It makes sense that Michael Stafford is the executive chef at a restaurant called The Fisherman. As a cook with more than 20 years of experience in some of southeastern Connecticut’s most renowned kitchens, Stafford knows seafood, and he knows the commercial fishermen who risk their necks to go take it from the ocean. These connections pay off when his phone rings at the Noank restaurant.
“Many times I will get a call that someone has landed this or that and is steaming in, and I know what I will be serving the next day even before it gets to the dock,” says Stafford, 47. “Not everybody can say that. Nobody gets better seafood than we do.”
Stafford thinks the world of Noank oysters, as you’ll see below, and he believes in letting fresh ingredients speak for themselves. He’s honed his culinary skills at such landmarks as the old Harborview in Stonington Borough, the Captain Daniel Packer Inne and Seamen’s Inne in Mystic, Mystic Market, and the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club.
At the end of June, Stafford will unveil a new menu at The Fisherman, which he promises will offer originality, quality, and exceptional value—and undoubtedly plenty of fresh seafood. It also will feature what he predicts will be the greatest New York sirloin in the area, as well as new pastas and vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.
In this month’s chef profile, we salute Michael Stafford and The Fisherman Restaurant of Noank.
Q1: Where did you learn to cook?
A: “I like to kid around and say that I have a master’s degree from the school of hard knocks, but truth be told, I have simply had the good fortune of working with some very highly accomplished people throughout the years. You can learn something from every person you work with, a new trick or technique, a nuance, or even what NOT to do!”
Q2: What chefs inspire you?
A: “Jacques Pepin has always been my favorite. There are some people in this world that understand and know more about food than we can even imagine, and he is one of the old-school standouts. For a more modern take, I appreciate Chef Michael Chiarello out in California. He is all about what’s fresh and flavorful.” [Note: A Napa Valley restaurateur, Chiarello is the handsome, familiar face known to viewers of PBS and the Food Network.]
Q3: What’s your best dish at The Fisherman? What's so great about it?
A: “There are several that are favorites for me. We offer our calamari two ways—one with a spicy Thai influence, the other more modern American, both great. I love to do interesting salad specials paired with or without proteins, but the best dish would also be one of the simplest—Stonington sea scallops simply baked with herbed, seasoned crumbs and sweet cream butter, then finished with sherried lobster cream.”
Q4: What’s your favorite restaurant, besides your own? What’s your favorite dish there?
A: “I wish that Hughie’s in New London was still around. The Love Salad and the spaghetti and meatballs were the best! I don’t really have a favorite to speak of. We are fortunate to have some very good restaurants in our area, and they all shine in different ways. I have been eating lunch at Pick Pockets in Westerly quite a bit, and the pizza at Wylee’s Wood Fired Pizza (Groton) is the best in my opinion, but everyone has their favorites.”
Q5: What’s your fondest food memory?
A: “When I was at the Daniel Packer Inne (in Mystic) in the early years, we were in the process of renovating the kitchen to add the charcoal grills. For a short period, the grills were sitting outside the building, but I couldn’t wait to use them, so we were running some specials off them. One chilly September night, I put some birch logs on the fire and at the end of the shift cooked some burgers for the kitchen staff. We were standing around that grill eating those burgers and no one said a word, but we were all thinking the same thing—it was the perfect burger. We were on to something big.”
Q6: If you had catered the Last Supper, what would you have cooked for Jesus and his disciples?
A: “I have done quite a bit of catering and party planning, but I don’t quite know what I would have done for JC and the crew. Under the circumstances, bread and wine seems like it fits the bill. Maybe a little chocolate would have been okay?”
Q7: If you were headed to the electric chair tomorrow, what would you eat for your last supper?
A: “Some Noank oysters, barbecued beef short rib sliders, sweet potato shoestrings, and a whole slice of Junior’s Sky High Devil’s Food Cheesecake—1,600 calories—but who cares with that hanging over your head!”
Q8: If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what would you do for a living?
A: “Probably write speeches or advertising. First base for the Mets or the Red Sox just never seemed to materialize. When I grow up, I would like to be a “consultant.” They seem to do well.”
Q9: What is your favorite processed junk food?
Q10: If you were invited to compete on “Iron Chef” and the theme ingredient was oysters, what dishes would you prepare?
A: “If the oysters were from Noank, it would be a shame to do anything. You can’t improve on perfection. Otherwise, I might tempura-batter them and make an aioli with a little black garlic and Meyer lemon, or I might poach them in butter with some black Sambuca and a little fresh pasta.”
Q11: What cooking tips can you offer to those of us who don’t know an oven mitt from a catcher’s mitt?
A: “Very simple—cook what you like the way you like it. Don’t be afraid to experiment.”
Q12: Tell us some numbers about The Fisherman—maybe how many pounds of scallops you serve on a busy summer weekend.
A: “We expect to use around 30 pounds of scallops a day in the peak season. I feel so lucky to have as friends some of the best seafood people in the business. Many times I will get a call that someone has landed this or that and is steaming in, and I know what I will be serving the next day even before it gets to the dock. Not everybody can say that. Nobody gets better seafood than we do. I also have friends in the meat biz too. We serve Hereford beef burgers at the Fish, born and raised to be flavorful. I feel sorry for vegetarians and go out of my way to give them something different and flavorful too. Not just boring pasta with veggies, etc.”
Q13: What lessons about life can we learn from seafood?
A: “More than anything, it’s how delicate and fragile our ecosystem is. Talk to the local lobster guys and see how the catch is now compared to 10 years ago. A half-degree in water temperature makes the difference whether codfish eggs hatch as they should. We really need to all be aware and, above all, appreciate what we have.