An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Jul 29, 2013
08:58 AMThe Connecticut Table
The Man Behind the Acclaimed River Tavern in Chester, Jonathan Rapp
Editor's note: The following story is from the summer issue of River & Shore magazine. See the full layout in an online flipbook of the magazine.
The early morning sun glints off the south-facing buildings, and downtown Chester is a hub of activity. Delivery trucks circle, stop and unload as drivers leave their engines running, hurriedly dropping their cargo at the galleries, boutiques and fine restaurants that line Main Street.
Shopkeepers, businessmen, waiters and workers appear, stopping every few feet for a little daily banter with someone they’ve known for years, before they run off to work. Midway up the street, tucked behind a narrow wood and glass storefront, is the popular River Tavern Restaurant. Inside, it is quickly coming to life.
Everything gleams as the staff sets the dining room for a 20-person wine lunch — whites and rosés from the south of France. The intimate space has high ceilings, clean lines and a decidedly modern feel with bleached blond wood and impressive lighting. Fantastic color prints by the late Sol LeWitt frame the handsome bar and dining room. In the back, a semiopen kitchen sits off to one side, with well-worn copper pots hanging in the service window. A wall of windows overlooks emerald-green clumps of bamboo and the Pattaconk River below.
In what seems like a perfect metaphor, Jonathan Rapp, chef and owner of River Tavern, is outside in a blue T-shirt and jeans touching up the woodwork of the already pristine facade. While watching him paint, anybody in town would gladly tell you that it’s not only his deft touch, but also his steady hand that has transformed the River Tavern from just another restaurant on Main Street into the social and symbolic center of town — sometimes with lots of help from friends and family, but always with his own two hands.
The 45-year-old Rapp wears many hats as husband and father of two, chef, teacher, community organizer and now philanthropist, but his abiding love is the romance of food, inherited and passed on from his parents, both lovers of food, who understood the beauty of cooking. Married in Paris, they bought and cooked their way through Julia Child’s first cookbook long before “Julie and Julia.” “What my parents learned from that, and what they passed on to me, is that most great cuisines are based on home cooking. I’m actually really not a big fan of restaurant food any more. These days, I cook and eat for easy pleasure.”
Although Rapp says he didn’t set out to create a perfect little jewel box, some would beg to differ. Critically acclaimed from the start, the menu at River Tavern has always been an eclectic mix of styles, utilizing mostly local ingredients prepared simply, and that’s certainly a reflection of the owner’s own style of cooking. “Whatever I feel like cooking at the moment,” he said, “the menu is a constant evolution. The wine and cocktail list has always been forward looking.”
As a kid, he grew up with chickens and pigs at his childhood home in Essex, tending a vegetable garden and cooking with his parents as he got older. His first restaurant job was working for Charlie Van Over and Priscilla Martel at Restaurant du Village, now Restaurant L&E, just a few doors down on Main Street from River Tavern. He apparently caught the restaurant bug because after graduating from the University of Chicago, Rapp went to work in an upscale catering kitchen in Manhattan, while he learned the business, and his father discussed the idea of opening a restaurant of their own. They started to scout out locations, moving along the Connecticut Shoreline from Essex all the way to Greenwich.
“At that point, we said to heck with it. Let’s just look in Manhattan. We don’t know much about doing business in the city, but we thought we could probably make a go of it,” said Jonathan. That’s actually a slight understatement. Through a shared passion for excellence and an unwavering commitment to quality, their acclaimed 50-seat restaurant, Etats-Unis, eventually earned one Michelin star. And playing on that success, they opened Bar @ Etats-Unis, just across 81st Street, but with no kitchen; they had to schlep the food across the street.
All through the 1990s as his restaurants were booming, Rapp was one of the first chefs in the city to shop daily at the green markets. “I remember filling up entire taxis with bags of produce from downtown,” he remembered. “Nobody else was really doing that at the time, except Peter Hoffman from Savoy.” After a decade of success, the father and son duo sold the restaurant and bar while they were still wildly popular, and Rapp moved back to Deep River, to raise a family and decide what to do next. “I really only knew how to do one thing,” he thought, so he started scouting restaurant locations once again, only nearby this time.
