Seacoast native Gregg Sessler spent five years working in restaurants in California wine country and in the San Francisco area, where he began studying to become a certified sommelier and learned the value of establishing ties with local producers and farmers. He returned home to partner with longtime friend John Akar in opening an eatery celebrating wine and food. Cava Tapas & Wine Bar was radical for the Seacoast area when it opened in November 2008. Sessler brings to Portsmouth avant garde techniques rooted in Spanish and Mediterranean small-plate dining.
Describe the style of tapas you create at Cava.
We do a modern interpretation of tapas. We throw a bit of an American edge on it. In Spain you’ll find a simpler approach, maybe just three ingredients— shrimp, olive oil, garlic. But at higher levels you’ll find chefs doing their own version of tapas, which is a more involved, developed dish. I start with a central ingredient or theme and build on top of it. I think about how many ways we can use shrimp. Shrimp in the sauce, in a foam or air, compounding the flavors.
Your dishes seemed a bit revolutionary when you first opened—how did diners react?
Even though I’m from here, I was coming back from California and I didn’t know what to expect. It was exciting. The first two years people were shocked, which was exciting for me. But that shock died down and they got accustomed to these more involved plates, and they appreciated the extra effort.
Your plates are so beautiful and meticulously composed. How do you manage all that in a busy kitchen?
You need a highly trained staff. Sous Chef Mike Fortin has been with me since we opened, and without seriously skilled line cooks this wouldn’t be possible. You have to be organized mentally and physically and respect the products’ quality and how we handle them. It’s about the passion for quality, not quantity, and presenting something that’s visually appealing and also palatable and satisfying as far as taste goes. I want people to see it and say, “Wow, you guys really care about what you’re doing.” There’s extreme effort. Take the patatas bravas dish—we place each potato in the dish and layer in the flavors. It’s also about consistency. We want to consistently have a high level and high quality in our food. It’s about trying to be the best chef you can be.
What are you looking forward to cooking?
We’ve been using salt blocks from The Salt Cellar [see page 25] for a tuna dish. We love it for the seafood, and maybe we’ll try some beef on it. We do like a seasonal change. We change each season and then sometimes in between. First we look at what’s available in the season— fiddleheads, fava beans, ramps. Then we look at how to make it all go together, how to combine salty and sweet, smooth and textured. We want to use strawberry and rhubarb, for example, which is a familiar combination, but we’ll add the unexpected. We don’t want people to feel intimidated, but we want them to be surprised and delighted. And when they try it, they’ll like it.
10 Commercial Alley