All About the Food
Three Chefs Take us on Their Culinary Journey
Photos by Visko Hatfield
Three chefs, three cuisines, one goal—to amaze and satisfy the food lovers of Litchfield County. Dan Magill, at al Tavolo; Samantha “Sam” Tilley, at Mockingbird; and Riad Aamar, at Oliva, enjoy what they do and it shows in the extraordinary meals they produce.
Magill began his culinary career at 14, washing dishes part-time at a restaurant on the north fork of Long Island where he grew up. “I eventually worked my way up to line cook,” he says. “When I graduated from college with a degree in restaurant management, I decided to go the Culinary Institute of America.” His first job out of school? Working for Daniel Boulud.
Magill eventually moved back to Long Island and, thanks to his sister, became involved with a new vineyard that was being created. “My sister was looking for a venue for her wedding and approached the owner, who said they didn’t really have a chef so they couldn’t offer catering.” Enter brother Dan.
“In addition to the opportunity to cook,” Magill says, “I was exposed to the world of wine, which became an asset as I advanced my career.” It also furthered his interest in thinking local, not only for wines but for food, which eventually brought him to Arethusa al Tavolo. “What attracted me most was the connection to the farm,” Magill says. “I get to showcase its dairy products and build a menu around them.”
Sam Tilley (pictured large above) was interested in food at an early age as well. “I was one of seven children and family meals were always a big deal. My biggest thrill as a child was when I got my Easy Bake Oven for Christmas and made my first cake.”
After attending college Tilley decided on cooking as a career. Happily ensconced at a restaurant in Napa Valley, she was lured to the East Coast—and out of the kitchen. “I became a sales rep for an apparel sporting goods company and traveled all over,” Tilley says. “I was exposed to ethnic foods around the world which certainly influenced the way I cook today.”
When Tilley left sales she settled on the East Coast and wanted to get back into the food business. Having met Carole Peck, chef and owner of the Good News Café in Woodbury, Tilley approached her for advice about opening a restaurant. The Tollgate Inn in Litchfield had a full kitchen but no restaurant so Tilley asked about using their facilities and Tollgate Tavern was born, which grew into Mockingbird.
For four years Tilley has created eclectic dishes, incorporating local produce and her love of exotic spices and flavors. Soon Tilley will be working her magic at her own restaurant in Bantam.
Chef Riad Aamar of Oliva was raised in Gaza, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. “My mother was a great cook, and I was influenced by the flavors and textures she created in her recipes,” says Aamar. “When I was a student I went to Florence one summer and was offered a job as a busboy at a restaurant just outside of town. I started talking to the chef about cooking and he began showing me how to make sauces—everything from Bolognese to cream sauces.”
Aamar was left alone in the kitchen to create and that’s what he’s been doing ever since he came to the US 25 years ago. While cooking at Orso, in New York, Aamar was offered a new opportunity. “I met Adam Reiss, the original owner of Doc’s Restaurant in New Preston. He asked if I would be interested in coming to Connecticut. So, one weekend I took a trip there and I liked the idea of living in the country, being quiet and having access to so many fresh ingredients.” When Reiss asked him to become chef, he accepted.
Aamar began adding some Moroccan dishes to the Italian menu at Doc’s. When they were met with great enthusiasm, the food shifted from northern Italian to Mediterranean. By the time he opened Oliva, down the road from Doc’s, his concept was already in place.
Now after 17 years in its present location, Oliva is moving to a new location. “We’ve signed a lease on a new space in Bethlehem, in the oldest building in town,” explains Aamar. ‘It’s going to be called Oliva on Main and will open in early December.”