Chef Antonio Bettencourt
Conversation with Cheryl Fenton
Images by Russ Mezikofsky

With tales of witches and mysticism, Salem is a destination for the imagination. Little can compete with the Wiccan ways and supernatural vibes that haunt this quaint town on Massachusetts’ north shore. Set among the shops and cafes of historical Pickering Wharf, it’s here that we find 62 Restaurant, Chef Antonio Bettencourt and wife Valerie’s upscale eatery.

Going from self-trained home cook to holding court at restaurants such as Upstairs on the Square (via a Cambridge School of Culinary Arts diploma), Chef Bettencourt is now dazzling diners with rich Italian and French cuisine. Since opening in 2008, 62 has been awarded a Best of the New by the Boston Globe and a Best of the North Shore by North Shore magazine.

We sat down with Chef Bettencourt to chat about how being ignored by four sisters prompted his love of cooking, when it’s OK to bring martial arts into the kitchen and why we find his dishes so bewitching.

How did your love of cooking begin?
We’re Brazilian and Portuguese, so food was always a part of our life. Mom would cook dinner for all seven of us every single night, so I grew up with that tradition. Being part of a huge family, every get-together was always huge, like 30 to 40 people. The quantity of food was obnoxious.

You had four older sisters. How did you end up the sibling in the kitchen?
That was the product of four sisters who didn’t want their little brother hanging out with them. I was left behind to hang out with my mother and cook. I absorbed it all and took to it. I mean, what 14-year-old kid is reading a cookbook and figuring out how to make beef bourguignon or risotto? I remember for my mom’s birthday when I was 12, as her present, I made a loaf of fresh bread and rack of lamb. I saw it in Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and I liked the pictures, so I tried it. It was probably terrible. But it was pretty cosmopolitan at the time.

Tell us about your relatively unconventional pathway to the kitchen.
I was a truck driver for a moving company. It was a great job that gave me plenty of time to cook. There were three different departments. One was moving vending machines and safes. The other one was bringing kitchen appliances to homes on Beacon Hill. Then eventually I got on the route that delivered to restaurants. I started at 2am but I would be done by noon. I would come home and watch the Discovery Channel’s “Great Chefs of the World”. I would watch that religiously. That’s when the gravitation towards cooking started.

You had a brief stint in military school and a long background in martial arts. Does that ever translate into how you run your kitchen?
I took martial arts since I was a kid, from age 4 to 18. That discipline is a major influence in how I work the line or a station. I’m not one of those chefs who walks around with a clipboard. I’m actively on the line cooking side-by-side with my cooks. I try to train that discipline into them. There’s an expectation when you’re taught something. It can’t be the “first day” every day. That’s where discipline comes into play. Once you’re taught, you can get it right on Tuesday, but you have to get it right on Wednesday and again on Thursday. But you don’t want discipline to override being open-minded to happy accidents and being creative and figuring out if there’s a better way to do something.

How do you open your own mind to inspiration for new dishes?
Travel plays a big role, whether it’s to other countries, different states or even other restaurants. Seeing other kitchens and something that someone else is doing, not wanting to take it wholesale from them but thinking, ‘wow that’s a new way of looking at a few ingredients I’ve never used before.’ You can get stuck in a rut and use the same ingredients the same way. Reading for me is also huge. I get a ton of magazines. Even looking at the pictures triggers inspiration. Also the seasonal changes are so drastic in New England, there’s plenty of ammunition.

How does your seaside location at Pickering Wharf feed into your menu?
We would be remiss if we didn’t use seafood to our advantage. Tourists come in and they might not realize this is technically an Italian-inspired restaurant. That doesn’t matter as long as they see something on the menu that they like. Seafood is a heavy hitter during the summer.

What are your signature dishes and must-tries?
I use Italian as our core and guiding light, but there is a lot of Mediterranean on our menu. There’s a grilled lamb sausage—it’s a salad of black olives, crumbled feta, dried oregano, cucumbers, chickpeas, red onions and lemon vinaigrette with homemade grilled lamb sausage on top. We also focus on handmade pasta here, and there’s one dish that I’m really excited about called Raviolo al'Uovo. It’s a singular ravioli stuffed with ricotta. Then we take a spoon and make little nest, put in egg yoke then the pasta goes over. When you get it, the egg yolk oozes out when you cut it. We serve it over a chunky sauce with wild mushroom, pancetta and cippoline in a red wine reduction. It’s really rich with black truffles and shaved Parmesan. It’s only been on the menu a month. I’m super excited for people to try it.

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