“I think that how much we care shows in our food and everything we do here,” Chef Jeanie Roland tells me as we sit down at Ella’s. “If you’re cooking without love, you’re cooking with nothing.”
Jeanie Roland knew from a young age that she wanted to be a chef, ever since her first job washing dishes at the General Stanton Inn. Her parents didn’t think that becoming a cook right out of high school was the best plan, however, so they encouraged her to go to college and get a Bachelor’s degree, which she did, in Exercise Science.
She still yearned to be in the kitchen even after her college graduation, however, so she began her culinary journey shortly thereafter at the Culinary Institute of America. Looking back, Jeanie is grateful that her parents had helped to delay her foray into professional cooking.
“I went in as a blank slate since I had only ever worked front of house, and if I had gone at 18 instead of 24, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that,” she explained. “I didn’t have preconceived notions of how to cut something or a belief that I could do it better. I knew that they could teach me the discipline and skills I needed, and I was really able to absorb it.”
Jeanie was attending CIA in the 1990s when the school was comprised of 10 males to every 1 female. Today, there’s a much more even split at the school and in the realm of restaurant ownership, yet nationally only 18% of kitchens are led by women.
“It’s difficult to do this and have a family, so I made a choice a long time ago that I was dedicating myself to this career,” Jeanie shared. “It’s a hard job – it’s physically demanding, there’s a lot of movement and pressure in high heat. You’ve gotta be bigger, better, badder than them all. I learned that day one in school. You have to be better than everybody to get where you want to go.”
“The preconception is that if you hire a woman, at some point she’s going leave to have a child, and there’s a perception of weakness in that. But there’s a reason why we’re the ones who can have children, and that’s because we’re actually the strongest and we can multitask in a way that nobody else can, so I think it’s natural that women should be leading kitchens and you are seeing more and more of them over time. I have three in my kitchen currently, which is the most I’ve ever had at one time. A lot of men are threatened by strong women, and there’s a boys’ club in the restaurant industry just like in a lot of others, and I think it’s really important to surround yourself with other good women and support one another and help give each other new opportunities.”
She met James Roland, her husband, and business manager of 26 years, through an internship-turned-job at The Pacific Club in Newport Beach, California in the early 90s, and they eventually made their way to Florida to open their first restaurant, The Perfect Caper, in 2002.
Ella’s came along seven years ago, largely owing to an interest in being closer to Jeanie’s recently widowed father and because Jeanie finds the changing New England seasons inspiring as a chef. The building that is now Ella’s became available following the passing of Eleanor Capizzano and Jeanie named the restaurant as an homage to her, who was once a fellow female cook.
The building has a long history as a restaurant, dating back to the Prohibition era, with the Capizzano family living upstairs and cooking downstairs and Eleanor working alongside her father to prepare 300 pounds of fish for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and feed people lined up around the block. “I just love the building, it’s so unique and so beautiful. I hope the Capizzano know that we really care for it.”
While she resides in Florida, she feels her heart is in Rhode Island and she tries to split her time between the two. Her restaurant in Florida remains busy year round, while Ella’s business booms in the summer, although as Westerly establishes itself beyond a beach town, Jeanie says that the seasonal business is spreading out as well.
This kind of change is leading to Ella’s offering lunch hours starting in the not too distant future, both as a way to accommodate the additional guests and as a way to reach those who may feel that the restaurant is too expensive for them. “That may be the perception, but lunch will give customers a chance to dip their toes in the water and try things out.”
Jeanie focuses on serving traditional French, Italian, or Asian dishes, but with a new twist on them. As a classically trained chef, she enjoys blending flavors and preparation techniques. “French cooking is steeped in history, tradition, and discipline, and there are a lot of arguments about what that way might be, depending on who you ask. Asian cooking is more from the heart, and the Italian style is looser.”
Whatever style of cooking Jeanie employs, the quality of her ingredients and products remains vigilantly high. Gnocchi and pasta are made in-house, and much of what isn’t made by Jeanie is imported from Italy.
“I’m really specific about my sourcing, particularly our cruelty-free land proteins because if I’m going to put something on a plate I want to make sure that it was handled properly, and D’Artagan provides us with that guarantee as the largest purveyors of cruelty-free meat with no antibiotics. I have that responsibility as a chef. If I’m giving you something, I want it to be the best that it could be, ethically and otherwise, so all of my fish are USA caught and I don’t compromise on vegetables and I get my dairy products from a specialty company as well. You should always know where what you are cooking and eating comes from, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Being a chef has always been a demanding profession, but with the rise of technology and social media, your work has even more chances to be critiqued and your reputation compromised.
“You’re only as good as the last dish you put down. People can say whatever they want on social media these days, and you have to be able to take that criticism and make changes without letting it get to you,” she explained. “As the owner, it’s my job to be consistent, make sure everybody is really happy, and have the guts to fix what’s wrong. Most of the time you can trace a bad review right back to a certain table, so I’ll pick up the phone and call people to apologize if their experience was not what they expected.”
It’s this precision and determination to provide the best possible quality that served Jeanie well while competing on two televised competitive cooking shows in recent years. Jeanie was called up for Beat Bobby Flay Season 5 and Iron Chef Gauntlet Season 2 following some social media buzz she garnered after offering a private cooking class for a couple of local celebrities.
“I never applied for either of those,” she shared. “They were both great opportunities. For a lot of people, cooking competitively on television is their goal, but for me, it was just icing on the cake, and I made a lot of good friends. That’s truly the best thing out of it. I’m still friends with some of my competitors.” In fact, one of her competitors-turned-friends served as a reviewer for her cookbook, available to purchase now.
Butter, Love, and Cream is Jeanie’s first cookbook, and as the name suggests it’s from the heart and full of personal touches, such as notes about fried chicken night at her house (a favorite!) growing up, or a story about learning how to choose the ripest blueberries from her grandmother.
“With a form like food, you get to learn something new every day, and that pushes us as individuals. You’re always learning from a colleague or from a mistake you made, constantly growing and changing. I also love being able to see people enjoy the food I prepare and see them understand the care and love that goes into it. That’s where the cookbook’s name comes from.”
Jeanie keeps notebooks filled with ideas for dishes but tries not to get caught up in trends.
“Those come and go, but I prefer timeless cooking and that’s what I’ve tried to share with people through the cookbook. You’ll be able to use these recipes from now until you’re old. You don’t need 15,000 components, there’s nothing frou-frou about any of the dishes and no tweezers required to plate anything, it’s just real food.”
Jeanie thinks that too often, people get nervous and intimidated by the rigidity of an ingredient list and she wants to encourage people to try substitutes and experiment to find what works for them.
“If you can’t afford a shallot, buy an onion. If you don’t have currants, try another sweet fruit. It’s easy to make almost any dish vegan-friendly or gluten-free these days. Don’t fence yourself in so much that you can’t enjoy the process of cooking. My recipes should serve as a guide, but you can go beyond that. Don’t limit yourself, and be easier on yourself when you’re cooking.”
Whether you decide to stop by Ella’s for a meal sometime soon or take a deep dive into your own kitchen with her cookbook as your guide, one thing remains – you deserve truly good food, and Chef Roland knows how to make sure you get it. Bon appetite!