Beau Vestal of New Rivers
It’s About Good Food and Family at Providence’s Acclaimed Locavore Restaurant
“Love People, Cook Them Tasty Food” reads the sign above one of the refrigerated cases in the kitchen at New Rivers Restaurant. That could apply as much to its original owners (Bruce and Pat Tillinghast), when they opened the restaurant’s doors in 1990, as to the current owners Beau and Elizabeth Vestal. The philosophy has remained for these 27 years.
Treat your customers with kindness and dignity and they will become a community, a “living, breathing entity,” according to Beau, who became a sous-chef at New Rivers in 2002, executive chef in 2003 and co-owner in 2012, with wife Elizabeth, who joined the restaurant staff in 2009.
“Our guests have as many attachments to New Rivers as we do to them,” Beau says. “I remember their kids as grade-schoolers and they’re now in college.”
And although Beau thinks of the proliferation of restaurants in Providence as “exciting” and “interesting” (a 40% increase in the last five years), it’s also a challenge. In his words: “We want to still be relevant, because there’s so much more food savviness now, and that makes business more competitive.”
“We have to stay abreast while maintaining our own identity,” he emphasizes. “We’ve established a foothold in the food community but it’s easy to be overlooked, because everyone wants to try the new best thing. But we’re still here!
“And all those places are good,” he adds, with a grin. “It would be easier if they were crummy, but they’re not!”
Beau is in front of the stove and moving around the kitchen as he talks, preparing his own take on a steakhouse dinner, with a grilled hanger steak and pumpkin seed chimichurri sauce, sweet potato “steak fries” and lightly creamed kale. The steaks are expertly grilled, as he tests their doneness with a finger; the chimichurri is stirred; the sweet potatoes are cut, coated with oil and spices and baked while Beau finds the fresh greens in the fridge and pulls out Tuscan kale, which he adds to a simmering cream sauce, seasoned with butter-toasted garlic.
Beau grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his given name was John, but in a Southern household, he quickly became “Beau.” He went to Johnson & Wales and landed at New Rivers just after he graduated.
As a leftie (he even has a left-handed spatula), he’s careful to move around his other cooking staff to reach into the Craftsman toolbox he keeps for kitchen tools or into the stacked plastic drawers for spices just above that.
The original cook in this kitchen was George Germon, who, with wife Johanne Killeen, started Al Forno in this location. He had a three-inch concrete slab poured so that he could reach the stove and counter space more easily. For Beau and most of his staff, they have to “lean over a lot.” Their cooking line is also constricted to the small size of the kitchen—“The space dictates the food ‘terroir,’” he quips.
Beau has followed Bruce Tillinghast’s quest for seasonal and local ingredients and created long-lasting collaborations with farmers and food artisans. He’s also underscored his own interest in charcuterie by curing and smoking his own meats, especially pork.
And though New Rivers is often thought of as an upscale restaurant, Beau and Elizabeth offer small plates and seasonal promotions that are less expensive. Another priority has been the restaurant’s service—“to make it really, really stand out,” in Beau’s words.
And it does. New Rivers has 22 attentive staff, front and back, with six or seven of them in the kitchen. Elizabeth, who trained as a chef in Florence, Italy, and in New York City, works three or four nights a week doing front-of-house operations and overseeing the kitchen, as well as handling the administrative work of running a business. She and Beau have discovered that being owners sometimes means being plumber, electrician or psychologist. “It’s certainly expanded our scope,” says Beau.
Both he and Elizabeth are working hard to balance their personal and professional lives, with three children under the age of 3 at home (a daughter followed by twin boys).
“It’s the biggest challenge for me, because a lot of chefs don’t have families,” Beau admits. “Our own families live far away, and we are always juggling childcare.”
Another challenge has been a strange shortage of cooks because of supply and demand. New Johnson & Wales grads are looking for higher wages right out of school, and that’s unrealistic for most restaurants.
The trend of more people cooking and eating at home has also changed the restaurant scene, though Beau understands that. On the other hand, New Rivers now sees a lot more seasonal and out-of-town visitors, plus Millennials who are dining out.
“They are always checking social media for the hottest place in town,” Beau says. “It’s time-consuming but people expect us to be on social media all the time now to show what we’re cooking.”
Beau Vestal’s bottom line: “The city’s food health is really, really good.”
And one of the biggest reasons for that is the staying power of New Rivers: “Love people, and cook them tasty food.”
New Rivers Restaurant
7–9 Steeple St.
Providence, Rhode Island