by RONA MANN / Photos by Stephanie Sittnick
Deep River is a very special place. It’s a Connecticut river town with a rich history, framed with unique shops and businesses, fiercely supported by a loyal community. In 2013 Deep River welcomed a new business to town, an enterprise that the “locals” not only found, but embraced; and those from surrounding towns are still eagerly making the short trip to see what all the talk’s about. The little “pasta shop” is called Dough on Main, a catchy, but not kitschy name for a shop that cooks fresh and inspired every day.
At the helm of all this activity is proprietor and Head Chef, Francis Brooke-Smith, a delightful combination of culinary wizardry and genial host. Born in New Haven to a mother tragically widowed while Francis was still in utero, he was subsequently raised and schooled in Great Britain. Although he’s been back in Connecticut for 38 years, Brooke-Smith still sports a delightful British accent, adding its own bit of zest to the total package of a personal, professional, and delightfully inventive chef.
Although Francis never knew his natural father who was a British WWII hero winning the George Cross for heroism and courage, his mother eventually remarried, and he grew up influenced by a man he both loved and respected for his direction and guidance. But he fell into the culinary world of his own accord.”I got into cooking by mistake,” Francis laughs. “I went to British boarding school where the food was atrocious. I knew there had to be something better.”
Brooke-Smith admits, “I made a mess of my local exams, so when I got out of school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a cousin who was a purser on a ship. Every time I saw him he had a different female on his arm, so I thought this must be an exciting life, and I decided to be a purser as well.”
But before he could pursue this onboard life or have even a single woman hang on his arm, Francis accepted an apprenticeship at The Ritz Hotel in London. “I started in the kitchen and learnt (sic) everything. I had no ambition back then to be a chef; I just enjoyed the kitchen.” The Ritz had others plans for him, however, and wanted to move him up to the front office, but Brooke-Smith balked. “I told the chef I didn’t want to go, and that was fine with him. So I had a three year apprenticeship under the chef and then stayed on for another four years.”
Both Francis’ only living relative, an aunt in Connecticut, and a friend who worked as a successful chef in New York, finally convinced him to come to America. When he arrived, the aunt looked at him with disdain and proclaimed, “Oh, you’re only a cook. You should go back to school! But Francis had had enough of school and taking exams. He was going to get a job in a Connecticut kitchen. It didn’t take long to find one, beginning with The Gull in Essex where he worked a snappy three weeks before moving on to The Copper Beach; first as a cook and eventually as sous chef.
He left The Copper Beach which he adored, and straight into the kitchen of the now defunct Century House in Guilford. From there it was on to Pelicans in Centerbrook, before settling in for 17 years as Head Chef at The Bee and Thistle. It was there that Francis met a very special waitress who was later to become his wife. After 23 years in service, she left to pursue a lifelong dream, opening her own sewing business; and Francis followed, turning to teaching at The Center for Culinary Arts in Cromwell. “I thought I’d step out of the fire for awhile,” but Brooke-Smith soon realized, “you don’t make very much money teaching, and I missed the kitchen.” So it was back into the fire, this time as manager of Cuckoo’s Nest in Old Saybrook.
Tragedy struck Brooke-Smith’s life once again when his beloved wife died prematurely, leaving him confused and lost. He was consumed with grief, but soon realized, “it was time to get back to cooking.”
Francis Brooke-Smith opened Dough on Main little more than a three and a half years ago and still quickly states, “It’s not a restaurant; it’s a store.” And oh, what a store it is! The “dough” is pasta dough, pizza dough, bread dough, pastry dough…it’s all made fresh every day. “We let people put their own combinations together,” Francis says. “We have three to four fresh sauces at all times from which to choose, fresh cut pastas, and all raviolis are made right on site both by me and by a local woman, Denise, who is an absolute ballet dancer on that pasta machine.” Dough on Main boasts raviolis filled with cheese, meat, lobster, crabmeat, smoked salmon, and a wonderful combination Brooke-Smith heartily recommends, a beet dough stuffed with goat cheese.
Francis puts in long days and arduous hours, typical of any successful business owner who knows that a consistent hands-on presence combined with sweat equity is what’s needed to grow and flourish. His days begin at 6AM, opening his doors at 7AM so the locals may enjoy a full breakfast or homemade scones, muffins, and danish with coffee. He points with pride to his talented pastry chef, Jura, who is responsible for “just about every bit of pastry made here.”
When lunchtime comes, Francis and his staff are ready to offer fresh made sandwiches to take out or eat in, cheeses, beverages, and inventive and delicious salads for which Dough on Main has already become famous. “Our signature item is our kale salad. I’ve tried to remove it a few times, but our customers just won’t let me!” This tempting concoction is constructed by Francis himself using sweet potatoes, red onions, dried cranberries, lemon juice, and a special sun-brewed basil oil.
Although his days are long, and he is dog-tired by the time he arrives home (frequently with his own container of take out from Dough on Main!), Francis says, “I keep having ideas. The raviolis keep banging around in my head. I love to create new combinations, and I welcome our customers asking me to make a special ravioli if they have an idea.”
Recently several Connecticut restaurants have taken note of this wonderful pasta and are featuring it on their menus.
Together with his business and life partner, Joan, Brooke-Smith is working seven days a week, making this little shop and his delicious creations a favored stop in town.
After years of moving from kitchen to kitchen honing his skills, he has finally gotten to this place. A place that’s his own, a place that’s comfortable, a place he can build and grow. Although his life has known great tragedy, Francis Brooke-Smith has also known great joy. Ask him now at age 60 how he feels, and not surprisingly he answers with a sense of calm, “I’m happy. I’m where I want to be. I like Deep River. It’s more down to earth than other communities. It’s real. We have a fantastic first selectman here and a great sense of community that I enjoy. We want Dough on Main to be part of that community. Food helps bring people together.”
Francis Brooke-Smith has found a home.
Visit Dough on Main at 159 Main Street right in the heart of all that’s happening in Deep River.
(860) 322-4590 for take out, catering, hours