Focus On: Chef Matt Storch

Chef Matt Storch, owner of Match restaurant in SoNo and Westport’s own BurgerLobster was born and raised in Westport. He graduated Staples High School in 1995 and currently lives in Fairfield with his wife and nine-year-old twin boys. 

“When I was growing up, Westport was that true small-town community with small businesses that supported everyone–neighborhoods did block parties. My family is still rooted to the area. My parents still live here, and my sisters are in the area. Throughout the years of people leaving and coming and starting my own business and moving out, I observed the town became a little disconnected. It started to have a hoity toity feel and that made me irritated. Now, through this crisis, Westport is displaying those old characteristics which makes me proud and happy and more willing to be part of the community. A lot of people are stepping out to do the right thing being friendly, generous, showing their true colors. 

I observed the town became a little disconnected…Now…Westport is displaying those old characteristics which makes me proud

There is a calm that has settled over the area. Not everyone is rushing around, getting to the train and going out. It’s extended family time and I think it’s hitting home with a lot of people, and they are realizing, again, that this is a small community. It’s touching, and I didn’t think Westport had it in it. Even though you can’t see each other, you feel the love. 

Business is ok. We’ve had some great weeks and we’ve had some mediocre weeks, but our staff is employed and we’re keeping them busy. Staying relevant is important and keeping your name in every body’s ears is important. We are doing curbside at both restaurants and have just started Match Provisions where we sell groceries for pick up. We just started and on that first week we immediately got 75 orders. We open orders on Mondays at and close the store on Thursday, pick up is the following Tuesday at the train station parking lot.  We’re selling milk, eggs, butter, gloves, toilet paper, a mixed produce box (CSA style), frozen pasta, shrimp, meat, fresh and shucked clams and oysters from Copps Island Oysters (Norm Bloom & Son) and a new product we’ve created called Copps Casino, which are shucked oysters with a topping that are baked and frozen to reheat. We also sell beer, wine and liquors. 

It’s truly going to be that the strong survive. It’s going to be survival of fittest and whoever is the smartest marketer is going to be lucky here–and I do think it’s luck. I truly do. I think unfortunately some of my fellow restaurateurs made the mistake of not staying open and not trying. I get it—they didn’t feel safe. I think we figured out the safety part—we don’t let anyone in restaurants except staff.   

I strongly believe that I think the restaurant industry is the best industry this could happen to because we are already sanitary. It is what we were trained to do. So, we add a mask—ok, big deal. It’s an inconvenience but it’s not that side of it that is the issue, it’s the hospitality side. That’s what I love about this business– it’s about making people happy. My fear is that the restaurant industry is not going to look anywhere like it did prior to this. I think it’s going to take a long time to get to full dining back with that fun, safe, entertaining, wholesome feeling. It’s sad. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I can’t walk around my dining room and make people happy it will suck.” 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Westport First Selectman, Jim Marpe

Ohio Native, Jim Marpe and his wife, Mary Ellen, have lived in Westport for 31 years. Previously an executive at Accenture, Marpe served on Westport’s Board of Education and on state-level education boards. Active members at Green’s Farms Church both Marpes serve on multiple non-profit boards. Marpe is also an avid wine collector who says “sampling the collection of excellent wines in my wine cellar is a pleasant way to end a challenging day.” He shares his thoughts on being at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis management on April 30, the original proposed end-date for social distancing measures. 

“As the First Selectman, I have been working seven days a week to help lead Westport through the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike most of my fellow residents, I haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy the “new normal”. Most of my time is spent working virtually from my office and Zoom studio at home. A typical workday now begins at 7am and rarely ends before 9pm. At least some traditional evening meetings are being moved earlier in the day because of greater resident availability and flexibility. 

Mary Ellen spends a significant part of her time working as member of the Westport Country Playhouse to help the Playhouse manage through this crisis and plan for future re-opening and fund raising. She is also playing a lot of virtual Mahjong with her friends. 

As the chief community advocate for social distancing, I’ve gotten used to it and find it surprisingly natural now. We’ve been able to slow the spread of the virus throughout Westport, and this is the way to do it. We’ll need to stay disciplined about the distancing into the summer months as we begin to open public facilities. My personal style is to meet with people “in-person” as much as possible, so I’ve had to shift my communication approach to deal with many more telephone conferences and Zoom-based meetings. My observation is that Zoom forces a more disciplined and efficient meeting; making them more productive and less contentious.  

I’m very pleased with the way the majority have responded with our request to stay inside as much as possible and to socially distance and facemask as much as possible when in public spaces. Most have taken to the motto. “You’re not stuck inside, you’re safe inside”. As always, there are those who don’t want to follow the rules, but for the most part are willing to if confronted politely.  

