A t nine years old, Ben Gaffney asked if he could work alongside his father, a chef, at Congress Rotisserie in New Haven. The elder Gaffney put the boy to work washing dishes for two years, in the hope that it would discourage his interest in the restaurant business.
But a calling is a calling. Ben Gaffney has spent his life since then pursuing the wonders of food, bringing New Haven along for the ride as chef and general manager at Atticus Bookstore/Café since 2010.
Born in Michigan, Gaffney has lived mostly in Connecticut, even counting the months and years he’s spent all over the world. His first stop away from home was New Orleans, where a friend needed a roommate.
Looking for work, he sent his resume to cajun-style cooking king Emeril Lagasse, not yet knowing of the man’s culinary fame, and got a job working as a pastry chef for him. Gaffney went on to help Lagasse launch restaurants in Orlando and Miami Beach. In Miami, fortune smiled on him again when he met and married his wife. Her job as an infectious disease specialist for the United States Government took them from the Phillipines to Vietnam to Thailand, Angola and South Africa.
In each exotic land, he explored marketplaces and grocery stores and open-air eateries, gathering ideas and influences that would later play a role in Atticus’s predominantly European/American menu. Accompanying him on his culinary adventures was his baby daughter, Grace, whose blonde hair often fascinated the native folks, who frequently presented her with the delicacies of the region in which they found themselves. Ben had to bring a backpack along to hold her gifts. Sometimes he had to politely refuse the ones that involved eyes and brains, but Grace’s love of raw fish continues to this day.
In Thailand, it was not unusual to stop at a small spot where customers didn’t order but were simply served whatever a husband-and-wife duo was making that day. Lunch for two typically cost about 75 cents. Of course, none of those quirks could be incorporated into Atticus, unlike the kimchi Gaffney found in Vietnam, where the Asian sauerkraut with a spicy kick was left to ferment in a big earthenware pot for 6 months in a root cellar. At Atticus, his kimchi ferments for a more manageable two weeks and is used as a front-and-center garnish on the Roast Beef & Kimchi sandwich, which includes Vermont cheddar cheese and a Vietnamese-style sriracha mayo. He calls the dish a “mix of East and West,” which seems like an understatement.
In Angola, he met a Lebanese grocery store clerk who taught him how to make tabouli and hummus. Today, Gaffney’s tabouli incorporates quinoa, a Peruvian grain and a particular favorite of his wife’s. At Atticus, his hummus is served between two slices of toasted, nutty seven-grain bread, with lemon, salt, pepper, tahini, red pepper, avocado, sprouts, cucumber and arugula ($9).
In New Haven, Ben’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. at Atticus with an hour of ordering and paperwork before he begins making the day’s special. The day I visited it was one of his favorite dishes: Bread Pudding. Like a warm, moist cake, a kissing cousin to a soft French toast, it was stuffed with mixed berries: raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries ($5/9). Other days it might feature chocolate chips.
Atticus is open for breakfast and as the man at the next table told his companion, “Their breakfasts are great. Eat. Eat. Eat.” A plate of Cranberry Pecan French Toast with warm cream cheese, fresh berries and maple syrup ($7) is a strong way to start the day.
Many menu components are house-made, from nutty granola to creamy smooth yogurt, and much of the rest of the menu is local and regional. All the bread, for example, is delivered fresh daily from nearby Chabaso Bakery, which, though it isn’t house-made, is certainly homegrown. (The brainchild of Atticus owner Charles Negaro, Chabaso, formally established in 1995, was initially conceived in order to supply great bread to serve in the café.) Meanwhile, a lot of Atticus’s produce, like its tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplants, comes from New Haven Farms, a non-profit community farming group that promotes healthy eating through urban gardens. From Connecticut fisheries Gaffney secures clams and oysters, and from Boston comes Atticus’s fish. New England’s apple harvesting season has seen warm, spiced cider and apple pies added to the menu.
Every day three soups are featured, including “Our Famous Black Bean” soup, which has been a constant for 15 years. Thick and rich, Atticus serves New Haveners 100 cups a day, with a sprig of cilantro and a dollop of sour cream on top ($4.75-5.75). The additional soups available on the day of my visit were Sweet Potato and Kale, with black-eyed peas, and a chili with big chunks of roasted beef that melts in your mouth (like Grandma’s pot roast, Ben says).
Get ready to wet your whistle another way, as Atticus is about to get its wine and beer license. Once the license comes through, Ben plans to feature one local brewery at a time. Though Gaffney’s a purist when it comes to coffee (no flavored varieties allowed), he’s open to a nice pumpkin beer. Wine options, too, are being investigated.
Gaffney says affectionately that while they’re “serious about food,” he employs a “goofy bunch” to make and serve it. They’re also book nuts: “It’s great and dangerous to be surrounded by books all day. I have to limit the staff to the number of books they can buy every week,” he says, and one imagines Atticus’s best customers need to self-impose a similar rule.
In its menu, Atticus melds the international with the local, and in its very being combines the innate pleasures of eating with the cultivated delights of reading. Is there any better microcosm of the city it calls home?
1082 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 7am-9pm, Fri-Sat 7am-10pm, Sun 8am-9pm
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.