Interview With: James Wayman

This month's chef profile is on James Wayman, Executive Chef of Oyster Club and co-owner of Engine Room, both located in Mystic, CT. You can follow James on Instagram for all things food and nature related at @jameswayman

Photo by Sara Kayeum

Photo by Sara Kayeum

Who or what would you say influenced you to get into the food industry?

I would say it’s a combination of my grandmother and the place I grew up. My grandfather was a doctor and when he retired he bought a 120 acre berry farm. So I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and there were raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and a big garden and greenhouses. So we cooked fresh food all the time. My mom always cooked, and I cooked with her in the kitchen and just kind of fell in love with it. Then, they made me get a job when I was 14. So I got a job in a restaurant and my boss gave me beer and we threw knives in the back of the kitchen. And that was that. 

 

What is a standout meal that you remember from that time in your life?

This friend of my parents, Robert, used to come over on Thursday nights for dinner and we would all cook. One particular night that stands out to me is when he brined a turkey in beer and then dug a pit in the backyard and smoked it. They then proceeded to get hammered, and I think there were like fireworks too. But I just remember that turkey, it was so juicy and delicious and had this great wood smoke flavor. 

 

So you were the chef at River Tavern in Chester and then left to open Oyster Club, both of which are farm to table restaurants. What did you take away from your experience at River Tavern and bring here?

Well I had done a little local sourcing when I worked at Water Street Cafe. We used a lot of stuff from the Stonington docks, some beef and some local vegetables. But Jonathan Rapp, the owner at River Tavern, did it a lot and it really influenced me and got me even more deeply into local food. Now I think local sourcing is the only way to go. 

 

What is the weirdest thing in your fridge?

Probably a Berkeley’s Polypore Mushroom. It’s a mushroom that I foraged in the woods. It’s awesome, it tastes like fennel almost and it’s very tender. My favorite thing to do with mushrooms is sauté them with garlic, parsley, a little salt, black pepper and a splash of vinegar and put a sunny side egg on top of it. That’s my go-to breakfast. 

 

So you said you forage mushrooms for yourself. But what’s the process for sourcing your ingredients for Oyster Club?

Sadly it’s not legal to forage mushrooms and bring them into the restaurant. But I’m very very serious about local food. Ninety percent of our ingredients are local and organic. For our meat, we only buy whole animals and we do all the butchering and curing in-house. And our seafood comes from Stonington or Point Judith.

 

Since your menu changes based on the seasons and which ingredients are available, which do you consider the best season to cook in? Or which do you look forward to the most?

I was just talking about this with someone last night. When you only use local produce, by the end of winter, when you’ve only seen kale and root vegetables for the past six months, you’re very excited for summer. But honestly I love all of them for different reasons. My least favorite time is April – June. But I love fall, I love winter, I love summer.

 

What is your favorite summer ingredient?

That’s a hard one. We have this great farm, Valchris Farm, that provides us with organic berries, which are so hard to find. So probably anything from them. We just went through their strawberries, and they’re just so good.

 

What is your death row meal?

I used to say that it would be a soft shell crab sandwich with a perfectly ripe tomato, mayo and probably some bacon. But I was just talking about that mushroom dish and that might be it now. 

 

I read somewhere that you traveled to Thailand and it really influenced you.

Yeah, southeast Asian food has always been something that influenced me for a long time, so traveling there and seeing where it came from really cemented that for me. One of the other cuisines that I really love is Mexican. I’ve spent a lot of time in Oaxaca and enjoy it. When I was in Thailand I realized they are both on the same latitiude, so there are a lot of interesting similarities between their cuisine. Thai Curry and Mole are both these very complex sauces that use indigenous tools, like a mortar and pestle, to help create these deep levels of flavor.

 

What is one kitchen appliance or tool that everyone should have in their kitchen?

A Vita-Prep blender or a great wood cutting board. 

 

What's the most memorable meal you've ever had?

Any meal that I’ve had on Thanksgiving. Its my favorite holiday, I love it. It’s about food, and community and people getting together and family. A dear friend of mine, Hank Mann, just passed away and we used to and still will gather at his house. He was one of those guys that brought a lot of interesting people together and was so passionate about food and wine and we would all just cook and it was always just wonderful.

 

Was there one dish that you would always bring or would you be the one to cook most of it?

It was funny, he would get really excited about it and I’d almost have to save him at times. But something I started making in the past few years is fall squash pudding. Basically you take sweet potatoes or butternut squash and roast them, make a puree and add cream and eggs and parmigiana and bake it so you get a pudding. 

 

Last question. You're cooking for a love interest for the first time, what do you make them?

I’m trying to think of what I cooked for my girlfriend. Honestly, whatever is fresh, I don’t have anything specific. The way I cook is I go to the market or the grocery store and see what the freshest thing they have is and make something based off that. 

 

Posted on July 22, 2015 and filed under Features, Chefs, New London County.