“As soon as I walked in, I felt at home,” says executive chef Tom Hagist of the first time he visited Charlestown’s General Stanton Inn, which reopened last August.
Established in 1740, it’s one of the oldest Colonial inns in America. The property’s remarkable history includes serving as a gathering place for spies during the Revolutionary War, a haven for fugitive slaves in the 1800s, and later, a hub for illicit gambling. Four US presidents, including George Washington, are known to have visited.
The executive chef position was a perfect fit for Hagist, who not only has extensive cooking experience but also a background in studying and teaching history and international relations.
Hailing from Westerly, Hagist worked in restaurant kitchens since he got his first job as a dishwasher at Olympia Tea Room as a teenager. He continued working in kitchens through college and grad school, thinking he’d eventually pivot away from the food world and go on to become a full-time history teacher. But Hagist couldn’t shake his culinary calling, even after graduating with a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Rhode Island.
“I was cooking through grad school and while teaching as a grad student,” he says. “At one point, I was like, I’ve been tricking myself for too long. I don’t really like teaching. I love cooking.”
Hagist, who had a formative experience working at Newport’s White Horse Tavern, then started working for Hyatt Hotels. He started at a property in Newport and was later promoted to chef positions at four-star hotels in Texas and Hawaii.
He says he learned a lot from his time out of state. “In Texas, I got really into the history of American and Southern food, and things like ancient grains and heirloom beans,” he recalls. “And I’ve never lived in any place where people are more respectful of the land than Hawaii.”
Hagist, who has a two-year-old son, TJ, with his wife, Alexandra, recently felt the pull to come home to Rhode Island. At the General Stanton Inn, which is owned by David and Jackie Moore, he brings together his interests and background to create seasonal menus highlighting Northeast cuisine.
“I call my style New England classics with a twist,” he says. “I like to think about how I can take classics I grew up with and modernize them without alienating anybody. My thinking is that I don’t want to push people outside of their comfort zone, but I do want to show them the door.”
Customer favorites include Roasted YardBird (chicken) and Baked Haddock Americane. Also popular is an appetizer of johnny cakes topped with slow-roasted pork, maple vinegar, and greens. It’s a nostalgic dish for Hagist, who remembers eating johnny cakes prepared by his grandmother.
Hagist also draws inspiration from his grandfather, who was a fisherman in Narragansett Bay. He recalls eating “whatever my grandfather couldn’t sell.” So, instead of serving shrimp or salmon from outside of the area, he opts for sustainable fish from local waters, including blue fish and trout.
“I always tell people I’m unapologetically proud of where I’m from, and my menu reflects that,” says Hagist.
The General Stanton Inn • 4115 Old Post Road, Charlestown • 401-364-8888
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