Dishing with chef Carole Peck of Woodbury’s Good News Cafe
The mention of the made-up moniker, “Queen of Plates,” makes chef and restaurateur Carole Peck smile.
It’s not just because it speaks to the many dishes she has created in kitchens around the country, but also for her passion for collecting beautiful tableware. Many of her pieces are on display in her Woodbury home, a converted, three-story cider mill she shares with husband, French artist Bernard Jarrier-Cabernet.
Their home is like a Carole Peck dish: natural, surprising and perfectly balanced. “Do you see how many oyster plates we own?” Peck says. “I can have 50 people for dinner and we all can have oysters. I love plates. At one point, I even wanted to open a plate business.”
It would have been just one more culinary notch to a long list of credits for the co-owner and chef of Carole Peck’s Good News Cafe, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Woodbury. It’s an acclaimed place that attracts both celebs — Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Hillary and Bill Clinton, among them — and the hoi polloi who appreciate her menus that celebrate the seasons with locally sourced and organic-as-possible food.
Jarrier-Cabernet lights the kitchen fireplace on this frigid winter afternoon as Peck presents a serving of coconut cake with whipped boiled icing and raspberry coulis, along with slices of chocolate whiskey cake.
“Not every chef can bake,” she says, “but I’m a chef who knows how to bake.”
Peck, 63, has come a long way from Newburgh, N.Y., where she grew up surrounded by food typical of a middle-class family of the ’60s: fish sticks, Pop-Tarts, American chop suey and mashed potatoes at every meal. There also was food from her Ukrainian heritage: stuffed cabbage, pierogies and lots of beet dishes.
As a teenager, Peck became a short-order cook at Howard Johnson’s. “That’s where I fell in love with the whole crazy atmosphere of the kitchen,” she says.
Peck found a new food world at the Culinary Institute of America, which moved from New Haven to Hyde Park, N.Y., in her second year. In only the second class that admitted women, she found herself one of 18 in the 1972 class of 500 men and found her calling and means of artistic expression.
Think the farm-fresh movement is a new phenom? Like the West Coast food guru Alice Waters, Peck was embracing that ethic at school. For an assignment where she had to create a menu for a restaurant she might run, Peck chose a vegetarian lineup using locally sourced food and intriguing pairings. But it wasn’t always easy for an institution wedded to classical French cooking to adapt to new concepts from the Woodstock generation.
“I once came up with an appetizer of goat cheese and figs with lime and (the instructor) picked up the plate and threw it across the pantry station saying it was disgusting.
“The school was classical French where, if you were making Veronique sauce, you had to peel the grapes,” she says. But Peck understood mastering classic techniques was giving her the foundation to do “what I felt was right and that reflected my own sensibilities.”
Mentored by the CIA’s president, Jacob Rosenthal, she apprenticed with Fernand Granger at New York’s Le Pavillon. During the ’70s and ‘80s, she and Jarrier-Cabernet hopscotched around the country, where she worked at luxury resorts and restaurants. In Austin, Texas, she and her husband opened their own celebrated restaurant, La Provence. Following problems with a business partnership there, she went to La Greco in Manhattan and earned two stars from The New York Times. But then she turned her sights to Connecticut.
Her first Connecticut restaurant in the late ‘80s was in New Milford in a 100-year-old farmhouse owned by Skitch and Ruth Henderson who had launched The Silo Cooking School in town. Peck’s restaurant earned raves and attracted crowds, but had a tiny kitchen which, after five years, led her to relocate and open Good News. In subsequent years she wrote a book on buffets, created a catering business and began food tours based from their home in Provence.
How does she come up with new dishes? The process begins with what’s in or coming into season, she says. “It’s a matter that I eat in my head,” Peck says. “I’ve been doing this for so long, for me, I don’t even have to taste the dish. It’s like composers who hear the music in their heads.”
As for new food trends she foresees more vegan dishes “like it or not — and I love it, but it’s challenging,” she says. “Kale is waning and Brussels sprouts have already peaked. Watercress is supposed to be the new one that they’re discovering for its nutritional value.”
For now the number of plates in the air has decreased, but just slightly. She doesn’t do catering and she changes the menu only once a month instead of the weekly rotation.
After years of nomadic living, she says she has finally found her ultimate place setting. “This is it,” she says.
Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.