Executive Chef Jennifer Backman of the Weekapaug Inn
An oven alarm dings. A stove timer buzzes. A pastry chef in kitchen whites pours crème brulée into tiny ramekins. The sous-chef takes cheddar crisps from the oven. And the vegetable guy checks the roasted rings of Delicata squash. The six-person kitchen staff at the Weekapaug Inn move around and past each other like clockwork.
The head of their team, Executive Chef Jennifer Backman, stands in a corner of the large kitchen, patiently pulling the skins off each roasted purple pearl onion from a fivepound mound. At one point, she turns her head and glances over her shoulder to acknowledge the competency and confidence of her workers.
“We have a really good team,” she says, with a quiet smile and a proud straightening of her shoulders. “No task is too large or too small for my staff.” “The training is intense,” she continues, “and they are taught to be independent and responsible for what they’re going to be preparing, right down to the ordering of an ingredient they will need.”
Backman came to the inn in October 2012, when it opened after extensive renovations to become a year-round destination. Established in 1899 by Phebe and Frederick C. Buffum, it had operated as a seasonal spot under four generations of the Buffum family until 2007, when it was closed for repairs.
The property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was bought in 2010 by investors Langdon Wheeler and Charles M. Royce. They wanted to make the restaurant and the inn’s activities, such as paddle tours on Quonochontaug Pond, more accessible to the local community.
Backman had spent two years as executive sous-chef at the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Weekpaug’s sister inn, and prior to that, six-and-a-half years at Castle Hill Inn, in Newport, working alongside its former executive chef Jonathan Cambra.
“I learned a lot from him about local foods and seasonality,” she reflects. “And also how to go from very large numbers to very small numbers.”
Raised in a small town in Washington State, Backman came to Rhode Island straight out of high school to attend Johnson & Wales University, in Providence. Though she was initially overwhelmed by the faster pace of a New England city, she was excited to be working with new ingredients.
“There was a significant difference in the products we could get,” she recalls, “and once I was actually working, it felt more like a fit here. I completely fell in love with Rhode Island, and I can’t imagine going back.”
Backman is a natural-born cook, teaching herself from the time she was tall enough to see over the countertops. She’s particularly passionate about desserts, playing around with them “like a cook, always looking for different textures, colors, flavors—I’m always making it on the fly. It’s always based on my mood. I definitely cook by mood.”
She admits that can drive her staff crazy because nothing’s precise, but she also sees her kitchen as a collaborative process, where one or more of her cooks might suggest something that sparks her creativity.
“That’s why my sous-chef’s name is on the menu as well,” she mentions.
Backman’s give-and-take with her staff, be it recipes or prep work, also encompasses her biggest challenge as executive chef. On the one hand, she describes having to learn control, by which she means not only controlling herself in difficult situations but also overseeing everyone else’s actions.
“I have to make sure I don’t miss anything,” she explains. “That includes dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and then dotting other people’s and then going back and making them perfect.”
That oversight becomes much harder when her staff doubles for two months during the summer season, from her core team of seven to 15 or 20. Backman now knows that with that new group of less-experienced workers can come mistakes.
“So I tell my staff, ‘Everybody’s eyes need to be everywhere,’” she emphasizes. “It’s easy to walk into the kitchen and think that everything’s perfectly fine … but there’s always something you can find that needs fixing.”
One of the most rewarding things about her job is guest satisfaction, knowing that she’s potentially created a lifelong memory for someone. Another positive aspect of being Chef Jen at Weekapaug Inn is her close relationships with Rhody (and New England) farmers—she even brought Jeffrey Kamminga, of Baby Greens, from Castle Hill to Weekapaug.
“The farmers and producers are our friends,” she stresses. “If they take care of us, we will take care of them.”
And Backman definitely indulges her culinary creativity, changing the menu “whenever I’m bored.” That means that dinner items change often, though she tries not to do a whole overhaul of breakfast, lunch and dinner items all at once.
“It’s not necessarily timed to the change of seasons,” she notes, with a gentle shake of her head. “I actually change it much more, perhaps every couple of weeks. It’s a true evolution of the menu from the ingredients coming in.”
Backman is looking forward to using spring’s bounty of early onions and garlic, new potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries and “lots of fish—it’s hard not to cook fish when you’re right next to the water.”
Finishing the last pearl onion in the pile and rubbing her very purple fingers, Backman confesses, with a shy grin, that she has no secret for scrubbing the oniony aroma from them: “I don’t mind smelling the food—it’s what I do.”
Try This Recipe by Chef Jennifer Backman: Marinated Flank Steak with Chimichurri and Grilled Potatoes
For more information visit WeekapaugInn.com.