Her star is on the rise
Cape Cod Life / August 2016 / Food & Dining, People & Businesses
Writer: Marina Davalos / Photographer: Dominic Casserly
Michele Ragussis is a reality TV celebrity and an executive chef at a popular P-town restaurant
Even though celebrity chef Michele Ragussis has appeared on seven major TV food shows and has more shows in the works, she has not let stardom go to her head. When guests dine at Central House at The Crown & Anchor Hotel in Provincetown, the gregarious executive chef makes it a point to step out of the kitchen and into the dining room, on the deck overlooking bustling Commercial Street, and chat with guests while they feast on her signature dishes, such as linguine and clams.
In recent years, Ragussis has appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” “24 Hour Restaurant Battle,” and “Comeback Kitchen,” and was a finalist on the eighth season of “Food Network Star.” She also appeared on NBC’s “Food Fighters” and FYI’s “Midnight Feast” and was a judge on “Beat Bobby Flay.” She spent three seasons as executive chef at The Pearl, a waterfront restaurant in Rockland, Maine, before moving to Boston in 2014, and Cape Cod six months thereafter.
Now in her second season as executive chef at Central House, Ragussis says she is having the time of her life. “We are crushing it!” she says with a laugh.
Her boss, Rick Murray, The Crown & Anchor’s president and general manager, couldn’t agree more. “Michele’s homemade pasta dishes hit it out of the ballpark, like her lobster pappardelle,” he says, waving a hand as if smelling the savory aroma. “She has a gift for bringing out the flavor. She’s got high standards, and because of that, we have a lot of return customers.”
Ragussis says her cooking style takes a little from her heritage—her father was Greek and her mother was Sicilian—and a little from the diversity of New England. “There’s not really a name for it,” she says of her cuisine. “It’s Greek, it’s Italian, it’s Portuguese, it’s New England—that’s how I’d put it.” One example of her eclectic approach is how she prepares Wellfleet oysters; she breads and flash fries the oysters, and tops the dish with roasted bone marrow and pickled zucchini blossoms. “Sometimes I’ll be lying in bed,” she says, “and these ideas just come to me.”
Central House is “true farm to table,” Ragussis says. “We make everything from scratch. We make all our cheeses and pastas; we don’t buy anything from big companies.”
Ragussis was born and raised in Derby, Connecticut. “Food was a huge part of my life,” she recalls. “In fact, I think the very first thing I ever smelled when I was born was a home-cooked turkey! I was born on Thanksgiving Day—and my father brought a Thanksgiving turkey to the hospital.”
While living in Ashville, North Carolina, some 10 years ago, Ragussis decided she wanted to appear on the Food Network. She packed her bags, moved to New York City, and vowed not to leave New York until she achieved her dream. “You have to be a go-getter,” she says. “You have to accept the word no, get over it, and keep going. People will tell you that you can’t do something, and you do it anyway. Especially in the world of kitchens—it’s male dominated, and you have to be a strong female.”
“She comes across as being a badass,” says Penny Davidi, a celebrity chef and culinary specialist with US Foods, based in Beverly Hills, California, and a “Comeback Kitchen” co-contestant. “But she’s the biggest softie and even kind of a girly girl.” Chefs participating in “Comeback Kitchen” are sequestered in a hotel for three weeks. They are not allowed to watch TV, talk on the phone, or even read a book. “You’re supposed to just keep to yourself, before competing on the air, and Michele and I and some of the others really got to know each other,” Davidi says. “Michele is fun, and she’s seriously dedicated to her craft. She’s good on her toes and able to think fast. On the show, she nailed it every time.”
While in Boston, Ragussis says she was browsing Craigslist when she saw the advertisement for an executive chef at Central House. “I had to laugh,” she says, “because when I was 15 I actually ran away to P-town, and I always told myself I’d come back and live here. The manager happened to be in Boston that day.” Ragussis and Murray hit it off immediately. “We’re both Italian,” she says. “He gives me complete freedom to cook whatever I want.”
Ragussis invited James Cunningham, her sous-chef at The Pearl, to work in the same role at Central House. “I make all the sauces, he makes the pastas and desserts. Together we make a great combo,” she says. “Not to brag, but we had people who had just come from traveling in Italy, and when I came out and asked how everything was, they said, ‘This is the best pasta we’ve ever had.’ ”
The TV cooking show veteran plans to produce her own cooking show one day. “It’ll be about New England cooking,” Ragussis says. “Every place in New England is so unique, so different from each other. I want to bring back hand-to-pot. I’ll go to a farm, pick out what I want, and show people how to make it.” She has already embarked on a show in P-town called “Funny Food,” in which she’ll combine comedy and food, as she teaches comedians how to cook.
Ragussis says she can’t imagine not cooking. “It’s such a great way to express myself,” she says. “I love to please my friends. Cooking is a lot of love to be giving out. And being a chef, I get to do it for thousands of people.”
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