It took me mere seconds to determine who I wanted to feature for the first “Stir the Pot” column. Just over two years ago, Stephanie Webster gave me the opportunity to dive deeper into my passion for writing about food.
We met over margaritas at El Segundo in SONO, and there was an instant spark between us: both moms; both approaching the same new decade (eh hem); both deeply passionate about diners expanding their taste buds; both eager to honor the hardworking chefs of our state; AND, intent on shining a light on women in the food industry.
I knew I had to pay it forward and shine a light on her.
These boots were made for walkin’…
Webster gives new meaning to the lyric “These boots were made for walking”. Often decked out in black, 80s punk style with ponytails, and doc martens half her size, this powerhouse is always on the move.
In the decade since the CTbites food blog first hit inboxes, it has grown exponentially, and into a full blown media entity going beyond just reviewing and events, to hosting the podcast HOTDISH, and spawning satellite bites in other places like Westchester, Miami, and DC. And if that’s not all, there just might be a CTbites food festival in our near future.
Definitely not new to great eating, Webster grew up in Manhattan with parents who were serious about food. She then spent seven years in Seattle amidst the underground pop-up dining scene. Webster says, “[I was] in a region where the proximity to outstanding farms and vineyards allowed local chefs to really spearhead and embrace the “farm-to-table” movement. I became smitten with food, possibly obsessed…maybe I always have been.”
When she moved back East–creating a home in Westport–her first task was to get her kids settled into schools and scout out great places to eat. Webster quickly discovered there was a shortage of outlets devoted to reviewing food in her area of Fairfield County. So, already armed with a background in digital publishing and new media strategies, she dug in deep and created her own. “I leveraged my background in branding to launch CTbites.com, and began dragging friends around the area to sample menus from restaurants, bodegas, and food trucks. I knew from the very beginning that CTbites would be a brand that celebrated great food. I wanted to support a community of creative and hard working chefs and restaurateurs, not write negative reviews to tear them down.”
That note is something I gravitated towards as a writer passionate about food. People often introduce me as a food critic, but I’m always quick to clarify. “Critic” has such a negative connotation. Additionally, I don’t profess to be an expert, but I enjoy good food and when it is prepared and set with passion, I’ll be there to toot the horn. This is what Webster has done so well with CTbites; you won’t find reviews that nitpick. It features places where the CTbites crew of writers genuinely want to support, where the blood, sweat, and tears of the work is evident in every bite. Webster notes, “CTbites has become a highly curated site that celebrates the very best of food in Connecticut.”
The pandemic has hit the food industry hard. So, even when restaurants closed and put a pause on reviewing, Webster knew CTbites could do something and support the community. First, she assisted with the grassroots effort of Food For the Frontlines, raising funds for restaurants and healthcare workers, which brought in over $100,000 in the first month of the shutdown.
Then, in early June, in what felt like an overnight whip of magic, she organized an effort to create Connecticut Chefs Recipes for Restaurant Relief, a digital cookbook wherein beloved chefs from around the state–100 in fact–submitted treasured recipes. It has become a beautiful accessible symbol of Connecticut and collaboration. Since June, one hundred percent of the proceeds have gone to help families of restaurant employees hit so hard by the pandemic. At time of print nearly $12,000 in e-book sales have already helped the cause.
Webster has really created a community. As one of her writers, I can’t tell you what a kick I get out of the welcome from chefs or readers familiar with ‘bites. When I asked Webster about all she’s done, she said, “I’m most proud of the small businesses we have helped, and the community we have built.
Nothing makes me happier than introducing a small local baker to my readers and watching her bakery take off, or the call from a family run taco joint that was about to close its doors until we published a review on the site…and suddenly they were back in business.
We are now the go-to spot for CT food news on all of our platforms, and there is power in that..power to help support and nurture an industry that gives so much back to us, the guests.”
Girls, we run this motha (Yeah!)…
In addition to being one of the biggest chef cheerleaders around, Webster also pays particular attention to women carving a path, knowing full well they still just hover around twenty percent, in terms of leadership in the industry.
CTbites hosts a feature called “It’s a Woman’s World” to highlight women of Connecticut and the role they play. Webster says her mom has been the biggest influence on her life. “…She lives her life with a passion for creativity and sensory experiences, and has a zest for life that is unparalleled. She is wildly creative and never takes herself too seriously.” And, now raising her three daughters, Webster puts that model into practice.
Just one peek into her social media, you’ll see how she and her husband David raise the bar on living life with vigor; from pushing tires around (gotta burn those eating-out calories somehow) to dancing in their now disco ball-adorned living room, they really live life to the fullest.
In terms of raising her daughters in particular, she tells them “to find something they truly love, something that turns them on, and give it everything. If it doesn’t pan out, well then we try again, but don’t ever regret not having tried.” And on the flipside, she says her girls have been a role model for her too. “Be comfortable in your own skin, and get confident in who you are. Don’t worry about what people think of you, or how you come across. Let your freak flag fly and just be you…”
I have the benefit of being in contact with Webster nearly everyday, so I can attest she really practices what she preaches. As we were finishing up our conversation on Halloween Day, after a way too early snowfall [but 2020!?], she had just posted her latest pic on social media. There she is, her smiling face nearly covered by her faux fur Ushanka hat, mask, and ski gear telling us,“Yeah, it’s cold, but get out and support your local restaurants. They need you.”