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Chef Spotlight: James Wayman - Executive Chef and Partner, 85th DAY FOOD COMMUNITY in Mystic, Connecticut

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Chef Spotlight: James Wayman - Executive Chef and Partner, 85th DAY FOOD COMMUNITY in Mystic, Connecticut

Born and raised on a farm just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, eating with the seasons was a way of life in the Wayman home. From an early age, James spent afternoons cooking with his grandmother, foraging and fishing.

James was introduced to New England coastal cuisine while studying at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Upon graduating, he helped to open and cook at Water Street Café in the historic Connecticut fishing village of Stonington. There James cooked a menu that changed daily, with a focus on the clean, simple flavors honoring the ingredients of the New England coastline. He then took the Executive Chef position at The River Tavern in Chester, CT, working there with chef-owner Jonathan Rapp for seven years. Following his tenure in Chester, he became Executive Chef at Oyster Club in Mystic, Connecticut, a seaside town offering some of the finest bounty from farm and sea.

James' philosophy at Oyster Club is to source superior local ingredients, keeping things simple and letting the food speak for itself. He approaches the daily changing menu seasonally, utilizing everything from "tail to snout," and developing lasting relationships with area artisans, farmers, and fishermen.

While anchored in comfort food from farm and sea, James' cooking style is heavily influenced by other cultures. His cuisine has evolved over the years after traveling through Europe, but was more recently impacted by his time in Thailand and Oaxaca, Mexico, the inspiration for his most recent dinner at the James Beard House. He has been featured in the New York Times, Saveur Magazine, and named Best Chef by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. Oyster Club has been named one of the 101 Best Restaurants in America by The Daily Meal, and has been featured in Travel + Leisure Magazine, Town & Country Magazine, and on NPR.

Nowadays, you'll find James harvesting produce for his restaurant family at Stone Acres Farm, fishing and foraging for wild plants and mushrooms. At home he gardens, cooks over wood fire and takes care of his brood of beloved chickens. Outside of the kitchen, James devotes himself to meditation and practicing martial arts.

James cooks and consults at more recent projects like Engine Room, known for Southern inspired comfort food and dry aged burgers, and Grass & Bone, a casual restaurant and neighborhood butcher shop, specializing in whole animal butchery and dry aged meats.

James' passion for nurturing the culinary community in Southeastern Connecticut has made a significant impact on the local food economy. His restaurants have contributed to a rise in demand for hyper-local, sustainable, seasonal products, and a more thoughtful approach to every day eating. James mission is to continue on this path and make a lasting impact on the broader food system. had the pleasure of interviewing Chef James Waxman about his career and the restaurants of 85th Day Food Community.

What was your earliest interest in cooking?

I would say my earliest interests were in food rather than cooking. I grew up on my grandparents' berry farm in NC and I remember falling in love with the act of eating a fresh strawberry after it sat in the hot sun all day, or finding the largest blueberry in the patch. I spent many hours catching fish in the pond, and I've always been fascinated about where food comes from. This has informed how I think about food and cooking today.

Who were some of your career mentors?

My Sensei, David LoPriore in the martial art that I study, Kosho Shorei Ryu. It's a traditional Japanese martial art whose name translates to the Old Pine Tree School of Encouragement to Diligence. The teachings have deeply influenced my management style and the way that I approach my craft. They've allowed me to manage and cook with a sense of presence, to encourage rather than discourage the people around me and to know myself and therefore change the way I'm able to relate to food and the people I work with.

My other mentors have been the people in traditional food cultures from around the world that I discovered through travel and reading. The books of Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand, as well as some of the French greats like Jacques Pepin, Fredy Girardet and Alain Ducasse were important early in my career, and since then, Diana Kennedy, Faviken and the Bar Tartine cookbook have been very influential.

What culinary styles have influenced your career?

The foundations of my cooking come from traditional French cuisine that I learned in culinary school. However, the dishes I create at Oyster Club are largely influenced by the food cultures of China, Thailand and Mexico. I love the bold flavors created by the intersection, of spice, acidity, texture, herbal notes and depth intrinsic to these cuisines. A large part of the backbone or larder of my food comes from long slow processes, such as working with Koji and other types of fermentation that develop deep flavor and umami over time. Most importantly, the integrity, microseasonality and locale of the product that I use informs, on a daily basis, the dishes I create.

What do you consider the most distinguishing features of your work as a chef?

My passion is about community, the land, and its history. It's about creating a food culture in our region where people can have access to locally produced food, as well as an understanding of where their food comes from. It is about creating simple deliciousness and depth in the food that we make with a connection to the place that we live without sacrificing the integrity of the food itself. For example, recently I created a traditional dish of Mexico using a locally sourced flint corn that has been grown here in Connecticut continually by one family since the mid 1600's. There's a super small window when this corn is available in its 'milk stage,' where it's tender enough to boil for an esquites with goat cheese miso mayo, nixtamalized corn douchi, epazote, hot pepper and Mystic Cheese Company's Finback cheese.

What is your favorite meal or meals?

My favorite meals are cooked at home with loved ones or friends, preferably over a wood fire with ingredients that I have grown, caught or foraged. A recent favorite was Green Bonita quickly grilled over woodfire, foraged maitake, grilled corn, honey nut squash and a sauce of charred peppers and anchovy.

Tell me a little about your restaurants for our readers.

During the past eight years, my business partner Daniel Meiser and I have created the 85th Day Food Community in Mystic, CT. This includes three restaurants - Oyster Club, Engine Room and Grass & Bone, a whole animal butcher shop and counter service restaurant. What they all have in common is hyper local sourcing, a commitment to simple delicious food and a deep connection to the land, sea and people around them.

Photo credits: Catherine Dzilenski/Idlewild Photo Co.

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