“I was just in the kitchen testing how to do a charred avocado,” Acqua‘s Chef de Cuisine Marcio Carvalho said as he greeted me. “I was rolling it, getting the charred flavor into it. Just testing. Maybe you’ll see it on the menu in a couple of weeks.”
It’s reasons like this, his thoughtful, outside the box, fearless relationship with food, that he’s been so successful. Having moved here from Brazil when he was just 16 years old, Chef Carvalho wasted no time breaking into the food industry. He began as a dishwasher at Terra, sister restaurant of his current locale, opened Match in SoNo (and earned it 3 1/2 stars!), then worked his way up the culinary ladder to Chef de Cuisine at Acqua in Westport.
Chef Carvalho took me through a tour of the elegant restaurant that is not only his place of work, but an establishment he can call home. It’s the building that’s captured twenty years of his stellar career and the very place he married his wife. The multi level bistro is equipped with a rustic brick oven built behind the sleek bar and boasts views of the Suagatuak River. Modern bubble chandeliers appear to float on top of a few private rounded booths, while the open concept, tile floor and classical artwork round out the villa-like feel.
Chef Carvalho radiated warmth and passion as he shared the creativity behind his sophisticated Mediterranean Italian menu. After an inspiring chat he turned to me and asked, “Are you ready to eat?”
Perhaps he had seen my mouth watering as he described some of his offerings, so I smiled and assured him I’m always ready for food. He invited me into his kitchen where the magic happens and demonstrated the step by step process of his culinary expertise. (While kindly welcoming my photography!) First up, a four cheese ravioli that was in a league of its own. Silky, delicate handmade pasta dough was filled with a smooth mixture of rabiolina and ricotta cheeses. The pasta pillows were placed on a fresh pea puree while nutty queso de mano cheese was shaved over top. Decadent, buttery peas glided throughout the dish, enhanced by an earthy garnish of pea shoots.
As if that weren’t enough, Chef Carvalho graciously fed me his watermelon scallop appetizer–a special turned menu item after its rave reviews from patrons. Sweet sea scallops were artistically sandwiched between grilled watermelon and pickled watermelon rind. He built the plate with a brush of olive puree and gingerly stacked the smokey, charred scallops and thyme sprinkled watermelon. There was a back palette of heat from cracked black peppercorns and a drizzle of jalapeno vinegar, balanced by bright acidity from saba vinegar. A slight tang from the uniquely picked watermelon rind brought the entire dish to another brilliant level of flavor.
As I hovered over the steel kitchen counter, knife and fork in hand, I tasted, and then finished, both of the plates he made for me. I did my best to maintain a professional composure while savoring each bite that was better than the last.
Below, Chef Carvalho tells That’s SO Jenn about Acqua, his motivation and the person who inspires him most:
In this competitive food industry, how do you set yourself apart from the rest?
It’s a lot of creation. You have to put your brain to work out there. You’re taking an old dish and turning it upside down, then putting it back in a different way. For example, salad is one dimensional so you really have to run the gamut and do something grand. Last weekend I had a salad special that was fresh butter lettuce, chevril, mache, pears, candied almonds and gorgonzola crème brulee.
The good thing about Acqua is it allows me to work with a lot of different flavors and items from different countries. We’re not a place that throws food on a plate. We plate it. I like garnish. I like presentation. To me, it’s one of the most important things. If I put something together on a plate and I’m not happy, I will work on it until I get it right. The biggest reason I stick around here is because I can play with food.
How often do you change the menu?
Each season, so every 3 months.
How often do specials become menu items?
Very often. If I get a good response, I do it again. If I get another positive response, then it goes on the menu.
If that’s the case, do you remove other dishes?
Yes, we remove other items. We have numbers for everything we can keep on the menu.
Do you intentionally stay within a certain amount of options?
