EAST GREENWICH — She may be used to runways and red carpets, but Rhode Island’s own Olivia Culpo — a model, actress and entrepreneur — seemed just as comfortable (if not more so) Tuesday at the grand opening of the town’s newest restaurant, Union & Main.
This is the second restaurant in which Culpo, a former Miss USA and Miss Universe, has invested. She is also co-owner of Back 40 in North Kingstown, which opened in 2017.
Between greeting guests and posing for photos, the Cranston native, who lives in Los Angeles, sang the praises of her restaurant partners — her dad, Peter, cousin Josh Culpo, Justin Dalton-Ameen, Gina Martin, and Rob Pirnie — and the eatery’s culinary team.
“I think the level of talent in the kitchen is just on another level. We have hand-made pastas, and really avant-garde dishes that you won’t see everywhere. It’s a real eclectic menu,” she said. “It’s taking it up a notch from Back 40, which also has a really great kitchen. As we keep growing, we learn more and more and more and we’re aligning ourselves with people who are really striving for excellence, so we’re going to keep getting better and better.”
”We have a couple of the hits from the Back 40 menu, but we definitely stepped it up a little bit with the buildout of our kitchen, which is bigger so it has more room for preparation and allows us to do [items like] house-made pasta and bread.”
Executive chef Travis French characterized Union & Main’s fare as “creative coastal cuisine” that offers a new take on traditional comfort food — including a variety of fish dishes and a customer favorite, bang bang broccoli in a sweet and spicy sauce with crushed pistachios.
”Between chef Rob and myself and everybody who we work with, we have a very eclectic taste,” French said. “I know Rob started learning from a classically trained Italian chef. The first chef I worked for studied under a classically trained French chef. And while those two schools of culinary thought tend to clash at certain points, it also allows us to come up with these really cool ideas and ways to prepare items and even processes to produce the food in very creative and different ways.”
Culpo said growing up in the restaurant industry — her dad owned several restaurants in Rhode Island — gave her an appreciation for “the restaurant community” and a desire to be a part of it.
”It was always a dream of mine — from when I was really little — to work in hospitality,” she said. “I have journals from like 10-12 years ago where I wrote ‘my dream is to open a restaurant someday.’ So even then, I knew I wanted to bring good food and good community to people — and now to be able to do it with my family is like the cherry on top.”
The importance of family to Culpo was on full display Tuesday night, as her entire immediate family, including her parents, two sisters (including Sophia, who is also a model), two brothers, sister-in-law, and niece — as well as extended family members — were at the grand opening celebration. When her dad joined her at one point, she lauded him — and thanked him — for his “hard work” to support his family.
”I went from being 30 and single to, a decade later, at 40, being married with four restaurants and five kids,” he shared with a laugh.
Culpo, who is also a fashion influencer and social media personality, said she gets back to her home state as often as possible.
”No matter where I am, this is home,” she said. “There is such a strong community in Rhode Island. We just love sitting down, having great food, and enjoying each other’s company. There’s just this love of life and quality time that I feel is so grounded in the [very fabric] of Rhode Island.”
And Culpo, whose boyfriend is Christian McCaffrey, an NFL running back who plays for the Carolina Panthers, thinks Union & Main (which seats about 160 people and has a 25-person bar in the main restaurant and a more intimate 13-seat bar in a smaller back area) is just the place to foster that sense of togetherness.
”With this restaurant being in such a great community like East Greenwich, I think there are going to be a lot of people who are going to make this their regular place, their respite — a place they can go and unwind and connect with people and really just enjoy themselves. I’m so happy to be a part of that,” she said. “With everybody involved in this, I am confident it’s going to be such a great success, and I hope it means as much to everyone as we’re hoping it will.”