Why has Carole Peck’s Good News Cafe in Woodbury remained a top eatery in Connecticut, long after other restaurants have come and gone like so many food fads?
“It’s because I’m stubborn,” says a laughing Peck during a telephone chat from France, which she and her husband, artist Bernard Jarrier-Cabernet, visit several times a year at their country home in the Provence region of Avignon. “I refuse to give up my ideals, my beliefs. My motto is: ‘In food we trust.’ ”
“It’s food you know, food that you can trust, that I can trust. Get it? It’s knowing that I’m going to buy the right thing, and that I trust the people I deal with, like the farmer, the fishmonger. And it’s being part of a community which also believes in the same things. We trust each other.”
For a quarter-century, diners have trusted her name-above-the-title restaurant, which takes fresh, locally sourced and organic ingredients and creates something simply sublime.
This month marks 25 years at the three-story converted cider mill, which is also the couple’s home. Asked what will be special this anniversary month, Peck says it will be time for “squash, squash, squash.”
“My duck guy also just texted me that he had legs and breasts and whole ducks, so we’re going to do some duck stuff,” she says. “And I have some people who fish for me, so it depends what they’re bringing in. Swordfish is in season now, so I’ll expect that. Persian rice with swordfish is a wonderful combination this time of year.”
And she has a new gluten-free pizza, which has a crust made from cauliflower “that we’ll do with pears and squash and with — or without — bacon, depending what you like.”
Long before the term “farm to table” was a phrase, much less a movement, Peck and her staff at the 170-seat restaurant were doing what comes naturally.
Diners have responded gratefully. Most are loyal locals who appreciate a divine fresh tuna salad melt — “that’s one I can never take off the menu,” she says — or a freshly baked English muffin. High-profile patrons have included Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Hillary and Bill Clinton among them.
Good News was not Peck’s first restaurant in Connecticut. Her career as a restaurant owner in the state started in a 100-year-old farmhouse in New Milford owned by Skitch and Ruth Henderson, who had launched the Silo Cooking School there. Peck’s restaurant earned raves and attracted crowds, but had a tiny kitchen, which, after five years, led her to relocate and open Good News. “People in my kitchen have been with me for years.” Delfo Fajardo, her chef, has worked for her for 29 years and started out as a dishwasher.
When asked about the latest food trends, she predicts even more vegan dishes and a growth in popularity of Korean cuisine. Middle Eastern elements “are also coming into their own — and Indian, too, because there’s a lot of vegetarian dishes there. I wish that avocados would wane but I don’t think that’s happening. Everyone wants to be local but they’re eating avocados coming from who knows where.”
Some of her earliest menu items have remained because of their popularity: wok-seared shrimp, lobster soup with meaty chunks, and Miss Peggy’s crispy onion bundle.
Her favorite dish is the market catch of the day with horseradish crust. “Whenever I’m feeling down I take that home,” says Peck, who grew up in Newburgh, New York, surrounded by food typical of a middle-class family of the ’60s and food of her Ukrainian heritage: stuffed cabbage, pierogies and lots of beet dishes.
Peck discovered her calling as a teenage short-order cook at Howard Johnson’s, where she says she fell in love with “the whole crazy atmosphere of the kitchen.” She then went to the Culinary Institute of America, which moved from New Haven to Hyde Park, New York, in her second year. She was one of 18 women in the 1973 class of 500 men, only the second class to admit women. Mentored by the CIA’s president, Jacob Rosenthal, she apprenticed with Fernand Granger at New York’s Le Pavillon.
At 24, Peck became one of a handful of female executive chefs in the country at Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head in South Carolina, where she oversaw three restaurants and a banquet facility. She would run kitchens on Cape Cod, the Berkshires, Key West and spectacularly at Miami’s Fisher Island. In Austin, she and Bernard opened their own celebrated restaurant, La Provence. Following problems with a business partnership there, she went to La Greco in Manhattan. Then she came to Connecticut — and stayed.
One of her greatest gifts, Peck says, is that she can “compose dishes in my imagination. It’s like composers who hear the music in their heads. I don’t necessarily even have to taste the dish to get it. I just let it happen because when I push it, it doesn’t work. As I get older I understand that you don’t push it. Let it come naturally.”