We are fortunate to have experienced, professional, Town department heads, deputies and employees who are leading the various dimensions of the Town’s response from first responders to public health officials to human services social workers. Our seniors are surprisingly resilient given their vulnerability to COVID-19. It is interesting to see how part of the community is ready to “open up” right away and other parts are wary of opening too soon and, in fact, continue to encourage me to place more social distancing rules in place. But most of all, the great thing about Westport is the creative ways people have found to volunteer and help their neighbors as well as find alternative and creative ways to pass the time. 

All of my skills, experience and beliefs have been called upon to lead the Westport community through this life-threatening event: 

  • faith in God to give me the strength and inspiration I need more than ever 
  • quantitative and analytical skills from my schooling and professional career  
  • leadership experience throughout my professional and personal life 
  • respect for experienced professionals and the ‘chain of command” 
  • trust in my team and support of my family  
  • listening more and speaking less  
  • motivated to act  
  • no “analysis paralysis”  
  • planning for the return to the “new normal” as well as for tomorrow  
  • need to inspire  
  • speaking with confidence and empathy  
  • dealing with my own fears and anxieties while speaking with confidence and positivity 

My hopes are that we come through the next weeks and months with a limited loss of life and that this terrible journey ends as quickly as possible; that we learn the lessons of preparation for such events in the future and that we take what we’ve learned about operating government and business in a more efficient and technology based manner and apply that to future productivity and cost savings; that we learn to pay more attention to those among us that are having challenges of all types and commit to helping them; that we learn to be satisfied with a simpler lifestyle and realize how much less “stuff” we need to make a difference.  

My biggest fear is that we “re-open” too soon without the necessary testing, contact tracing and personal health condition ID information, which results in going back to the current situation or worse. My biggest long-term fear is that we don’t learn the lessons noted above and rebound to our previous collective lifestyle. I also fear that in our rush to get back to “normal” we may forget the enormous environmental challenges that our planet still faces, and which have had to take a back seat to our battle with the Coronavirus. 

It has been a privilege to be placed in the position of trust and responsibility that my leadership role has placed upon me. I appreciate their words of support and encouragement and their willingness to participate positively in the greatest mass discipline effort we will likely ever know. I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals who are our Town employees who do know the answers or know how to get them and execute them. I have been energized by the responsibility and believe we will emerge as a better community when we’re at the point where we’ll look back at this as a major historical moment and that it was our finest hour. 

I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals…who do

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Sara Scully and Family

Sara Scully and her family have lived in Westport for four years. She is a high school family consumer science (Home Ec) teacher. 

“I’m teaching my classes online, or at least trying to because I teach Home Ec, so it’s kind of difficult because I can’t teach them cooking right now. We’re creating cookbooks and we’re learning about different types of produce. And we’re talking about how the shutdown of everything is impacting the farms and how they’re having a lot of waste because people aren’t buying it. And then all the crops that they planned for like restaurants, so the farmers are having to change because people don’t want to buy like gooseberries and microgreens. They want like lettuce and green beans.  I found it interesting! The children that I’m teaching… they answer my questions but I’m not sure they find it as interesting as I do, but I try to make it exciting. We watch videos too. I get videos from like Alton Brown and the Culinary Institute of America and I show them how to make things through video. But I don’t know what people have, so I can’t ask them to cook. 

I make cakes so I’ve also been making a ton of birthday cakes for all the poor quarantine birthdays. And I’ve been sewing masks to give to friends, family—whomever asks. 

Homeschooling my own children and trying to teach my class at the same time takes up a lot of time. My daughter, who is 12, FaceTimes or SnapChats with her friends, so she’s okay.  

My 10-year-old really looks forward to his class Google Meets so that he can see his friends. 

He is dyslexic so he needs a lot of help and he has a lot of energy, doesn’t want to sit at the computer all day. So, we go for walks and I’ll show them different plants outside. And they don’t know they’re learning. We talked about how the full moon made the tide really high and really low and stuff like that.  

I used to go to work and that was my work time. I planned my day. I did my work. I planned tomorrow. And now I don’t have time to plan and do work because I’m homeschooling and the laundry is here, the dishes are here. It’s terrible. So, I find myself staying up until 11 o’clock at night because that’s when I need to plan or correct papers. 

My kids have not left the house except for walks. They haven’t gone to a store since that Wednesday when school got canceled. The other day I was going to the grocery store and my son asked “Can I come with you?” I had to tell him “You know, actually you can’t.” He said “What do you mean?” and I had to say it’s only one person per family. He looked at me very strangely, I think it took him all that time to realize, oh something’s going on now. 

