62 Restaurant & Wine Bar, Salem, MA

by Michele Pesula Kuegler | April 27th, 2011 | Chef Interviews

There is something quite charming about a chef whose career was inspired by cooking with his mother as a child.  That was the initial spark for Antonio Bettencourt, co-owner and executive chef of 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar.  Since those early years, Chef Bettencourt has gained much knowledge, through culinary school and work in restaurants.  Opening 62 in February 2008 with his wife, Valerie, the chef has been busy creating a restaurant that serves Italian classics with a modern twist.

I was able to speak with Chef Bettencourt recently.

TT: You started cooking at your mom’s side. What are some of your favorite dishes that you made in your childhood?

CB: Wow, that’s tough.  There are so many. She was an amazing cook. But, if I had to pick just one…there was this pork dish that my mother would make. I’m not sure it was really called anything.  I think it was just her thing. She’d roast pork chops with onions, garlic, white beans and potatoes. Very simple, straightforward and just really raw and honest with the ingredients. True comfort food.

TT: Are any of them on your menu?

CB: No. I don’t scoop other chef’s dishes.

TT: What are the advantages to owning your restaurant?

CB: I think there are a ton. I don’t have to ask permission to put something on the menu or take something off if I get bored with it. I also don’t have to work within any predetermined boundaries or limits. I’m free to do anything I can imagine. For example, my wife Valerie, who is also my partner in the restaurant, and I always eat at the bar whenever we go out to other restaurants. So, even though we skew toward a classic dining experience I recently took a right turn and created a bar menu so people could dine lighter in our lounge with a glass of wine rather than dine in the classic sense. We don’t promote it. But if customers sit at our bar we’ll give them this menu along with our regular one. It’s been really well received. In fact, our Braised Veal Shortrib Sandwich was named one of the best sandwiches by The Boston Globe Magazine recently and made the cover which made us pretty proud. We’re also gearing up to launch a “Passport Series” in June that will feature the cuisine of 3 countries and the various regions within the countries selected. So if we do Brazil, we won’t just highlight the cuisine of the south, but we’ll visit various cuisines of the interior and the unique flavors of northern coast. This is my guilty pleasure, and it gives me the chance to challenge myself with different ingredients and techniques. I’d never be able to make such a deliberate departure if it wasn’t my restaurant.

TT: Are there disadvantages, as compared to being a chef at a restaurant?

CB: Oh yeah. You can’t just focus on cooking. You have to manage everything- the financials, the wine, staff hiring and training, repairs/maintenance, the phone calls, advertising…you get the idea. We’re still a small business living the American dream but sometimes it can be overwhelming. You have to be “on” all of the time, and it’s hard to turn off.

TT: You change your menu frequently.  Do you work with specific farms for any of your produce, dairy, or meats?

CB: Two farms in particular that we use are First Light Farm in Danvers, Massachusetts, and Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do, both are organic and I try to use them as much as possible during the growing season. For meats we use Dole and Bailey, which runs a co-op called Northeast Family Farms which highlights meat and poultry from small New England farms.

TT: What menu item best exemplifies 62?

CB: Pasta. All of the pasta is made here each day- about 6-7 different types and this best shows my commitment to actual cooking as a chef. I got into this business because I love to cook. And no matter how many hours I work or how hard the business is I’m always motivated when I get into the kitchen and I still have a deep love of actually cooking and creating in my kitchen. The pasta may come out as “just a plate of pasta” but it represents a tremendous amount of work by hand that goes on behind that kitchen wall that guests may never see. That’s why I’m now beginning to focus on cooking classes at our restaurant to teach people about all of that work and love that goes into our food. We’re hosting our first class on May 1st, and it’s going to be a regular thing. I plan on inviting people into the restaurant, showing them how to make pasta from scratch, and then we’re all going to sit and have dinner together. It is my personal mission in life to eliminate every dry box of pasta in the country. It’s so simple and so much better to make it from scratch.

TT: Currently, you serve dinner only.  Do you plan on expanding to add lunch, or do you prefer to focus on dinner?

CB: Serving lunch probably isn’t in the cards for us right now. I’m here each morning at 8am baking our bread and hand rolling our pasta for dinner service. To serve our bread and pasta at lunch would mean starting the process at like 4am, and I just don’t see that happening – and I won’t serve a product that isn’t made fresh daily.

TT: What makes 62 unique among the slew of Italian restaurants in the area?

CB: The creativity of our menu. Italian cuisine and the regions are our inspiration, but I try to infuse my own imagination into our dishes. Think of crispy pork belly with a salad of cucumber, pickled thai chili peppers, pickled red onions and cilantro or agnolloti filled with ricotta, peas and mint and tossed with pancetta, black truffle and pea tendrils. This definitely isn’t a spaghetti and meatballs type of place.

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