Focus On: Jes Bengston, Regional Executive Chef, Terrain Café and Amis in Westport

Chef Jes Bengston has worked in Westport for the last four years at Terrain’s popular Café and downtown-Westport sister restaurant Amis Trattoria.  She lives in West Haven with her wife who is a hair stylist. The restaurants opened today (June 12, 2020) after complete closure during the COVID-19 lockdown period. 

“We have never opened a restaurant like this before and may never again. When you open a restaurant you either take over an existing restaurant with its staff or start a new place and build it up. Yet, here we are starting over with an established restaurant as if it were brand new. For example, we started the week with an empty kitchen that had to be stocked from scratch yet we have the same staff doing the same dishes we were doing before. This morning we got some jitters out of the way and brushed up on some rusty skills, figured out where stuff was since things had been moved around. 

We have a smaller staff now because we did have a couple of people who have skipped coming back because they just don’t feel safe—and that’s ok. We only need a smaller staff now because we are doing very limited service—ten outdoor tables only this week and then will begin limited indoor/outdoor service next week. The folks who are back are really happy to be here—everyone is eager to get back to life even if it’s a completely different kind of life.  

There are things we’ve had to learn or relearn. For example, the mask makes it really difficult to work both in the kitchen and on the outside patio for the servers. Everyone’s struggling a bit. We already do handwashing constantly and keeping a safe distance is an old trick. The store is outfitted with new high-grade air filters, great signage explaining safety procedures and PPE. There is a full protocol about what to do if an employee—or guest—feels sick or comes down with COVID. When people make reservations, they are advised of safety procedures and again when they come in and again on their menu. So, we hope everyone feels prepared. So, it’s feels like business as usual but with a twist—kind of like the first day of school. 

Working in restaurants makes you feel prepared for everything. In many ways we are re-inventing the wheel everyday – managing problems is what we do. It’s not unusual to figure something out on the fly. We live in organized chaos all the time—what do you do if you don’t get a food delivery? Or a cook is out? Or the electricity goes off? 

In some ways, I feel like I’m working backwards. For example, we normally try to make our food in 12 minutes—fast. People want to get in and out, they want to get out and pick up their kids, get back to work, go on with their lives. Now I’m telling staff to take some time–we are trying to make good food, with masks and we don’t know yet where anything [ingredient-wise] is. It’s a work in progress.  So, now we have set the expectations is you get good food, but we hope that people realize there are things we can’t control – like the weather for outside seating. My hope is that, after being inside for so long, we take our time and enjoy being out, enjoy being healthy, and having the means to enjoy a nice restaurant meal. 

During lockdown, I did think about the fact that people were learning to produce food at home at a higher level so they wouldn’t have to depend on chefs and restaurants.  But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I myself have never been home so much as during the quarantine — my job has crazy hours. We all go to work to be paid to have a safe and great home to enjoy but we don’t seem to do it. But during quarantine, I saw a lot of people doing that. Maybe that’s why we are not yet seeing people are rushing around — because I think they learned it wasn’t that bad.  

I see the world opening its eyes and ears and a whole generation awakening. We currently have the opportunity to change the outcome of our future — to gain civil rights for people of color, change our government, rebuild our police forces. I see a movement happening, and our generation ready and willing to speak for justice and change.  

I see the world opening its eyes and ears…

Like a lot of places, I think Westport has a lot of work to do. My thought is that we all take charge in the areas we can to make a difference, permanently and with passion. It’s not enough to discuss for a moment or to chalk your driveway or donate money, we all have to do more. We need to be having open discussions and acceptance of our behavior in the past whether that behavior was intentional or not and just do better. I’m hoping to focus on people of color in the local farming community and bringing better jobs and wages and opportunity in the Restaurant business.  

We are now in a moment that is a great opportunity to start over—with respect to a lot of things: food service, race relations, the environment. I think food can be freedom, it can open doors. We all have a lot of work to do and it’s an exciting time to discuss all that has been previously swept under the rug.  

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.