“Can I come with you?” I had to tell him “You know, actually you can’t.”

Hopefully this is a once in a lifetime thing. I guess you can compare it kind of to the hurricanes that we had that trapped us at home. But that was only because we couldn’t get out because the trees were down and there was no power. But I don’t think that has prepared us for this.  

Hopefully it won’t happen again and we all get through it safely and happily, because I know being trapped at home with your family can be very difficult and very hard on relationships.  

For my students, I know some of them don’t come from a happy place, and they come to school to get away. And, I feel like telling them, “I’m sorry we had to send you back there.” 

I’ll ask them how they were doing with some of them. Some of them say they are okay but are really bored. Some of them are say they’re going crazy. I tell them I’m always here to talk. I mean, I wish I could help them more. One of my very good students hadn’t turned in three assignments in a row. When I emailed her to check in and see if I could help, she said she and her mom both had COVID-19. Her mom worked and her mom worked for a hospice. So, it’s just really hard. 

And then all my seniors, they’re so sad because you know, they’re missing out on internships and prom and graduation. Some of them haven’t even picked their colleges. On spring break, they were going to go and drive around and see where they wanted to go to college and make a decision. 

Overall, I think we’re doing a really good job here in Westport. Whenever we go out everyone has masks on. All the stores are complying with how many people should be inside and I think it’s great. I’m really happy with what they’re doing. And I think because of the party we wrapped our heads around it real fast and went on lockdown. I feel like in a lot of other towns, it’s not like this. I go to Norwalk for the grocery store and I feel like they don’t even think anything’s wrong. Some people have masks on, some people have gloves on. But people are standing way too close and they don’t seem to be caring… so I think our town got it real fast. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Chef Bill Taibe

Chef and Restaurateur Bill Taibe, is the mastermind behind the beloved Westport restaurants, Ka Wa Ni, the Whelk and Jesup Hall.  He lives in Weston with his wife and two boys who are 15, and 18—a sophomore and a senior in high school respectively. 

We pivoted very quickly to change operations as soon as schools in Westport closed– about a week before the mandate to close restaurants came through.  That Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we had limited seating and precautions for all staff.  That Saturday I had a full 80-person virtual staff meeting, saying that I believed we were just going along in that way, and then an hour later I told everyone we were shutting down and going to delivery and curbside pickup. It was just my gut reaction to do that. Restaurants are important pieces to the social epicenter of the town and I thought it was our responsibility to do our best for our town, by getting ahead of this thing.  

We are still open and we have 36 employees fully working between three restaurants. I had to send 30 to 40 employees to unemployment and we are trying to do our best to help take care of them. We get nice gratuities from delivery and pick up and we Venmo money to people on unemployment as a donation because even with the extra subsidies, it’s just not enough.  

Sometimes I feel bad that we are doing relatively well under the circumstances. We are in a tremendous place and I would not want to do what we are doing in a different place or different town. We are trying to feel normal and help our customers feel normal and we’ve been fortunate to continue doing what we do best– creating great food. 

It’s funny, my brain works really well when there’s chaos. In fact, I might have been patient zero for ADD back in high school. When I’m kind of cornered and put in a situation to solve, move and pivot—that’s when everything fires away. This has been exciting for me–obviously, not in a good way– but in terms of problem solving and adjusting. Internally, these circumstances make us realize we get a sense of who and what people are. I have 36 employees thrilled to come to work and happy for that opportunity. I know other restaurants that are struggling because employees are happy to stay home and collect unemployment even if the work is there. 

Aside from the fact that lives are lost and people are dealing with serious things like this, we can have a social reset that is important. I would never wish this on anyone but I think it’s been a way to figure out and prioritize what’s important. 

I think [the pandemic has] been a way to…prioritize what’s important 

We are the center of a community. In my four restaurants, we’ve seen a lot and heard a lot and pulled people together. In terms of gathering and needing time together, this puts things in perspective. As a community I think we are picking and choosing those things that are important. For example, maybe we’ll come out of this thing and that party we want to have doesn’t need forty people but only fifteen who mean the most to us.  

I really think that there’s this sort of a beautiful awkwardness to the whole thing. It’s not right but there’s a lot of good from it. I am thrilled with how my children are dealing. I can promise that at 15 and 18 I wouldn’t have been dealing. We are not talking about that enough—their resilience and strength. Seniors won’t have last year of playing sports, won’t have a graduation or a senior prom. They will never get that back; these kids and people are complaining about not sitting at a bar? 

I know, too, my perspective is coming from a person who has not been in quarantine. I have worked more in the last month than in last five years. I had to lay off 40 and had to pick and choose and have been dealing with situations and decisions I never thought I’d have to.  

