By Elizabeth Keyser
If you need proof that the local food movement is here to stay, check into a Marriott. Last year, the international hotel chain introduced a sustainable seafood program in its restaurants, and now a core group has instituted farm-to-table menus. J. Porter’s, the restaurant in the Trumbull Marriott, is the latest.
Executive Chef Chris Molyneux is quietly rolling out his farm-to-table menu. Greyledge Farm delivers their grass-fed and hormone-free beef, free-range chickens, and pastured pork. Connecticut Farm Fresh Express delivers farm fresh produce and artisan products from across the state. Seafood comes from Stonington.
Institutional frozen products are out. Whole salmons, chickens and bags of fresh vegetables from the farm are in. “It’s a little more work,” Molyneux says, “but it’s a great payoff. The quality is far better.” Bones are used to make sauces, stocks and demi-glaces. Hamburgers are formed in the kitchen. The chefs use the in-house smoker to make the salmon, pulled pork and the beef in the prime-rib sandwich.
Preparing food from scratch isn’t new to Molyneux. One of his first cooking jobs was at Captain’s Galley in West Haven. “I’d peel 100 pounds of shrimp,” he says, “Onions rings? I’d prep 200 pounds of onions.” In J. Porters kitchen, the cooking staff has had to adjust. Picking lobster meat from the shells is the job no one wants. But if he hears a grumble, Molyneux has a ready reply, “I’m standing right here next to you, man.”
Customers have responded with enthusiasm, interest, and some protests when a favorite, like Chilean Sea Bass, has been removed from the menu. J. Porters servers and chefs help educate the guests about the changes. “When we tell people that Chilean Sea Bass is endangered, they are shocked. They say they didn’t know.”
One surprise on the new menu is the popularity of the veggie burger. “We sell out almost every night,” says Molyneux. The burger is a hearty mix of beets, brown rice and black beans, served on a whole wheat bun. “It’s like a three-hour process to make it,” says executive sous chef Michael Dunton.
Salmon is another favorite. The Loch Duart salmon comes from Scotland where it is farmed sustainably. “I definitely saw a huge difference in the taste of the Loch Duart than regular farmed salmon,” says Molyneux. The salmon arrives whole. “We see the quality,” he says. At a recent lunch, the salmon was simply roasted, and accompanied by ramps and turnip greens.
Molyneux knows fish. “I’m a seafood guy,” he says. Growing up in West Haven, the grandson and nephew of commercial fishermen, he was on a boat at 2 months old. As a young man, he worked as a commercial fisherman, spending 9 days on the seas at a clip. He still holds a captain’s license.
He graduated from Johnson & Wales culinary school and cooked at a farm-to-table restaurant in Mt. Snow, Vermont, before joining Marriott four years ago.
When he talks to guests about the source of J. Porter’s seafood, sometimes they’re surprised that it comes from Long Island Sound. “We’ve gotten away, as a society, from understanding where our food comes from,” he says, “our industry relies on the waters around us.”
Next January, J. Porter’s will be remodeled to make the décor as fresh as the food. It will join four other Marriott restaurants in West Palm Beach, Dallas, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio that have rebranded as farm-to-table restaurants. Molyneux is still discovering new sources for products, and has many plans. “We’re going to introduce a bar menu – steak tips, flat irons, maybe individual short ribs.” Already on tap at the bar is Ten Penny Ale, a micro brew from Olde Burnside Brewing Company in Hartford.
Molyneux says that he has relied on the staff (“we have a great team”) to help “translate the vision to the customers.” The revelatory nature of farm fresh food is clear when Bonnie Caravaglia, the assistant general manager, talks.
“Remember those carrots?” she says, with a tone of amazed appreciation. What did they taste like? “They had a natural sweetness. They were meaty. They were fresh. They tasted like a real carrot.”