An anticipatory buzz fills the dining room at Newburyport’s Brine restaurant. Snippets of conversation cover the merits of different cocktails and who makes the area’s best pizza while diners await the first course in the restaurant’s ongoing “Culinary Opus” tasting menu series. Servers fan out and deliver dishes of kitchen-roasted sweet and salty nuts and tall pints of house-made beer, the start of a 15-course extravaganza featuring everything from local uni and spider crab to duck en croute. It’s a heady food experience unique in Newburyport, a city better known for clam chowder and casual American eateries than the creative cuisine that highlights the scenes in Boston and Portland.
As course after confident course sails onto the tables, Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor of Brine and its sister restaurant, Ceia, welcomes guests and explains her wine-pairing selections. It’s been five years since Batista-Caswell’s Caswell Restaurant Group shook up the culinary scene on State Street, opening Ceia Kitchen + Bar—a sophisticated bistro combining Old World European hospitality and techniques with flair—quickly followed by Brine, a fresh take on the classic steak and oyster house. While some questioned her ability to succeed offering “city food” in Newburyport, Batista-Caswell confidently recognized the town’s changing demographic, keeping her kitchen open later than anyone else in town and serving challenging cuisine that has garnered a following far beyond the North Shore.
“There are Sundays at Brine where everyone is a chef,” Batista-Caswell says. She means that literally—her two restaurants are at the center of a culinary renaissance on the North Shore, and she is finding camaraderie with kindred dining destinations like No. 8 Kitchen & Spirits in Amesbury and Brasserie 28 in Andover. When Batista-Caswell volunteered to run Great Chefs Night, an annual benefit for Anna Jaques Hospital, 33 chefs rushed in to donate their time and food.
“It was all a matter of sending out an email,” Batista-Caswell says. “Chefs are excited to work with us.”
That’s in no small part due to her exacting standards and the ways that she walks the line between inspiring her own staff to push the limits of creativity and staying true to her vision for the restaurants.
“It’s my life on that plate,” Batista-Caswell says. “I have to allow them enough of a leash to make sure they are creative, but that they create what people want to eat.”
Accolades show it’s working. Batista-Caswell is finding a way to balance the need to keep the restaurants true to her original concept with allowing chefs to follow their bliss. The off-season Culinary Opus Dinners and a new slate of Monday theme nights that allow the chefs to depart completely from the regular menu and explore sushi, Chinese dishes, tacos, and anything else the kitchen would like to experiment with are two tools she uses to motivate talented cooks like Jeremy Glover, executive chef at Ceia, who started preparing for his early spring Opus Dinner two months in advance.
“It keeps you on your toes,” says Glover, whose previous experience includes Cava Tapas & Wine Bar in Portsmouth and Cafe? Campagne in Seattle, explaining that just about every course he prepared for the Opus Dinner represented something he’d never done before.
Everyone at the Caswell Restaurant Group—servers and cooks alike—shares a love of food and a strong desire to learn. In fact, Batista-Caswell says employees often come to work for her after having a memorable dining experience at Ceia or Brine. She takes great pleasure in noting that her staff frequently send her stories and pictures of great dishes they’ve heard about, and that the employees created their own “wine bible” that they often take home on the weekends to help them with the restaurants’ unique and sophisticated offerings.
Sheer dedication is an important part of joining the staff at Caswell Restaurant Group, Batista-Caswell says, noting that she has had servers opt not to join the team after realizing the number of details they will need to remember. Batista-Caswell even gives employees written pop quizzes on the menu. The bar is just as high for kitchen staff—she tests them on the different kitchen tasks, so others will be able help out if one station is slammed, and will not be shy about telling a cook how to season a burger.
Brine executive chef Justin Shoults appreciates Batista-Caswell’s strong hand in the kitchen. “We have a good, respectful dialogue,” says Shoults, who came to the restaurant from Nantucket’s Oran Mor Bistro to serve as sous chef at Brine before his promotion to the top job last fall. “This is my first big job as manager, and she is a mentor to me, which I need. Pushback is always positive and for the better.”
