On a busy night at The Essex, if you can find a seat at the bar, otherwise known as the Distillery, you will have a front row view of all that is happening in this multifaceted restaurant. On your left, you will see the staging area for the desserts and bread that are made in-house and you can watch the pastry chef Sterlang whip up delectable concoctions like caramel mou and coffee gelato. Behind the pastry, stand is The Market, an up- level grab and go service area with prepared foods and hard to find imports like 8-year-old aged balsamic vinegar from Italy or rose water from Lebanon. To your right is the soon to be opening Hearth, a restaurant inside a restaurant, which will serve extensive tasting menus on white tablecloths. And as you sip your artisanal, handcrafted cocktail (no brand names darken these doors), you will see all around you people who are casually dressed and happily devouring their food while waiters swirl around the tables and pick up orders from the service bar of the open kitchen, where among the rising steam from the four Heston All American made stoves and sous vide cookery, you can watch chefs prepare each dish with precision and care and pride.
This is where cooking is Theatre, where you can watch Chef Colt Taylor and his entourage in action. Everything they do is in full view, out in the open, for all to observe, partake and enjoy.
“The vision is about elevating in every way possible,” explains Colt. “Elevating the food, elevating the people. My team gets to be proud of what they do and the pride spills over into the food.”
Not only is Colt a chef but he also happens to be the architect of this restaurant and he was very deliberate in creating this open space so both customer and his team can interact.
“We have eliminated the walls and barriers from the dining room to the kitchen to showcase the art of cooking on a stage,” Colt explains. “Here we are trying to do something different and breed interaction, so people do come up and talk to the cooks, and if the chefs have a minute, they can engage.”
Open kitchens are not so commonplace. There’s an element of risk and tension as the chefs behind the counter are always “on.” But Colt thinks the risk is worth it.
Pushing the boundaries of what is expected in a restaurant experience is part of Colt’s mission. He likes edge. In his cooking and his business.
Although he is classically trained in French cuisine and techniques, Colt’s cooking is adventurous, taking what he calls, “creative modern twists on the classics.” Colt has incorporated much of what he has seen as a chef in kitchens across America from New York City to Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle as well as his stint at the Culinary Institute of America. The result is that his cooking is eclectic. Classic but eclectic.
“I do modernist food but I am trying to gently bridge the gap and educate the people,” says Colt. “My goal is to make that perfect bite over and over.”
Colt is very much into the science of food (he refers to Harold McGee’s 1984 breakthrough book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” as his bible) which is why he cooks his coq au vin style chicken, Misty Knoll Half Chicken, sous vide and bakes his focaccia and pretzel bread in a Doyon Hearth Bread oven – because it’s precise and delivers every time.
But it’s his unique flavor combinations that make people moan, smile and come back for more.
Many flavors from many places around the world dot the landscape of Colt’s food, such as Thai, Japanese, Peruvian, Moroccan, Hawaiin Philippine, and many others.
Colt takes his flavors seriously.
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is called the Bacon and Clam noodles described as a “kotteri style tonkatsu ramen” with “flavors of clam chowder.” Kotteri, meaning thick or rich, is one of those words that describe the fifth flavor profile of food – umami, a Japanese word that means “yummy.” “Kotteri” simply describes the luscious pork broth that surrounds the ramen noodles, along with a big crispy slab of bacon and New England clam chowder made with Quahog clams.
Colt likes to dabble in the other four flavor profiles as well – sweet, bitter, salty and sour – to the great delight of many of his customers but also to the dismay of some.
“I had a dish here and it was a love it or hate it dish,” says Colt. “A sous vide salmon with crispy Brussel sprouts and agrodolce, which is a sweet and sour vinegar reduction. I go for actual balance and taste. Adding a bit of a burnt element to a dish offsets the sweetness, gives it contrast. But this guy told me, ‘Dude, it’s burnt!’ Part of my mission here is to educate the public about taste and flavor combinations.”
