Cottage. “I’d say this is a much more unplugged, acoustic version of what I do, and not just the food. This is the most true expression of what I’d look like if I were a restaurant,” he says. “Does that make sense?”
Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist.