NEWBURYPORT — A few days after the private grand reopening party for her Ceia Kitchen + Bar, Nancy Batista-Caswell settled into a window table overlooking State Street with both hands on a cup of coffee.
“With the way we looked at it for design purposes, the way we designed the menu, the way we talked about the wines, the training we went through,” she said, “we’re focusing hard on all those points to make sure somebody doesn’t walk in and say, ‘You were better across the street.’ ”
There is no sign of a recession slowdown here. Batista-Caswell closed the popular and critically acclaimed Ceia on Jan. 2 and less than a week later reopened it across the street in a renovated, larger three-story space at 38 State St., with executive chef Patrick Soucy still in charge of the kitchen.
And this week, Batista-Caswell is opening an oyster bar and restaurant called Brine in the old Ceia space, under chef Corey Marcoux.
Amid all of this change, she and the chefs led the Ceia team to cook an elaborate dinner for the nation’s top foodies at the historic James Beard House in New York.
“The suburbs are hard. You don’t have the foot traffic all the time, you don’t have the population like the city,” she said. “You have to create a name for yourself to be busy all the time.”
She is creating a name for sure, but although it may be the era of the celebrity chef, Batista-Caswell isn’t the one at the stove. At age 30, she is owner, manager, menu planner, wine expert, genial host, and the kind of boss who doesn’t miss a thing. She has to be; the new space triples the seating, to about 150.
Ceia (“say-yuh,” Portuguese for supper) serves what they call coastal European-influenced food, modern turns on dishes from Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy, often created with local seafood and produce. That can mean a pasta dish of cocoa taglierini with smoked mushrooms, Pecorino Toscano (a cheese made with sheep’s milk) and black garlic, or an entrée of seafood stew with linguica, lobster, scallops, clams, Calasparra rice, and vinho verde (the green wine of Portugal). Small plates start at $5 and entrées can touch $35.
Batista-Caswell’s start in the restaurant business was not quite so lofty. She grew up in Fairhaven in Southeastern Massachusetts, and in high school she and several friends started busing tables at celebrity chef Chris Schlesinger’s casual Back Eddy in Westport. “We had so much fun,” she said. “I really started to appreciate the grind of it all, running around busing tables, running food.”
That led her to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where she majored in business management and minored in hotel and restaurant, while still working shifts at the Back Eddy as a host. One day, she said, Schlesinger asked her if she would like to be assistant to the general manager. It was not until after she said yes that he thought to ask how old she was. She’d just turned 20.
“Some people, you see it early on — the work’s just easy for them. She was personable and she worked hard and she enjoyed it. It was pretty evident she had a future,” Schlesinger said recently. “I think her major strength at that point was her ability to manage people. She outworked everybody, so she had everybody’s respect.”
After just a few years there, a headhunter recruited her for another job: managing Ten Center Street restaurant in Newburyport, a local institution that had been purchased by developer Stephen Karp in 2005 and was in line for a makeover.
Karp’s New England Development had a more corporate environment than Back Eddy, but “you had the opportunity to voice your opinion, and that’s what I did,” Batista-Caswell said. At a meeting on the future of Ten Center, she said they needed to forget about the nickel-and-dime issues and think about fundamental changes.
“I remember walking out of that meeting going, ‘I think I just lost my job.’ ” But instead she found herself the key player in the resulting makeover.
She was surprised to learn how much concern locals had about the plans. “I started to realize how much history Newburyport has and how people had all these fabulous memories of this restaurant, and that’s when I started to realize I have to be really hands-on,” she said.
At Ten Center, she also found her future husband, Jeff Caswell, whose Newburyport-based firm, Caswell Mechanical, was a contractor on the project. They were married under a tent in the fields at Newbury’s Tendercrop Farm in August 2010 and live in Newburyport.
After Ten Center and a stint with a high-end Boston restaurant group, Batista-Caswell started to look for a venue of her own and found the 25 State St. storefront, formerly the site of a short-lived restaurant that served raw vegan food. That meant there was not a lot of actual cooking equipment on hand. “I could dehydrate a mean vegetable, but . . . ,” she recalled.
Ceia opened in December 2010 and has been busy most of the time ever since, even after she parted ways with the original chef in early 2012. She had known Soucy from his time at Michael’s Harborside in Newburyport, also owned by Karp, and brought him on. Soucy remembered her tenure at Ten Center, too.
“She was young, yeah, [but] she was a businesswoman; she was solid,” he said. “I’ve always known since then that she was pretty strong-minded. She ran the hell out of that restaurant.”
As a side business, Jeff Caswell and his brother had owned The Rockfish bar and restaurant in Newburyport for more than a decade of ups and downs and were ready to stop. Initially, Batista-Caswell thought of opening an oyster bar there, but she kept hearing that Ceia had outgrown its space. Tables were hard to come by on many nights, and she realized they were losing potential customers.
Plans shifted. Last fall the Rockfish closed for the last time, and renovations to the 1820s building began.
“Throw in the holidays, the James Beard dinner, and the grand reopening in the new space and a second restaurant all within eight or 10 weeks and you’re right, it’s very taxing,” said Marcoux, the chef at the new Brine. “But that’s one reason probably why we do it, for the challenge.”
Soucy and his friend and frequent coworker Marcoux seem like classic kitchen characters, cracking each other up one moment and almost maniacally focused on flavor nuances the next.
“Neither one of us has been to culinary school,” Soucy said. “We’re not puffed-out-chest chefs; we’re just dudes that love food.”
Among Ceia’s secret weapons is Caswell’s mother, who makes occasional visits to the restaurant to school the chefs in the family secrets of Portuguese cuisine, bringing along a batch of homemade Piri-Piri hot sauce or dueling with Soucy to make the best Portuguese sweet bread. Bread, in fact, has been a Soucy obsession of late.
“We have our own sourdough starter,” he said. “Her name is Lorraine.”