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NEWBURYPORT — Charlene Walsh has had a passion for cooking her whole life and said finally getting to open her own restaurant on Merrimac Street feels like a dream come true.

Walsh, a West Newbury resident, recently retired after 23 years as cafeteria director for Newbury Elementary School.

Now, Walsh is hard at work preparing to open her new café, Mama Dukes, at the former location of Finest Kind restaurant at 228 Merrimac St. She hopes to open for business  in mid- to late January.

 

Walsh said leaving her job was a difficult decision, but when the opportunity came to open her own eatery just outside the city’s downtown, she couldn’t pass it up. 

“I love the kids and I’m going to miss them terribly, but this is my time,” Walsh said. “Now, the stars are aligning and I have a chance to be creative again. I love cooking for family and friends. It makes me happy.”

And while she enjoys cooking virtually everything, Walsh said the Mama Dukes menu will feature her favorite comfort food and soup recipes, and also offer healthy options. They include salads, parfaits and wraps.

“I want it to be a casual and comfortable place where people can come to meet,” Walsh said, adding that she plans on keeping things interesting at Mama Duke’s through different specials and theme nights, such as “Taco Tuesdays” and “Fish Fridays.”

Mama Dukes will eventually serve three meals a day, but Walsh said she may hold off on serving dinner at first so as to not overwhelm herself.

 

While there is still work to be done setting up inside, she’s received help from two of her grandchildren, Taylor, 8, and Johnny, 5. They both spent Friday afternoon sweeping the floor while other workers came and went. 

Taylor said that of all her grandmother’s delicious food, she especially loves her brownies and shrimp scampi.

Walsh said she is glad to finally join the restaurant scene in Newburyport, where she got her start in the food business. 

Beginning in her teens, Walsh spent 16 years washing dishes and then cooking for Labadini’s, an Italian restaurant that sat on State Street for many years and was a favorite among local residents.

“Labadini’s was my family — I grew up there, and it became not just my place of work,” Walsh said.

Walsh, who admits to being a picky eater and confectionary perfectionist, said she is taking special care in choosing the right coffee vendor and that she also looks forward to collaborating with nearby butcheries and businesses.

“I hear that people sometimes won’t go to a breakfast place if it’s not a good cup of coffee,” she said. “I really want to meet all the needs that I can.”

Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at jshea@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.