Congratulations to the 2016 Local Hero Winners

March 10, 2016
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Every autumn, readers of Edible Rhody are invited to vote for their local food heroes, as a way to honor the people who bring us our food and drink. We’d like to extend our thanks to all of you who voted for the chefs who feed us; the artisans who tempt us; the farmers who produce flavorful foods; the food, wine and retail stores that inspire us; and the nonprofits that effect change in our food community.

Chef/Restaurant: Derek Wagner/Nick’s on Broadway

As the youngest of five, with a large extended family that loved to gather around the table, Derek Wagner has felt at home in the kitchen for as long as he can remember. “We lived a few blocks from my grandparents,” he recalls, “and on Sunday the entire family would gather to cook and share a meal together.” As owner and head chef of Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, which he opened in 2002 at the age of 24, Derek strives to bring that feeling of comfort to the fine-dining world. “Before opening Nick’s it bothered me that there was this disconnect between comfort and quality,” he explains. “You couldn’t get both. It was either greasy spoon or fine dining, with few options in between.” With a menu that playfully walks the line between simple, familiar flavors and more complex, unique concepts, always with an eye to seasonality and sustainability and devotion to supporting local farmers, Derek more than delivers on the comfort and quality. (Photo by Christine Chitnis.)

Farm/Farmer: Perry Raso/Matunuck Oyster Farm

We’re all familiar with the concept of farm-to-table. Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Farm has his own catchphrase to describe the freshness of his product: pond-to-plate. Perry, who grew up in South Kingstown digging littlenecks, bull-raking clams and wild-harvesting shellfish, founded Matunuck Oyster Farm in 2002. What started as a one-acre plot on Potter Pond has now expanded to a seven-acre operation, and recently added a 14-acre vegetable farm and a successful restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown. The menu is seasonally driven (think clam shack with a fine-dining twist) and utilizes the vegetable farm’s produce to add a seasonal flavor to the available seafood and shellfish. “We focus on getting better at what we’re doing, and from there we gradually expand,” Perry humbly explains when asked about his success. “That’s been the theme of the business since I started.” (Photo by Chip Riegel.)

Food Artisan: Melissa Denmark/Ellie’s Bakery

When Melissa was choosing a career path her dad gently nudged her into the culinary arts, noting “not everyone bakes this many cookies!” After majoring in baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University, and amassing experience in a range of bakeries, Melissa found her home as executive pastry chef of Gracie’s restaurant in Providence and, upon opening in 2013, its sister bakery, Ellie’s. Her mission is to “make dessert something for which you always save room,” though her talents extend beyond sweets. Ellie’s, modeled after a Parisian café, offers soups, salads and sandwiches, served on homemade bread. This year, with rented kitchen space at Hope & Main in Warren, Melissa is excited to be able to introduce morning Danishes and croissants to the menu. “The bakery has been so warmly welcomed into the Providence community, and we have a host of regulars,” says Melissa. “I love that Ellie’s is a part of their everyday, and that we’re always keeping things fresh and fun.” (Photo by Christine Chitnis.)

Beverage Artisan: Steven & Sheri O’Connor/Nickle Creek Vineyard

“A vineyard in Foster?” That’s usually the first thing out of visitors’ mouths upon entering Nickle Creek Vineyard’s tasting room. What comes next are satisfied smiles as they experience the high-quality wines that Sheri and Steven produce. The couple, with their two young sons in tow, purchased the property in 2007 with the dream of making wine. First came the hard work of clearing and prepping the land, then waiting the five years it takes for the vines to mature. From their first bottle of wine in 2011, to the opening of their tasting room in 2012, to their current 15,000-to 18,000-case production, their success has been a family affair. Sheri handles the growing side, while Steven is in charge of the winemaking. “Every bottle has a story,” Steven explains, “and when you sit down for a glass of Nickle Creek wine you’re connected to our story.” Visitors to the tasting room feel another connection too: to the dedication the O’Connors put into their product. (Photo by David H. Wells.)

Food, Wine, Retail Shop: Jan Faust Dane/Stock Culinary Goods

For those of us devoted to supporting local businesses and to cooking and baking, November 2012 was a time to rejoice. That was the month Jan opened the doors of her thoughtfully sourced, impeccably curated kitchen supply shop, Stock Culinary Goods in Providence. Whether you’re in need of a kitchen workhorse, such as a Wüsthof knife or Lodge Cast Iron skillet, or a locally sourced hostess gift, such as an Andiamo cutting board or Earth & Anchor bar soap, you’ll find something at Stock that fits the bill. Some of Jan’s favorite products are from artists who walked in off the street to show her their goods, such as Matt Hall’s cast bronze horseshoe crab bottle openers. “We’re all connected here in Rhode Island,” Jan explains, “so it doesn’t take long to unearth the talent. It’s everywhere.” It’s that sense of openness and community that has endeared Stock to home cooks and professionals alike. (Photo by Christine Chitnis.)

Food-Related Nonprofit: Hope & Main

From 100-year-old dilapidated school building to booming culinary incubator, Hope & Main’s journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. Now in their third year, the Warren-based nonprofit has partnered with over 70 food businesses. From research and recipe development, to licensing and certification, to branding and packaging, to distribution, sales and marketing, Hope & Main supports their businesses every step of the way. If you haven’t yet visited the thriving incubator, now is the time. They’ve rolled out a packed schedule of classes—all open to the public—ranging in subject from cheese-, kimchi-and chocolate-making to nutrition and raising joyful eaters. “I tell people, ‘If you eat food, come to Hope & Main.’ And that happens to be everyone!” says founder Lisa Raiola (second from left, shown here with the Hope & Main administrative team). “Because whether you are buying salsa at our Maker’s Market, or taking a class, we have something for you.” (Photo courtesy of Hope & Main.)

An author and photographer, Christine Chitnis lives with her husband and two sons in Providence, Rhode Island. Her latest book, Icy Creamy Healthy Sweet (Roost, April 2016) features 75 recipes for dairy-free ice cream, fruit-forward ice pops, frozen yogurt and more. Visit her at

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