Yes, because we keep it fresh. We get a fish order every single day and we want a smaller menu so we can move everything. We try to do everything in this restaurant at the top level whether it be the freshness, the better quality or just top of the line of whatever we can buy. The ingredients speak for themselves.
Favorite menu item?
Parmesan crusted halibut with tomato concaisse, chives and beur blanc, served with spinach. It’s one of the biggest sellers.
Souffles are one of the hardest desserts to tackle. Why have so many on the menu?
At one point it was three and then we decided to add more. Now to walk away is impossible. We’re very well known for our soufflés and people come just for that. If I take one off the menu, people are disappointed. We probably do about 40 or 50 at night, but sometimes a few of them break down and you’ve got trouble. We do every dessert in house; cheesecake, tiramisu, creme brulee, brownies from scratch. No boxed mixes here!
Souffle flavor of choice?
It’s between the gran marnier and pistachio with white chocolate.
What motivates you in the kitchen?
For me, the goal is always to do better for myself. When I see an ingredient, I’m always deciding what I can do with it. For example, we do daily soups so I have to go in the walk-in, look around and see what I can do with two or three items.
So you have to be resourceful?
Exactly. When I have two or three items in my hands, and I come up with something good, I feel great and it makes me want to see what else I can do. Last week I got a larger case of pears than I usually get, so I said, ‘Let’s do a soup.’ We did a roasted pear soup with a drizzle of saba vinegar. It’s things like that.
Is there a standout moment in your career that assured you this is where you wanted to be?
Hearing people are enjoying my food. Today one of the tables looked at me and said, ‘Thank you, this was a great lunch.’ It makes me feel like I’m doing something right and want to get better from it.
As such an established chef, is it challenging for you to go to other restaurants?
I’m actually a pretty easy customer. I would never say I can do better than anybody else. That’s just not right. I wouldn’t see it as very professional for me to go to places and make comments about somebody else’s work.
Favorite thing to cook?
Fish. I like it because as a chef you can play around and do anything with fish. I like to eat meat, but when it comes to cooking, you have a whole different game on your hands when you talk about fish. How many people eat beef tartare? Not many. A nice piece of raw fish is a different story.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to work with?
I like spices. I go online to see what’s out there to decide what I can do, how far I can go and what flavors and smells work best together. You can transform anything with spices.
Any ingredients you stay away from?
There’s nothing I would stay away from because it’s a game and there’s always something you can play with. You work with something, extract it and understand it. I try to work with everything.
Do you still love to cook at home or do you need separation from the daily grind?
I don’t feel it needs separation, but it’s not every day you’re in the mood to cook. I usually work 65 hours a week, so on my day off on Sunday we try to stay simple. I like to BBQ. I could eat meat all day long.
How would you describe yourself as food on a plate?
Besides my heart? That’s what goes into every single one of my dishes. I have the passion and that’s what I’m doing this for. As inspiration, I always have my wife to inspire me every day. She’s always been good to me too. She’s my biggest fan ever.
What can we look forward to with the fall menu?
We haven’t started working on that yet. It changes in October. You always know what your fall ingredients are, but you don’t want to repeat the same dish from last year.
Even if it was great?
Even if it was great. We might do something close to what it was, but different. It’s always the same ingredients so I have to refresh my mind and see what else we can do. Butternut squash is such a great ingredient, but I’m sick and tired of ravioli with sage and butter. Maybe a butternut squash and broccoli rabe so the bitter from the broccoli works into the sweetness of the squash, with a piece of salmon over the top with a little red wine reduction?
I suppose I will just have to return next month to find out!
Acqua is part of Z Hospitality Group, which also owns Mediterraneo and Terra in Greenwich, Solé in New Canaan, and Aurora in Rye, NY. Acqua’s Executive Chef is Albert DeAngelis and the General Manager is Marc Murphy.
You can make reservations for Acqua online or call (203) 222-8899. Express dinners are offered Monday through Thursday and wine appreciation night is held every Tuesday. 43 Main Street Westport, CT 06880