Oyster Club and The Port of Call, Mystic, CT

After attending the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, Reneé Touponce started her career as sous chef for First and Last Tavern in Connecticut. Her first executive chef role was at Firebox in Hartford, CT, and in 2020, she took the helm as executive chef of the Oyster Club, leading the restaurant as it experienced a total renaissance. All the while, Touponce has continued to learn about and work with the farmers and artisans behind the ingredients she uses in her dishes, and has worked to practice zero waste and support land preservation.

What inspired you to become a chef?

Food was always the language of love in my home. I grew up with a blend of two cultures—Italian and Puerto Rican. Being a middle class family, my mother found ways to make delicious food for a larger family without spending a lot. I remember no matter how busy my parents’ work life was, we always made time to cook together. Rice and beans, empanadas, lasagna, meatballs and spaghetti are my earliest food memories where my family made time to share a meal and our day. That feeling of sharing your love through food and family is really what inspired me.

When was the first time you felt innovative in your career?

I think I have always aspired to be innovative, but the first time I realized I created something original and uniquely my own was when I made chorizo using tuna. I remember working on this recipe over and over. When it finally made it onto the menu, hearing people say, “What is this? It’s delicious!” or “This is fish?” was such a rush for me.

With so much variety in cuisine today, how does a chef remain innovative?

For me, it’s by not holding back. I think it’s easy to get in our own heads about the imaginative minds we have. I like to take risks—and I work in a restaurant that allows me to do that. For me, it’s experimentation with things like cured fish, sausage, making head cheese, or interesting ways to use different parts of an animal or fish, to practice zero waste.

When you want to indulge, what is your favorite dish/cocktail?

Anything home cooked; I find comfort and gratitude in these moments. I really enjoy simple food on the grill: a good steak, vegetables and salad or a good chicken Milanese. Moments when I can cook with my partner and friends.

When you are stuck for ideas, how do you find inspiration?

I find the greatest inspiration from the people I surround myself with, and conversations that connect us through food. Whether that’s with the talented cooks who work side by side with me, a farmer, or a great book. It’s also about questioning where something comes from, how it was grown, knowing the story of a product and the people and hands behind it. It’s a constant need for expanding my own growth in desire to learn more. It goes back to the philosophy of 85th Day Food Community [the restaurant group that owns Oyster Club and The Port of Call], where we say that “our food tells a story.” It’s not just words—it’s our truth.

The life of a chef is challenging. How do you find time to enjoy the fruits of your labor?

It’s important to have people around you that understand your work and support you. For me, it’s Jade, my partner in life and work. She’s great at helping me know when it’s time to turn off.

How has the restaurant industry’s trying times the last few years inspired you to think outside the box?

The challenges over the past few years have really made us come together as a restaurant group and find creative ways to support our community: building an online market, offering prepared meals, hosting outdoor dinners on Stone Acres Farm and having empanada nights at Oyster Club— anything we could do to let people know they’re not alone.

Reneé Toponce will be cooking at our 10th Anniversary Celebrity Chef Gala Honoring Jacques Pépin Presented by Coterie