His flavor profiles are constantly shifting. Colt has presented three unique menus since the Essex opened in July. A lot depends on the season, of course, and what local food purveyors have to offer. Right now, you can watch chefs busily preparing steaming bowls of black pearl salmon, with pistou, gigantic bean, and basil. Another chef delicately plates the black bass ceviche, which is accented with lemon zest, mint, zucchini, serrano chili, and very juicy yet mellow Castelvetrano olives. Another plate comes out showcasing his Golden Acres Ribeye with kaffir lime & toffee jus, baby carrot, and sticky rice.
The flavor profiles at the Distillery are getting people’s attention as well. Here you will find heritage spirits and reimagined cocktails of yesteryear that focus on the quality of ingredients and flavors. Flavors of gin, for instance, that have an herbal signature like Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin. Or exotically named blended scotches like Monkey Shoulder and Sheep Dip. Beers from microbreweries like Ransack The Universe Hemisphere IPA, Victory Summer Love Ale, and Left Hand Milk Stout. Who needs Jack Daniels?
While this might all sound very fancy, Colt says: “We are not in the business of overkill. We try to keep it simple. Sometimes we go back to the concepts of the 1950s. Like the alcohol we sell or the milk we use. We sell Terra Firma milk here in our Market because it’s not ultra-pasteurized like the rest of modern-day milk.”
Colt’s passion is most definitely food but it’s also education. He is on a mission to enlighten the public, his customers, not only about flavor combinations and cooking methods but also about the people behind the apron, the wait staff, the chefs, the people who serve you the food.
In his widely read article in the Huffington Post, “A Chef’s 2014 New Year’s Resolution: Let’s Commit to Taking the High Road” Colt writes what could be called his manifesto – his devotion to serving amazing food by amazing people while also standing up for workers’ rights, having compassion for staff and customer alike and creating synergy within his team members and the people they are serving.
The good vibe and flow of the restaurant speak to his dedication to his mission.
Colt says that the restaurant industry today centers around organic and local food and that is a good thing but he also wants to bring attention to and fundamentally change the “unfair and often illegal working conditions that prevail in the industry.”
While Colt was in New York City as the Executive Chef of the most romantic restaurant in America, One If By Land, Two If By Sea, he became the National Dean of Culinary Development at ROC (Restaurant Opportunity Center), the largest worker rights organization in the country who fight for getting paid above the minimum wage and are actively involved in the community, helping engage people who lack the skill set to get started and normally never get a chance.
“We’ve opened up 7 different non-profit culinary schools across the country with an 84% job placement rate, we train all kinds of people, survivors of domestic abuse, people who have come out of jail, we take people who have never touched a tool in the kitchen.”
Colt believes in human potential and seeks to bring out that potential in each one of his employees. And he seeks only local talent.
“I would rather find local talent than bring in my staff from New York City,” says Colt. “I am looking for character, dependable hardworking and caring people.”
Local talent includes his own family, who still live here and are extremely involved in the business. His dad Michael Hannifan is his partner and co-owner, and his mother, Melissa Barbieri, is a local artist who designed the octopus laden sea mural behind the bar (more about Melissa here.)
Colt left Essex to attend the University of Vermont where he studied Community Development and Applied Economics and sustainable business development (and pre-med courses as well!) He returned to Essex to make his dream come true. To create a lasting, sustainable and nurturing business ecosystem, similar to what Thomas Keller achieved in Yountville, California with his opening of the French Laundry.
Colt cares about the community of Essex. He has come back to where he started, launching his career at the age of 13 at the original Saybrook Fish House, to help give this community a boost.
“A place like Essex is a place that has all kinds of potential,” Colt explains, “but you drive down the main street and you see a lot of for lease signs. We want to invest in the community and build jobs and bring the community together. To lift us all up while staying true to what Essex is, a beautiful small town in Connecticut. We want to preserve that.”