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Meet Exec Chef Shelley Deproto of Old Saybrook’s Red Hen

There are no boundaries at Red Hen. Owner and executive chef Shelley Deproto wants it that way. Her first restaurant, which she opened in Salt Lake City in 1993, served regional Italian dishes; her most recent, Lupo, in Chester, featured tapas. “Now,” says Deproto, “I play.”

With her new playground, The Red Hen, boasts bold red walls, beaded light fixtures, and over-sized art. Although the restaurant presents itself as a tiny bistro, the rooms are deceptively roomy, and sunny and bright midday, There are a couple of outdoor tables next to luscious flowers.

“First I had white tablecloths,” says Deproto, “but I decided it sent the wrong message. We aren’t fancy. You don’t have to get dressed up to come eat with us. So I covered the tables with paper instead. Come in shorts, sunburned and salty from a day of boating. We don’t care. We just want you to have a good meal.”

Although the dress code is casual, the menu most certainly is not. Deproto’s deadly serious about what goes on in the kitchen. “I don’t like dishes that are overworked,” she says. “Keep it simple; bring out the best in each ingredient. If you’re putting only a few things in a dish, each damn well better be perfect. Like toasted garlic. There’s a split second between just right and over-cooked.”

Although The New York Times calls Red Hen’s menu “American bistro cuisine,” that seems too limiting. Take Cacio e Pepe, for example. You couldn’t get more Italian. That translates to “cheese and pepper” but Deproto adds toasted garlic, prosciutto, and baby spinach to hers, topping the whole thing with a poached egg. “Everything’s better with an egg on it,” she says.

Among other things on the menu, there’s the Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew, which is a full of shrimp, scallops, clams, cod, chorizo, mussels, and potatoes in a saffron tomato broth; there’s roasted Atlantic cod with bacon and shiitake mushrooms; Stonington sea scallops; delightfully lightly fried cod bites; and—here’s the American part—a “Big Fat Steak.”

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Clearly, the emphasis on art isn’t limited to the walls. Each dish is meticulously constructed with an eye toward color, shape, and textures, and the staff presents your meal with elan. “We have fun at the restaurant,” says Deproto. “We work hard, but at the end of the day, we often sit down with a glass of wine and talk over the night, or the food, and we laugh and we’re just good friends. We’re a team.”

Deproto had a couple of reasons for selling Lupo in Chester a year and a half ago and opening Red Hen in Old Saybrook. Well, three, really, if you count wanting to be a better mom as two of those reasons. She has twin daughters she wanted to be closer to.

The other reason was that she felt wanted to feel free to cook whatever she wanted. “I see a picture, and I think, ‘I’ll cook that.’ Then I’ll add things, or change things, experiment. That pineapple coconut cake, for example. That started out as a light coconut cake, and I decided it needed some sweetness, some fruit, and a more substantial filling—butter cream and I’m thinking rum—and suddenly it morphed from a delicate cake to an 8-pound beast”—and one of the most popular items on the dessert menu.

She is no longer restricted to regional cooking or small dishes, although she continues to serve both—on her own terms. It’s like she’s finally come into her own.

“I never went to culinary school. School was my family’s kitchen.” As a toddler, Deproto hung around her grandmother while she cooked. “She’d give me raw dough to play with. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved food. We’re Italian. Our life was centered around food.”

Her traditional schooling was in chemistry. “I did environmental and FDA testing, so I had this incredibly boring job, and I’d go to work and do my job and then I’d go home and cook. Everyone loved my food. Everyone told me I should open a restaurant.”

She had no idea how to open a restaurant. She had no backers, no experience. She was living in Salt Lake City, working a 9-to-5 job, and waiting tables at night in a Mexican restaurant. But the idea of her own restaurant was magic.

“So I did it. I rented space, I bought an electric stove and an old refrigerator at a second-hand store, and I just cooked my heart out.” That was over 20 years ago, and she still remembers the review that made her career. “He wrote, ‘Run—don’t walk—to Caffe Molise because there’ll be a line to get in…and I’ll be in it.’ I basically owe any success I have to that reviewer.”

So now, Deproto has a new café and the bottom line is that the little unassuming bistro on Main Street welcomes every foodie, boater, hungry family, or out-of-towner in need of a good glass of wine. When asked if there was one thing she wanted readers to know, she replied, “We’re here. You don’t have to dress up; we’re casual. Come and eat with us.”

And the name? A nod to the hard-working little red hen of the children’s story that, according to Wikipedia, teaches youngsters the virtues of the work ethic and personal initiative. But Deproto may have just been focusing on the perfectly baked bread which, at the end of the story, she shares with her chicks.

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