For two New London chefs, the next step was college
New London — On Nov. 7, Luigi Sferrazza was serving lobster stuffed with asparagus and saffron risotto, chowders, short rib with goat cheese and local honey, and apple crostata.
He was catering an intimate dinner for 10 people at the home of Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron, with the goal of incorporating New England specialties and seasonal flavors.
For other events, he often thinks about dietary restrictions, whether it’s vegan or gluten free or lactose intolerance. A Connecticut College trustee is vegan, and so Sferrazza has worked on making vegan cheese by soaking — and then blending — almonds and macadamia nuts.
Sferrazza, 40, joined the college as catering chef in September, and it’s a different world from that of Recovery Room, the pizza/Italian eatery where he had worked since 2006.
He misses the customers but he liked where Connecticut College was going, and the different hours appealed to him. Much of his work involves catering events for alumni and trustees, though he also cooks for students and faculty.
Some students come in to make “camel cookies” in his kitchen. Sferrazza has found that interacting with college students and hearing their stories helps him better communicate with his daughters, ages 12 and 8.
Sferrazza, a New London native and St. Bernard alumnus, started at Bravo Bravo in Mystic before going to school for business in San Diego, but he left for health reasons. He went on to work at Tony D’s in New London and Rafael’s in Providence.
He said of working in Rhode Island, “The scene, I loved it. I mean, these guys are way ahead of the curve.”
He decided to bring those flavors back with him to New London, where he felt he had an edge because of the ability to get fresh seafood daily.
Sferrazza started at Recovery Room in 2006, and he wanted people to come to New London for the food. Along with his new role at Connecticut College, he also recently got a pizza food truck.
His goal is to make everything fresh, whether it means every ingredient in every soup, or shaving his own Parmesan cheese for the table.
“I’d like to eliminate the freezer,” he said.
‘There’s nowhere this business cannot take you’
Freshness also is a top priority for another former New London restaurant chef now working at a New London college: Tim Grills, director of dining services at Mitchell College.
Prior to joining Mitchell College in January 2016, Grills, 56, spent the previous decade doing Meals on Wheels for Thames Valley Council for Community Action. He spent the decade before that as owner and chef at Timothy’s restaurant, which specialized in “Italian food served in a French style.”
“When we opened (Timothy’s) in ’95, my daughter was 5 and my son was 3,” he said. “When I turned around, my daughter was a sophomore in high school.”
So, he went to TVCCA to try to have a more normal life.
He said of the restaurant industry, “You can only go into that business for so long, and it’s tough, it’s a hard business.”
Considering the “great job, great people,” Grills thought he’d spend the rest of his career at TVCCA, but then Mitchell College President Janet Steinmayer approached him.
He was intrigued by her talk of the hospitality program, the plan for the Red Barn and the vision of adding a coffee shop in the student center.
Grills is in the unusual position of being employed by the college but working with a vendor; Mitchell switched from Sodexo to Chartwells when Grills started.
The dining hall has five stations: pizza and pasta, an exhibition station with options like stir-fry or tacos, homestyle chef’s table, grill area and self-service, with a deli station and salad bar.
Grills listens to students and has added options they have recommended to the Market Café, such as guacamole and sushi. Grills tries to talk to the students who run wild with the freedom of college and might put five doughnuts on their plate, but he finds that many are “actually pretty healthy.”
He provides options like crudité and fruit to go with sandwiches instead of chips, and every month he showcases a superfood, or an ingredient that is dense with nutrients, such as pumpkin this month and mushrooms last month.
Compared to Sferrazza, Grills is less involved with cooking daily, dealing more with the business and education aspects of the operation.
Mitchell has a hospitality program, and Grills teaches courses on subjects like banquet service, food concepts and cooking on your own after college. He also typically has two or three interns per semester.
From Timothy’s to TVCCA to Mitchell, Grills said of the culinary industry, “There’s nowhere this business cannot take you, so that’s the draw.”