The space on Main Street in Chester had been available for some time and with a little coaxing and financial assistance from a group of local backers, he and a partner from New York renovated and opened River Tavern in 2001 to immediate popular and critical acclaim. Among this group of local backers and mentors was Carol LeWitt, renowned artist Sol LeWitt’s widow, and frequent customer at Etats-Unis. “Nothing contributes more to making Chester a destination than River Tavern’s food, hospitality and dynamic interior,” she says. However, critical and popular acclaim do not always mean success without struggle, and only Rapp’s dedication and steady hand has pulled the restaurant back from the brink a couple of times.
Three weeks before they opened, his business partner backed out, and just before opening night, his manager left to open her own business. River Tavern opened in the middle of the 2001 recession, and after its initial success, business dropped off, and the restaurant hit hard times. They had another crisis moment in 2003 when Rapp came within inches of closing the doors for good. His father stepped in and helped out, putting the restaurant on secure financial footing for some time. Rapp himself attributes some of his struggles to what he calls his own arrogance, doing everything his way, never listening to anyone, not even his father. “I thought I knew the town, what everybody wanted.”
That all changed in 2003 when a family emergency required almost all of his time and attention for months at a time. “I called Brendan (D’Arcy), my line cook and said, ‘Look, I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back, so you’re it.’ I said the same thing to Trish (Ginter), the manager at the time, who had to take over the front.” Rapp eventually discovered that only through pulling back and letting the staff make mistakes, letting them learn, letting the restaurant grow organically, that things started turning around. “Another benefit to not spending 80 hours a week in the kitchen is that I can do other things, marketing and community outreach. It gives me time to actually think. Is the restaurant perfect all the time when I’m not there? No, it’s just different. In some ways, it’s better.”
After some serious reflection, Rapp realized that restaurant success in small-town Connecticut means being accepted as an integral part of the community. Thinking back to the green markets available to Etats-Unis, and always frustrated by the lack of locally grown products for the restaurant anyway, he saw a need and was instrumental in raising consciousness about farming in general and local support for programs such as the Connecticut Farmland Trust and The Working Lands Alliance.
In 2007, Rapp approached Michelle Paulson, a public relations consultant, to help him promote an innovative dining idea. In their initial meeting, he said to Michelle, “I want to host dinners in a field.” And that’s how Dinners at the Farm was born — a summer series of open-air dinners hosted at a number of local farms, using local product, everything cooked on site from the back of a converted vintage red Ford truck ... and to rave reviews.
Dinners at the Farm has been instrumental in helping put Connecticut on the Local Food Movement map by generating awareness of the importance of knowing where our food comes from and by donating some $20,000 annually to support five beneficiaries with the shared goal of promoting, celebrating and supporting our Connecticut farmers and bringing healthy, local food to our schools and communities. The local effort to link products from local farms with school districts is being spearheaded by Peter Peterlik, food services director for Region 4 School District and former culinary director for Yale University.
In 2009, when Rapp, Carol LeWitt and farmers market advocate Nancy Freeborn started pushing for a farmers market in downtown Chester, there was serious flack from local merchants initially. “We said to ourselves, ‘OK, how do we bring more business into downtown?’” After months of wrangling, the end result is the Chester Farmers Market, one of the top three in the state, drawing between 500-1000 people every Sunday, June through October. In 2010, Rapp, Peterlik and Paulson were invited to the White House, along with 500 other chefs from around the country, to help launch Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative. In 2012, the trio, along with other community members, launched the Get Fresh 4 School initiative. They held a district-wide benefit picnic with proceeds going to help create a special fund in order to help Peterlik revamp the food service program because, according to Peterlik, “Healthy food costs more money.” His goal was to introduce freshly prepared, locally grown food to the kids of the Region 4 School District.
Although he has partially stepped away from the day-to-day operations of River Tavern, Rapp measures his own success by the benefit of his contributions to the community, both financial and otherwise. “My greatest success is keeping 75 people employed throughout the year and encouraging them to learn so they can go on and be successful someplace else.” Although hardly anyone ever does — most of his staff has been with him for years.
To Jonathan Rapp, businessman and entrepreneur, it’s still all about numbers and percentages, but not the kind you would imagine: It’s the number of people he can touch and the percentage of lives he can change for the better.
Robert Rabine, former owner of Cafe Routier in Westbrook, is the food and drink columnist for the ShoreLine Times. Contact him at email@example.com. Visit with The Oedipal Epicurean on his Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Oedipal-Epicurean/357918264228723.
The Man Behind the Acclaimed River Tavern in Chester, Jonathan Rapp