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Generally working behind the scenes running the Potato & Corn Festival (PoCo) tent’s baked potato prep line, Bill Savastano is a cherished PoCo volunteer. He’s shown here in 2014, when PoCo founder Pam Gery (right) named him PoCo’s Prep Chef and Master Woodworker. The PoCo medallion he holds is Bill’s handiwork. (Photo by Dennis Pannone )
North Branford’s Bill Savastano embodies the spirit of a POCO volunteer. )
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Hardworking, humble and hometown proud, Bill Savastano embodies the volunteer spirit powering North Branford’s Potato & Corn Festival (PoCo) .
The retired executive chef and Vietnam veteran has been lending PoCo a helping hand for about five years.
“I kind of knew I wanted to do something after I retired, and food was what I worked with for most of my life,” says Bill, who transitioned into retirement by first spending nine years as a chef with Mohegan Sun following 28 years as executive chef with the New Haven Country Club.
“The country club had a lot of people. As a chef, as far as running restaurant, the cooking is only a portion of it. You’ve got schedules, you’ve got ordering and receiving. The easy part came on the weekend. The schedule was done, your people are there, now it’s just a matter of banging it out.”
Like every PoCo volunteer returning year after year, Bill’s says he can’t wait to help out once again. This year, Bill will take his place on the prep line at the signature PoCo tent during all three days of the ‘fest, Friday to Sunday, Aug. 4 to 6 at Augur Field (Route 22). With its midway, food, attractions, and live musical entertainment and special events including a car and bike show, fireworks display, and 5K run, the annual event now draws about 25,000 guests each year.
The PoCo tent is where thousands of fair-goers gather to get their specially topped baked potato or a delicious ear of native corn, roasted to perfection. It may seem like a no-brainer to put someone with Bill’s talent and experience to work at PoCo’s premiere food tent, but Bill says he simply signed up to help at PoCo where ever he was needed.
“You never know what you’re going get,” says Bill. “The first year, I ended up doing tables and chairs the first couple of days, and all of the sudden they were setting up for the corn and potato area, and so I was down there.”
Something he did while he was working at the PoCo tent caught the attention of PoCo Committee Chairman Dennis Pannone.
“He said, ‘You look like you know what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I have some experience,’” says Bill, smiling.
PoCo lore has it that Bill took to the potato topping prep line without a hitch. As he recalls, there was a bit of light discussion on the best way to get the prep station set up. He made one of his first contributions by streamlining broccoli topping prep.
“My first day I got there, I was working with this great girl, and they were putting a five-pound bag of broccoli into 40 gallons of boiling water. I asked her where the strainer was, and she said her husband would be bringing it. Well, it wasn’t more than a tea strainer! So I looked around to see what I had, and asked Dennis if it was alright if I try something,” says Bill, who quickly put his experience to work. “A half hour later, [the female volunteer] was laughing. She was like, ‘Look at this guy, he’s taking over!”
In 2014, PoCo founder and then-Parks & Recreation/Seniors Director Pam Gery presented Bill with a PoCo certificate of appreciation, naming him PoCo’s Prep Chef and Master Wood Cutter.
Wait, wood cutter?
Turns out Bill found another talent in his retirement, working with a scroll saw. He’d started carving ice sculptures with a chain saw when he was in the restaurant business, but says wood working was something he had always wanted to try. In 2014, he crafted a perfect wooden medallion of the PoCo logo, complete with the familiar PoCo corn and potato cartoon characters.
In an interesting side note, Bill’s talent might be inherited: his grandfather, Raffaele Savastano, was a barber who was notable in Providence, Rhode Island, in the early 20th century for the impressive bas relief portraits he carved from wood crates delivered to his shop. Several of them were of religious scenes and notable figures, including the Pope. Several years ago, Bill helped his family track down some of his grandfather’s lost works. In typical Bill style, he put in some leg work to get the job done, including contacting the state president of the Rhode Island Order of the Sons of Italy and a reporter with the Providence Journal.
A Rhode Island native, Bill began working at a diner when he was 12, and completed culinary school in Providence after high school. Before he began his culinary career, Bill was drafted into the Army. Bill served for two years, including a year overseas in Vietnam. He returned to marry a wonderful girl he’d met before shipping out, Dorothy, now his wife of nearly 50 years. It was because of her ties to Connecticut that the couple settled in this area, living in New Haven for about 25 years and raising three daughters before moving to North Branford about 25 years ago.
North Branford has also benefited from Bill’s capable efforts to follow up on leads. This past Memorial Day, with the help of Bill and some fellow members of North Branford VFW Post 8294 including veteran Paul White, the town came together to honor a North Branford native who went missing in action (MIA) on April 21, 1968, in Thua Thien, Vietnam
On Memorial Day weekend 2017, VFW Post 8294 honored Army Sgt. First Class James E. Creamer, Jr. Ahead of the event, Bill was instrumental in contacting local news agencies to spread the word about Sgt. Creamer and also in sharing information he gathered in researching the soldier’s story. Although the town’s Memorial Day Parade was a wash-out this year, Bill and his co-organizers are grateful to those residents who came out for a ceremony at the town’s war monuments to honor Creamer. The ceremony was also attended by about a dozen of Creamer’s family members and some military buddies.
Recently, Bill also tried to assist VFW Post 8294 in an effort to keep the post continuing to operate here, but the post was closed due to lack of membership.
“Even after we actually closed the doors, we had meeting at the end of May, and there was a letter to all the members saying membership was in trouble—come out, elect officers... and just me and two other guys showed up,” says Bill.
Bill remains involved with helping local veterans out, if possible, through connections he makes on both the town level and with local agencies. He also attends many town meetings as a citizen.
“I enjoy them,” says Bill. “I realized that when I was working and couldn’t come to the meetings, someone else was coming to the meetings and keeping things in check. I can be that person. Besides that, it’s very interesting. And, I have some opinions on stuff. I go to PoCo committee meetings, too. I’m not on a committee, but I go just to be able to give an opinion on something, and they’re very good about listening to you.”
While he may not be a committee member, there’s no question Bill’s an important part of the PoCo team. This year, Bill will be back on the prep line under the PoCo tent.
“The baked potato toppings—the sour cream, the mushrooms, the broccoli, the chili, and the hot dogs—that’s me,” says Bill. “I’m in the back, heating them up. I only come out on the line if someone calls for hotdogs. I’ll bring them out there. “
Like many volunteers, Bill will volunteer all three days and he’ll be working eight hours a day. He says he loves seeing the same folks year after year and even gets a great view of the Saturday night fireworks from his place in the tent.
“I don’t mind working eight hours a day because I like to be able to set up,” says Bill. “Getting there early makes for a long day, but I don’t mind. It’s the same for the all people who come back and volunteer every year. It’s fun.”
PoCo 2017 takes place Friday Aug. 4, Saturday, Aug. 5, and Sunday, Aug. 6 at Augurs Field, Route 22 in North Branford. Admission is free. For complete hours, schedule of daily events, contests, entertainment, food, craft, artisan vendors, and other offerings, or to volunteer, visit www.nbpotatofest.com.
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