Chef Q and A with Marie Cantatore at The Olive Branch

The Olive Branch

142 W. Gay St. West Chester, PA
19380-2915 (610) 431-7141
Photos by Amy Dragoo

A friend of mine recently opened a restaurant in Downtown West Chester that provides a much-needed dining style for West Chester…tapas! Here’s the inside scoop on how her love of cooking started, why she came to West Chester and what to find on the mouth-watering menu.

So, I’m going to assume you were born with a whisk in your hand and started cooking at 6 months old. Is that accurate?

(She laughs) Almost, I was probably 10 or 11 years old when I really started making entire meals. My mom worked and my mentality was if I made dinner for my mom that was ready when she got home, I’d have more time to watch tv after dinner and she’d let me do it. Her Good Housekeeping cookbook was my bible. I would make full meals and learned from my mother and that book.

I know you can always throw a great party; has that always been natural for you too?

I’ve been entertaining, throwing parties and cooking since I was knee-high to a peanut, sweetheart. I was just a kid when I threw my parents a huge anniversary party. I had so many people to the house and did the whole spread…a turkey and all the fixings. Catering has always been my thing; I’ve done it for 30 years.

What did you go to school for?

I went to school for business and hospitality. I wanted to learn the management and event planning side of the food business.

This is hard for me but, I see you are a… I can’t say it… a Yankees fan. Not from around here are you?

That’s right, baby! I moved to West Chester ten years ago from New York to work as a catering director for The Sheraton in Philadelphia. I was a single mom with 3 little kids with me and one at college. I had one friend in Philadelphia but I wanted to start a new life here and I ended up in West Chester. I told the kids that “we’re gonna drive around Philly until it feels like home.” We drove through West Chester and it felt like home, so we stayed.

How did you go from hotels to opening your own restaurant?

The commute to the city was too hard with the kids, so I applied to be a food service director in Chester County. That got me behind the line, it felt really good and I was happy to be cooking. Making people food felt great and that’s when I knew I wanted to start my own place. I couldn’t take the risk at the time because my kids were so young, but I didn’t give up.

For years I cooked, served, was a pastry chef, went into corporate dining and then eventually I did catering at West Chester University. When I was there I felt like I was ready to open my own place, so I left in September to focus on my own restaurant.

What is the mentality behind your restaurant?

I wanted a comfortable, warm place that was peaceful with shared plates. That’s why I named it The Olive Branch, the sign for peace. I wanted local families and couples to be able to go out to eat together and get amazing food to share and have a memorable dining experience. Every time I go out to eat with my family we share food and there wasn’t a tapas style place in West Chester…so I opened one.

You don’t just do lunch and dinner, you also do breakfast. I’ve heard rave reviews about everything, even the coffee!

We use Lamont coffee. I drink coffee all day long and I think it’s important to grind the beans right before you brew it and only brew it when someone orders it. I always tell my servers that a customer that appreciates coffee will be happy to wait three minutes for a fresh cup.

As far as the food goes, we have everything from breakfast sandwiches to Belgium Waffles and Eggs Benedict. No matter what meal you want or whatever you’re craving we have fresh, homemade food at a reasonable price. It seems like such cliche to say that, but I am focused on quality instead quantity. That’s what’s important to me.

Give us some examples of what is on the menu and your best sellers.

The number-one seller is Root Beer Braised Short Ribs and I know you love the Grilled Chicken and Feta Raviolis, Mary. (Indeed I do with a pesto drizzle and cream sauce…I DREAM about them.). Customers love our baked brie with a pepper plum sauce, our foie gras with a cherry port-wine reduction with truffle butter and the Lobster Mac and Cheese.

I am drooling right now. I want you to stop tempting me, but I have to know if you have any fun fall foods coming?

We have a new menu that just came out and you’ll love some of these goodies. We have stuffed figs with blue cheese, wrapped in prosciutto with toasted almonds in a fig balsamic reduction. I’ve also been doing at least four soups a day; lobster bisque is always on the menu and seasonal favorites, like butternut squash with apple-smoked cheddar. Also, we welcome any catering for parties. We have a full-catering menu, we deliver and we also rent out the restaurant space for parties.

Tell me a little bit about the mixer bar you have.

Well, we are a BYOB but we wanted to have fun with some cocktail options, so we have a lot of specialty “mocktails” that you can bring your own mixers for. We have choices like Pumpkin Spice, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Taramisu, Caramel Apple and S’mores “mocktinis.” We also make the best Key Lime martini anywhere!

What can we expect in the next few months from The Olive Branch?

I’m always changing the menu for the season. This fall we’re featuring pumpkin gnocchi with a walnut and sage bachamel, brown butter and a bit of nutmeg. I’ve also just started a wonderful relationship with Glen Mills farm that provides me with all of my organic produce and we will be getting organic chicken, lamb and other meats. I’m big on supporting local food producers.

We are having fun doing chef tables, where a a group of six to ten people come for chef’s choice of tapas and we keep sending out tapas plates for the table until everyone is full. They are so much fun and we have a really good time with them. You have to call ahead to book and they are $40 per person.

I see your family is here a lot. Do they like being involved in the restaurant business?

My kids work for me. My youngest prefers to be in the kitchen but the girls are front of the house. They are all amazing at what they do. I did this for own dream but also for my kids. I am so proud of all of them and they love to be part of the restaurant. Of course, I hope one day they’ll want to run the restaurant and then they can send me checks to my beach house, where I’ll be sitting poolside.

Tapas is fun family style eating and that’s what we’re all about. My daughter has a tattoo that says “Ohana” on her arm. We saw it in Lilo and Stitch and it means family; nobody gets left behind or forgotten. I’ve told them that since we moved here and it’s our mantra; that’s how I raised them and that’s how we live.