As an owner who is not a chef, Batista-Caswell is more vulnerable to kitchen changes than perhaps a chef-owner—and also more aware of the need to allow her chefs to evolve.
“[Nancy] encourages her employees to grow, and to be invested in the idea of fine dining,” says Antoinette Bruno, CEO and editor-in-chief for StarChefs, the New York–based magazine for culinary insiders that named Batista-Caswell the 2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Restaurateur of the Year. “She wants them to keep learning, to really experience food,” Bruno continues, adding that Batista-Caswell encourages management to eat at other top restaurants, especially in Boston, and will reimburse them for meals.
Batista-Caswell has herself been spending a lot of time dining in Boston, and even living there part- time, in preparation for her next big move. This spring, she signed the lease for a restaurant in the Fort Point Channel District.
“I want big city. I want a James Beard Award-winning chef,” Batista-Caswell says. She hopes to achieve that with oak+rowen, a 150-seat spot that will be a mash-up of the concepts at both Ceia and Brine that she hopes will draw broader critical attention. While Batista-Caswell groomed and graduated two “Rising Star” chefs and the only North Shore “Boston Zagat 30 Under 30” award winner, and the restaurants have drawn multiple accolades from outlets like Wine Spectator, she thinks the more prestigious awards are reserved for a larger stage.
“I see a space in Boston for the whole concept, from design to front-of-house to back-of-house,” she says, noting that when it comes to Zagat rankings and James Beard Awards, Boston restaurants often fall short on service. “In Boston, there often isn’t a person setting the tone for the front of the house,” she says—a function she sees as just as critical as excellent food in these days of increased competition.
In preparation for the venture, Batista-Caswell moved part-time to Boston to immerse herself more in the food culture there, and to figure out what’s missing, as well as to see how it feels to be an hour away from her Newburyport properties. “It probably won’t be easy for the next couple of years,” Batista-Caswell says. But easy is not in her DNA. Even in her personal life, she does nothing by half measures. Less than a year after taking up running, she regularly runs 10-mile stretches and planned to tackle a half-marathon in Portugal while on a culinary business trip this past spring. “Running is my only escape,” she says. “You don’t realize how unhealthy the lifestyle can get, working long hours and eating late.” Now she tunes out for long runs, putting her phone on Do Not Disturb and letting the texts pile up.
Disconnecting even for a short while doesn’t come easily to Batista-Caswell, especially while planning a third restaurant and authoring a book about restaurant management, but after the epic winter of 2015, she realized it was critical for her well-being. The historic snowfall took its toll on the bottom line and on staff morale, as it did for almost every business owner on the North Shore. But layered on top of keeping her two restaurants rolling and staff upbeat despite shortages of shellfish and customers, she had to contend with losing two head chefs and a general manager (one to injury, two to family-driven career changes).
“I literally worried myself sick,” Batista-Caswell says, explaining that she could barely eat and couldn’t even taste wine—a big blow to a woman whose palate can identify award-winning wines long before they garner any media attention. The answer, Batista-Caswell realized, was in stepping back, just a bit. While there is no question that she is the visionary behind the concept and menu at both restaurants, she has reluctantly realized that with the growth of her business, she has to become less of a restaurant person who thinks about food and more of a manager.
“They don’t teach you this stuff at Johnson & Wales,” Batista-Caswell says, referring to the Providence university where she studied culinary management.
Batista-Caswell carries the weight of those expectations—she realizes that people work at her restaurants specifically to learn and grow in ways that other places on the North Shore can’t offer and is loathe to disappoint anyone. She was particularly struck by a comment made by Alex Lorenzano, former general manager at Barrel House, a trendy Beverly gastropub that opened in 2012. “She stopped me and said, ‘Because of what you did, creating Ceia and Brine, we could do what we do,’” Batista-Caswell recalls. “[There] is so much more on my plate than I realized. Is that the expectation?”