Chef Q&A: Sam Baxter of Connie and Ted’s
In this new Q&A series, we’re taking you inside the kitchen to learn more about the chefs preparing some of the most extraordinary dishes in our favorite West Hollywood restaurants.
Connie and Ted’s is turning 5 and they’ve created a special menu to celebrate the occasion. Chef-Owner Michael Cimarusti opened the seafood restaurant to share the dishes from his childhood and named it after his grandparents, who shared their passion and knowledge of fishing with him.
Executive Chef Sam Baxter, a native Angeleno, has been preparing New England dishes with the freshest seafood and the simplest of preparations to highlight the natural flavors of the sea. To celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary, he has created new seafood dishes with his own twist for an extra kick of flavor.
How did you end up in West Hollywood? How has the city inspired what you’re cooking in the restaurant?
For me on a personal level, I’ve been somewhat attached to the city for a long time. My dad was a city manager here in West Hollywood. My family has been involved in the city for over 20 years so I have always known about it. I grew up here in Los Angeles as well as in the San Fernando Valley. I frequented the area growing up, going to concerts and stuff. I just love how progressive the City is in general and how open they are to everything. I mean, I still remember my dad working on projects, they were all very green related, whether it was getting electric trucks or using natural fuel. They were always ahead of the curve. They built the big park down the street and that was one of his final projects. It all has to do with sustainability, which is what we also do here at Connie and Ted’s. The whole sustainability effect is something we have in common with the city.
What would you say is the importance of food in our culture?
Food kind of defines culture or is a strong defining characteristic of culture. I think in LA, it gets a little lost at times. There are so many distinct neighborhoods around and L.A. is a true melting pot. Here we have everything. It’s all here but maybe kind of spread out. So we’re bringing our own kind of culture. Something that people don’t associate with food and culture is American. There’s nothing really definitive, but what we do here at Connie and Ted’s is the strong cultural background of New England. I associate it as the soul food of New England. You know, it’s food that people grew up with. Fishing with their grandfather or going to down to the sea shore to have fried clam cakes or lobster rolls. All the things that hit the nostalgic soft spot.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
I’ve always loved food. A lot of my memories were of retrospective moments, like looking back on things that happen throughout life and all of a sudden you’re like, wait a minute, I was attached to food this whole time. I used to always help my mom cook. She cooked what she knew and it was always fresh. We lived for a short time in Central California and a lot of stuff grew out of our backyard and she made all my baby food. I grew up always around it. It was always fresh and made with love.
I always loved the strangest and most unusual foods I could find. We would go to a restaurant and my brother, for like five or six years, ordered nothing but nachos. For me it was like, “Why do you always order the same thing every time?” I could never understand it. I always wanted to try something different, something I’ve never seen before. I didn’t start cooking, or really find a passion for it, until I went to college.
What’s your specialty dish?
I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with seafood and I’ve always been attached to the ocean. I used to get lost in Jacques Cousteau books in middle school. I’ve always loved the ocean and so I’ve always had an affinity for seafood. Then coming to work for Michael, it always seem right. I’ve definitely built a passion for it.
It’s your off day and you’re feeling lazy, what do you prepare at home?
Most of my days off are spent mostly away out in the mountains. I love breakfast. I love just a simple omelet. It’s just my favorite thing right now. I think I go through phases here and there of fluffy, runny omelets. That’s it. I don’t know why something so simple makes happy. Cutting into it and having it ooze out makes me so happy.
Even something like a simple roast chicken or even tacos. When cooking for friends, I end up cooking tacos. Finding the weirdest meats to get people to eat. It’s amazing. People eat nothing but carne asada or chicken. Eating tripitas or lengua is not a problem.
You’ve been here 5 years and now you’re doing this secret menu. Can you talk about the dishes you’re featuring?
I guess it’s time to mix things up a little bit. A lot of this stuff is a twist on things we already have in house. The Chef’s Style Soup is just something that I like to enjoy after a service. It’s a mix of our two soups. You have mostly Manhattan Soup. It’s important to have the right kind of mixture. It’s ¾ Mahattan and just a spoonful of cream from the New England soup. The Spicy Clam Roll has a little bit of heat to it. There’s a little smokiness to it and a little tanginess from the buttermilk and tabasco. Coming into tomato season, we’ve had some beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes so a Lobster BLT on a hot summer day sounds wonderful to me. We’ve been making lobster gravy for brunch, for biscuits and gravy, and it only seems fitting that we pour it over french fries for the Lobster Poutine.
There are so many things that are made in-house at Connie and Ted’s. Can you name a few?
Baxter: The most coming thing we say is that we make everything in house but the ketchup. Everything else we make. We have pasta that we are going to roll out soon. All the bread. Even the bread crumbs we use to bread the crab cakes, that’s coming from our in-house bread. The oyster crackers. All the ice cream.
General Manager Matthew De Marte: My favorite is the coffee ice cream. It’s world-class! It could be the best ice cream I’ve had anywhere.
Baxter: We don’t want to cut any corners. None of our food is over-embellished and it’s presented as simply as possible. With that being said, we need to bring in the best ingredients and make them shine. It comes down to execution and the quality of ingredients. And put some love into it!
How has being in California shaped your food sourcing practices?
The initial concept of the whole restaurant is New England Clam Chowder. One of the biggest surprises I had when we first opened, it was evident within a couple of weeks, is how much grilled fish we were selling. The charcoal wood grill is not very New England. That is the California twist on a lot of the menu, besides the sourcing. Obviously, we want to talk about bringing local products and things that we see here, either from our coastline like Northern Baja, Southern California, or from new England. In the kitchen, what brings all that together, is that grill. That’s just one of the things that we’ve ran with. When we first opened, we had 4 or 5 different types of fish and now it’s upwards of 8 or 9 different varieties. We like to keep it interesting.
What would you recommend to those visiting Connie and Ted’s for the first time?
De Marte: The oysters, the grilled calamari, the lobster roll or the fish and chips. Those are my suggestions. To come here and not get oysters, to me that’s crazy. I love the crab cake and the grilled calamari is something very special!
Connie and Ted’s
8171 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90046