Chef and Restaurateur Jeanie Roland of Ella’s in Westerly
A Career in the Kitchen and a Life in Food
Chef and restaurateur Jeanie Roland’s career has been unusual in many ways. She and husband, James, run two restaurants, one in Punta Gorda, Florida (since 2002), and one in Westerly, Rhode Island (since 2012). She’s a female in a business dominated by males, but she beat Bobby Flay in 2015 on his Food Network show (only the third contestant at the time to do so), with her recipe for “curried mussels with frites.” And, as much as she loves to cook (and worked on her kitchen line for 14 years), she also loves to teach cooking: training her own staff from the ground up and offering cooking classes at both restaurants.
Jeanie, at 51, has had many influences on her cooking styles, and she is quick to add that she cooks what she likes to eat. She grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood in Waterbury, Connecticut, where both her grandmother and her mother were “scratch cooks.” Her Lithuanian grandmother used bacon fat for frying and handed out shots of “basement booze” to help her grandchildren sleep. Her Irish-Italian mom set a formal table and made dinner a sit-down meal.
“I was in the kitchen from a young age,” Jeanie says with a smile, as she takes a mound of dough from a bowl, kneads it a bit and begins to roll it out, pushing both hands firmly on a French rolling pin. “I started off in pastry—I had a joy for all things dough.”
Clearly, she still does. But this dough is not for a sweet, but a savory: Chinese pork buns that will be filled with caramelized pork belly, drizzled with hoisin sauce and served with a ginger-scallion dipping sauce.
Jeanie earned a BS degree in exercise science from Southern Connecticut State University (competitive swimming in college contributed to the upper-body strength she would need as a chef). She then went to the Culinary Institute of America, learning French technique from a German chef, and subsequently signed on to an international company that sent her to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“Everywhere I go, I get inspired to try something new,” she reflects. “I like to twist things—that’s my approach to a lot of food that I enjoy.”
Thus, the Chinese buns are not round but square; duck fat, not pork fat, goes into the filling; the squares are folded over the filling but the edges are not pinched shut, giving it the look of a small, fat sandwich. The buns are melt-in-your-mouth light.
“I work in layers of flavor and I don’t want one to overwhelm the others,” she says. “I’m blessed with a good tongue. It comes from your soul, from your heart.”
The Chinese buns are a customer favorite, as are the mussels in curry sauce that beat Bobby Flay, and Jeanie’s take on shrimp cocktail—warm shrimp with garlic confit, capers, currants and tomatoes. Her aim for many of the menu items, such as her pâté or the shrimp, is for them to taste the same in Punta Gorda as in Westerly.
“That’s testimony to the training by my husband and me,” Jeanie says. “We really pride ourselves on that. If someone says, ‘Mary makes that dish better than Chef,’ that’s what you want. An array of people slightly better than you—that’s how you build an empire.
The guy in Florida is almost a mini-me; he’s been with me for 10 years.”
“At both of the restaurants, it’s a very familylike group,” she continues. “Very strong and very disciplined. They thrive under that.”
When she and James started out in Punta Gorda, they envisioned it as a 30-seat deli/gourmet store. But the Perfect Caper “snowballed on its own” and now has 165 seats. Ella’s is entering its sixth season, with seating for 200, including a casual pub and private dining rooms upstairs (favored by Watch Hill resident Taylor Swift and friends). Jeanie has been nominated as a semi-finalist six times by the James Beard Foundation.
Any drawbacks to being a female in her field have happened in her own kitchen, where she has occasionally bumped up against a cook who could not take directions from a strong woman.
“I really try to take the female part out and recognize that no matter what your gender, this life is tough,” she says. “I think people love that it is me, a female, who is the chefowner, and I am fortunate that James has always been there, supporting me as my business and life partner.”
“She’s the mad, evil, creative genius,” James quips, as he passes by in the kitchen, a towering, white-aproned presence.
“And he’s the Renaissance Superman who fills in everywhere,” she’s quick to respond.
James, 53, grew up in Los Angeles and is a self-trained chef. Jeanie met him in California and he followed her to Florida. They’ve been together 25 years.
They both feel a commitment to using local products, such as calamari, oysters, clams and fresh-caught fish, but also getting the best-quality products, even if that means the shrimp come from Key West and the salmon from the lochs of Scotland. They make their own Italian sausage, ricotta, mozzarella and pasta, the latter with imported Italian flour.
“I’m passionate about a lot of things,” she stresses, as she snips a rubber band off a bunch of asparagus, so that it doesn’t get to the sea turtles. “Cruelty-free products, no hormones, no antibiotics, vegetarian chickens. People think I’m a wing nut—I’m just over-informed.”
Jeanie and James have simmering plans for opening more restaurants. “I find inspiration by waking up in the morning,” she says. They divide their time and energy between Florida and Rhode Island, but she spends the entire summer/early fall season in Westerly. “People want to see me, watching the plates, fielding problems.”
Her reply to a question about her “best dish” could definitely be her philosophy for life: “My best is yet to come. If I had a best dish, I’d be a has-been. I’m like a Bordeaux—I just keep getting better.”