Food & Farming

Locally Foraged Ingredients are Focus of R.I. Man’s Mocktails

Many of the mixers and infusions that will be offered will be sustainably curated from things found seasonally in the wild

The Maritime Mocktail Bar & Cafe has a nautical theme. (Keith Cowley)

WESTERLY, R.I. — Keith Cowley loves sharks. He loves them so much that he decorated the mocktail bar and cafe he’s opening on Memorial Day weekend with a nautical theme.

Maritime Mocktail Bar & Cafe is in Stonington, Conn., the one-time home of “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, and its blue and gold decor is upscale, but welcoming — the kind of place anyone would feel comfortable swimming into.

Keith Cowley took this photo of a shark on one of his recent dives.

Cowley, who is on the advisory board of the Shark Research Institute and is curator of a shark museum, also is an avid and experienced forager, often spending large amounts of time in the woods. Despite the distance between the experiences of land and sea, Cowley said his shark conservation efforts and foraging interests are related, linked by his deep and passionate connection to nature.

“In the shark world, diving with sharks and experiencing shark behavior is a perspective you don’t often get,” he said. “Immersing yourself in the woods also offers a unique view. When you experience small ecosystems, you notice small changes, observe the codependence of species and understand the connectedness.”

Cowley grew up foraging wild mushrooms with his grandfather, a fellow ocean lover who was a commercial fisherman, and developed a love for the practice at a young age. “I learned about other species as the years have gone on and continued adding to my internal database of plant knowledge,” he said.

Cowley said foraging for food is a unique way to interact with the environment. “You have a personal relationship with everything you consume,” he said. “And I find that consuming wild food deepens my connection with nature.”

That understanding informs the Maritime menu.

“All ingredients are considered,” he said. “However, I do my best to source ingredients as close to home as possible both so that food doesn’t travel far and so that the menu reflects the season.” And many of the mixers and infusions that will be offered on the mocktail list will be sustainably curated from things found seasonally in the wild.

Mocktails certainly are having a moment, but Cowley isn’t simply hopping on a trend. “I’ve supported my adventures by working in the [bar and restaurant] industry for over 20 years — most recently at Westerly’s Perks and Corks — and have never been a drinker,” Cowley said of the unique perspective he brings to crafting intriguing and mindful mocktail recipes. “I think it’s important to provide a comfortable environment for people who don’t want to feel the pressure of being around alcohol.”

“I’m looking forward to applying everything I’ve learned in the industry and in my research to create a space for people who share some of my interests,” he said.

“I’ve loved sharks and all things prehistoric since I was a child,” Cowley said. “I’ve had opportunities to travel and dig up shark fossils and dive for shark artifacts and with sharks, and those experiences inspired me to chase down the story of the shark.”

In addition to working with sharks, Keith Cowley is also an expert forager. (Courtesy photo)

He’s talking about the true story, rather than Benchley’s story that depicted sharks as terrifying monsters of the deep. “The worldwide impact of that film is certainly very heavy,” Cowley said. “Before that film, people were not aware of sharks to the degree they are now. But the story of the shark precedes ‘Jaws.’”

Cowley’s work in shark research and conservation has allowed him to collect experiences that gave him a full picture of the relationship between shark and human.

“I spent five years as a fisheries contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, documenting and learning about commercial and recreational shark fishery and how that fits into commerce and the livelihood of local fishermen,” he said.

He also studied shark population data to see how local fishermen affected the sharks. “I built up these experiences to help me be a better educator.”

To that end, Cowley opened Living Sharks Museum in Westerly, R.I., a little more than four years ago. The museum is filled with artifacts of shark history from all over the world — all from Cowley’s personal collection. Among the exhibits are Cowley’s shark fossil finds, shark science tools and technology, and a significant collection of “Jaws” memorabilia. His mission is to educate museumgoers about the living shark by introducing them to sharks’ past relatives and helping them understand their complicated relationship with people.

Maritime Mocktail Bar & Cafe is at 37 South Broad St. in Stonington, Conn.

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