Local Maine and away oysters on the half shell served with charred tomato cocktail,
red wine mignonette and scallion ginger cilantro sauces.
Conversation & Cuisine
words Todd Bross
photography Lynn Karlin
Provide a well-seasoned chef like 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill co-owner Patrick Duffy and a novice baker / writer such as myself with a breakfast of locally sourced head cheese, pork tacos, ooey-gooey farm eggs, beef brisket hash and mugs of strong coffee and it’s amazing how well (and fast) those two strangers become friends.
Then again, feeding someone’s soul first, stomach second, has a way of doing just that.
Co-owner-Chef Patrick Duffy, in the foreground, and Sous Chef Rob Mason.
While conversation lingered, the plate’s tasty contents at Camden’s Boynton-McKay Food Co. disappeared quickly, but quickly has been the norm for Duffy as of late. The time elapsed between Duffy and his wife, Jessica, being asked to open a Rockport eatery in the space formerly occupied by Shepherd’s Pie and their first night of service? Just 41 days.
“Stuart and Marianne Smith had recently acquired the building (the street address begat the new name) and approached Jessica about opening a restaurant there,” said Duffy. “They knew her and had a good relationship from previous ventures, and myself from being the sous, then executive chef, at Shepherd’s Pie.
“We said yes on June 16, 2016. By July 11 we were open. It was a little crazy,” he laughed. “At one point we scrubbed like mad, nonstop for two weeks.”
Outfitted in full Pittsburgh Steelers gear shortly before they faced the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs (“I love to get everyone up here all riled up”), Duffy related that he was born and raised in eastern Pennsylvania and moved to Andover, Massachusetts, at the age of 8.
“Growing up, I got grounded a lot,” he said, “so I had a choice: sit in my room all day or help my mom in the kitchen.”
Duffy met Jessica (a native of Warren, Maine) at the University of Massachusetts via mutual friends. They didn’t date in college, each going their separate ways. Ironically, it was Duffy’s “bouncing in and out of school” that set the political and environmental science student on a culinary path. Various food-related jobs over three years expanded on his adolescent “hard time” in Mom’s kitchen. The fry cook became a line cook, which in turn led to the New England Culinary Institute in 1996. Numerous restaurant stints in and around New England and Boston (particularly the North End) led him back to Andover and the French-focused restaurant Cassis.
“My college roommate married his best friend from high school,” said Jessica, who by then had parlayed years of front-of-house experience bartending and serving into management and event coordination at a number of area venues. “So we ended up reconnecting post college in Andover.”
And, about a year later, they married.
Desiring a more laid-back lifestyle, they started a steady migration north. As Jessica succinctly put it: “You want to have babies? Move to Maine!” The last comment was shared as part of a lively conversation the three of us shared as I dined at 18 Central, where I was able to (just barely) withstand Duffy’s mega-calorie overload with plate after plate of deliciously creative cuisine, each reflecting every step on the culinary and personal sojourn that has led back to Rockport.
(L) Local Scallop Crudo with American caviar, torn basil, blood orange and chili oil.
(R) Grilled Hanger Steak with bone marrow steak butter, red wine sauce,herb frites
and watercress salad.
(L) Roasted Local Mussels with pastis served with caramelized fennel, toasted garlic,
brown butter, lemon and grilled focaccia. (R) Grilled Local Scallops and Pork Belly
served with warm duck fat coleslaw, crispy rutabaga cake and cider-mustard agrodolce.
Rendering each of the various sauces that provides the underlying structure to many of his dishes takes hours upon hours.
Bottles of red wine are reduced to a fraction of their original volume. Stock, a reduction already, gets added. Now that is reduced. Then some bone marrow; reduce some more; season to taste. Allow to simmer, all those concentrated flavors melding into something new and wonderful. Duffy knows that time is one of the most important ingredients there is.
All to become a few generously swiped tablespoons on a plate. But what swipes! They provide balance, underlying multi-faceted currents of flavor that weave the other components, most of which themselves underwent some form of time-based enhancement (such as multiple days in a marinade, whose own existence came about as a result of, you guessed it, a lot of time) into symphonic flavor that can’t be faked with short cuts.
Although, thanks to his training, he brings a classical French approach to technique, Duffy is most definitely a proponent of the French and Italian approach of eating what is growing or available where you are when you are there. Fiddleheads lead to scapes, pumpkins to parsnips, blueberries to apples, halibut to scallops, mesclun to mushrooms.
The time it will take, at the height of season, to serve upwards of 3,000 oysters from all over New England? Seven days.
Duffy, who is most at home overseeing the wood-fired grill that is the centerpiece of 18 Central’s open-view kitchen is (like most of his kitchen staff) rocking a trucker’s cap as yet another plate is prepared. A mix of older and new alternative rock fills the charming 19th-century space with subdued yet upbeat energy, reflective of the duo who chose both the space and the playlist, each other and the decision to breathe new life into an old space via a grill-centric menu and killer raw bar—all while they and their children (she kept her word) breathe laid-back Maine air.
18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill
18 Central St., Rockport