People are learning to care about others. I closed on the Saturday after schools closed not trusting people to do the right decision and make the right choices. I think what is crazy about COVID-19 is not necessarily how it can affect me, but the just as likely chance it does nothing to me, but that my making a poor decision could affect someone else. I take that seriously because I can’t carry that burden if someone comes into contact with a carrier in my space. 

I think we will come back stronger but I don’t think that will happen soon—I don’t think you’ll be sitting at my restaurants any time soon for probably 12 months. I’m preparing for that. We all should.  

When I think what I’m getting out of this– me personally—it’s that I can see who is helping each other and who is not, I want to be around the people who are helping and less around those who are not.  

In the early days of this, we were the first restaurant involved in Food For the Frontlines which was put together by Nicole Strait, an old dear friend whose daughter is part of Westport EMS. She wanted to do something for those workers that could also help restaurants make a little money. We put out 50 meals that first Sunday but we haven’t done another since—not because we don’t believe in but because we are doing relatively well under the circumstances and have received tremendous support from the town. I’d rather step back and let restaurants that need the income more have a chance. What we have been doing instead is a rotating meal to the police department, fire department and EMS locally on my own dime so we can help out hyper-locally. 

 I have built my own confidence to stand my ground on my belief, on my gut, and the sense that this was serious. When I listen to the nonsense of people joking through the process and making fun, I think that’s a malicious approach. If you don’t learn from this and get better through this and figure out new ways of living, you are a fool and you missed a chance. At the end of the day if we get through, and if this gets back to normal, I wish and hope that in our restaurants we will be better, my staff will be better, the town will be better. My feeling is this town is strong and committed to itself. I wouldn’t trade our customers for the world. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Lindsay Bilchik & Family

This has been a special time for our family of 3 to be together before baby number 2 arrives in mid-May. We are getting creative with ways to entertain our two-year-old son Harley, while both trying to work from home. We’re doing lots of cooking together, playing outside, watching movies and cuddles! 

I am an Interior Designer and I own my own business, L. Kate Interiors LLC. I normally work from home and have clients in the local CT and NY area. Currently there is very little work that I can do since venders are temporarily closed across the nation and contractors cannot go inside homes to finish up projects. I am able to do some design work for future projects but cannot get anything completed for current jobs. Luckily my clients have been very understanding during this time and I hope to get things moving again as soon as we can! I’ve enjoyed seeing how past clients are enjoying spending so much time in their homes that have been fully furnished and designed by LKI. My husband Zach, is a Sales Director for a digital ad tech company. Given the effects of COVID-19 he is now working at home full time vs his normal commute into New York four days a week. Business has definitely been affected, but with all of the advancements in virtual conference calls, he’s still been able to keep up with all of his normal responsibilities from the comfort of his home office (our dining room!). 

I started hearing about it at the end of January but didn’t understand the impact. Now, the biggest change in my daily life is the lack of work that I am able to do at this time. I am used to dropping off my son at daycare every morning and filling my entire day with work until I pick him up. Normally, my days go by fast but I accomplish a lot and that feels good! The things that make me feel accomplished now have completely switched and the days are longer but I am able to have time with my family which is a wonderful silver lining to all this. 

I am very proud of our community. I think we all jumped into Social Distancing very quickly for something that seemed so surreal and foreign to us. Places we all love to go to in town and look forward to visiting are empty, streets are quiet but people are still smiling and friendly. For such a scary time, I am impressed with how we have all handled this. 

Growing up Jewish and learning about the history of our culture and the hardships that were endured has given me a unique perspective on life. Nothing can prepare you to live through what we are experiencing now, but understanding that difficult times have occurred throughout history allows you to look beyond the immediate effect on daily life and see the bigger picture that we’ll make it through okay. 

My hope is that this ends soon but that we don’t forget what we learned. I think this has the potential to change us for the better and how we are as a society and how we treat the planet. Although this is difficult and every single day is hard, I have learned to be much more patient and accepting. I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate the little moments and beauty around me. Thus far I have been very lucky as this virus hasn’t hit anyone in my close inner circle but it does put our lives into perspective. No one is invincible, no one is safe and the true heroes are shining through. We need to celebrate the heroes during and well after this ends, they need to remain the highly respected people we all look up to and appreciate. They should be the people our children want to grow up to be. 

We need to celebrate the heroes during and well after this ends, they need to remain the highly respected people we all look up to

Being a teacher is hard, being a mother is hard, being pregnant is hard, running a business is hard, but being everything at the same time is near impossible. I’m trying to stay positive everyday and giving it my best! 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.