S tephen Fries, the writer, professor and food connoisseur—referred to as “New Haven’s foodie” when he appears during “In the Kitchen” segments on WTNH’s “Connecticut Style,” sharing recipes and insights—is seemingly omnipresent when it comes to talking about the city’s gastronomy.
Fries (pronounced “freeze”) is probably most widely known through his long-running food column for the New Haven Register, where he’s been connecting with inquisitive readers for six years now, sharing requested restaurant recipes, highlighting new food finds and otherwise engaging with local cuisine.
He also leads three-hour “culinary walking tours,” held roughly once every six weeks from April to December, typically through nine selected eateries downtown. He also plans and implements imaginative events, like Iron Chef Elm City (inspired, of course, by Iron Chef America on the Food Network), in which three local chefs compete against each other by creating meals that highlight a “secret ingredient” revealed just before the cook-off.
Fries is a particularly familiar face around the Gateway Community College campus downtown, where, in a nod to his past life marketing and managing hotels, he coordinates the Hospitality Management Program. Fries has been daring enough to go off-menu in bids to benefit the school’s educational mission and champion its future: last year, for instance, he recruited well-known food writer Jane Stern to teach a food writing course, which she’s repeating this semester. And all proceeds from the ticketed Iron Chef event benefit the Gateway Community College Foundation.
In addition to serving up local tidbits, he hits the road quite frequently, attending food events and cultivating knowledge about cuisine scenes elsewhere. This month he’s traveling south for his annual “Gems of Florida” Register column, reporting on food finds from the Sunshine State to frigid Connecticut residents just trying to keep their Constitution together. This year his plan is to visit Sarasota, seeking out the best mom-and-pop eateries there. Over the years he’s interviewed a host of nationally and internationally known food personalities, including television’s “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro, domestic maven Martha Stewart and famed French chef Jacques Pepin.
Foodie life wasn’t always Fries’s goal. Not precisely, anyway. He started in hospitality, specifically marketing and management, and found success in Connecticut, with jobs managing hotels and a stint as National Director of Sales and Marketing for a Sheraton chain.
But eventually he’d been cooked to a crisp, burnt out on long, stressful hours. In 1986 he quit with no replacement gig in sight. It was a scary move. He soon took a job teaching hospitality topics at Manchester Community College—a sister school to Gateway—as well as a part-time position as the Executive Director of the state-run, now-dissolved Shoreline Visitors Bureau.
Fast forward many years later to a moment of moxie six years ago, when he took a chance on something totally new and life got a lot more interesting. He’d always loved the “You Asked For It” column by Suzanne Jones in Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper, reading her work when he’d visit his parents there. (His mom saved the clippings for him.) Realizing his enthusiasm for local food culture, he proposed writing a similar column to the features editor at the Register and got an improbable reply in the affirmative.
Although Fries has cultivated a life of travel and exploration, he seems most appreciative of the readers here in New Haven, many of whom have sent him recipe requests (his most requested is the red lentil soup at West Haven’s Turkish Kebab House) and thank-you notes over the years.
Writing, teaching or chatting, it’s ultimately about the passion for food, for Fries. “I’m a food person who knows about food, loves food, studies the history of food,” Fries says, adding that he has over 2,000 cookbooks in his personal collection. “I’m having a ball,” he adds, and you might reasonably wonder if, rather than the elegant dance party of the usual metaphor, he’s not actually thinking of a meat-, falafel or matzoh ball.
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.