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The New England Chef

August 5, 2015 6:00 am0 commentsViews: 422
Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

Celebrity Chef Michele Ragussis Takes on The Central House

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

“I always wondered what it would be like to live in Provincetown,” says executive chef Michele Ragussis. “I actually ran away here once when I was 15. I always said, even then, that I wondered what it would be like to live here, with the seals and the whales.” She pauses. “Now I know.”

Since February, diners at the Central House at the Crown and Anchor have had cause to celebrate  Ragussis’ decision to make the move. She’s reworked the restaurant’s menu completely from the ground up, and the results are spectacular. Everything on it is now her work—“except for the lobster mac and cheese,” Ragussis laughs. “They told me, you can’t touch the lobster mac and cheese. I don’t get it, but it’s there if you want it!”

She can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to cook. “I was rolling meatballs in the kitchen with my mother when I was 11,” Ragussis recalls. Next stop was culinary school, and “I hated it. I was working full-time and going to school. They had this strict dress code and sent you home if everything wasn’t perfect.” So she dropped out. “I walked into my first professional kitchen after that and knew exactly what I was doing. And I’ve been doing it for 20 years now.”

Her eyes light up when Ragussis talks about her television appearances. “So here’s how it happened,” she says. “I was working in Brooklyn and the people from Chopped came in. They were looking for girl chefs.” The rest is TV history: she’s been on seven shows to date and is eagerly anticipating the next time. “I love doing TV,” Ragussis says. “It’s such a cool community in the TV world. You start seeing the same people over and over, you get to know them, you get to be amazing friends.”

Besides Chopped,  Ragussis’ other shows include Food Network Star, Food Fighters, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, and Beat Bobby Flay. “I’m still on Food Fighters,” she says, referring to an NBC show in which amateur cooks put their signature dishes to the test against professional chefs. “The amateurs can win $100,000,” Ragussis says. “The chefs have to make the amateur’s best dish, something they’ve been cooking for years, and that we’ve never seen. Last week I did a show and my opponent did a steak chimichurro wrap. She won by one point!” And there’s more: “Tune in this Thursday night, August 6th, eight o’clock,” she says. “I won’t say any more, but you’ll enjoy it!”

Branching out from cooking shows, Ragussis just shot a Ford commercial in which she travels down the coast from Maine, gathering sustainable ingredients all along the way.

Which brings us back to the Central House and  Ragussis’ presence in Provincetown. “I was working in Maine, and I needed a longer season,” Ragussis says. “I saw this ad on Criagslist, and I met Peter, and he’s why I’m here.”

“Peter” is, of course, Peter Miscikoski, sommelier and Central House manager, and the two have a mutual admiration society going. “Michele and I hit it off after two minutes of meeting each other last December, I knew how good she was that very instant,” he says. “His wine program is off the chain, it’s ridiculous,” says Ragussis, clearly meaning that in a good way. “It was an immediate love affair. He really cares about the chefs, about what we put out, about the wine. We don’t buy anything from mass-produced trucks. Everything is locally sourced. No Sysco.” She laughs. “There was a Sysco truck parked out front one morning, and I made them move it. That’s not what we do here.”

What they do is buy from small farms and from fishermen on the Outer Cape, including chickens from Hillside Farms in Truro. “Peter works with small vineyards, and everything is organic and beautiful,” says Ragussis. “It’s all farm to table, sea to table, and that made me want to work with him.” Miscikoski agrees. “It’s so amazing to work with someone who is just as interested in the farm-to-table movement and being very picky as to where our ingredients come from,” he says.

Ragussis has been called an authority on New England cuisine, and she agrees that it’s her specialty. “I’m a diehard New England chef,” she admits. “Yeah, maybe with some Greek and Italian influences; that’s what I grew up with. So call it a Mediterranean flair.” That flair fits right in with Provincetown’s Portuguese heritage and population. Ragussis agrees. “When I was in Bristol (Rhode Island) I fell in love with the Portuguese, both the food and the people. Kale soup! I love doing that. I love mixing shellfish and meat, preferably pork.”

The sources of all her food are important to Ragussis. “I’m different at 45 from what I was at 25,” she says. “I need to know where things came from, and I need to know that I can feel good about it. We need to know what we’re eating. I don’t eat much veal anymore. I don’t eat foie gras. Not even very much lamb. You know,” and she leans forward with intensity, “I remember my dad going to the farm and getting the eggs and bacon there. That’s the way to shop. He grew broccoli—the leaves smelled so good! It tasted the way a tomato tastes when you first pick it.”

Keeping ingredients fresh means that  Ragussis’ menu has changed three times since her début on Valentine’s Day. “I liked starting slowly back in February,” she says. “It was a good way to learn this restaurant, to see what it’s like, I got to grow with it.” The current menu features a peach burrata salad, charcuterie and cheese plates, and  Ragussis’ favorite, linguini and clam (“I put a lot more love into it than the average person,” she says).

Her advice to the rest of us? “Look—it’s your kitchen: cook. If it tastes good, do it. Don’t listen to the rules.”

Central House at the Crown is located at 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. They serve lunch daily, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and dinner nightly, 5 – 10 p.m. For reservations or information call 508.487.1430 or visit onlyatthecrown.com/centralhouse.