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New Jersey Life
3/1/2006

The Ultimate Dinner Party

We asked five of the state's top chefs (and one up-and-comer) to get together in one kitchen, cook a six-course meal, and then sit down to eat and talk about food in New Jersey. You won't believe the dish.

Back in the mid-1970s, exciting food news was hard to come by in New Jersey. There was Fromagerie in Rumson, where brothers Hubert and Markus Peter created a haven for haute cuisine right down to the baguettes they had flown in from Paris every day on Air France. And there was Tarragon Tree in Meyersville, where chef Dennis Foy crafted cutting-edge nouvelle cuisine from ingredients he procured during pre-dawn treks to Manhattan's famed Fulton Fish Market, as well as through contracts with local farmers. But for a state of 7.3 million people, the pickings were rather slim.

From left: David Drake, Craig Shelton, Anthony Bucco, Dennis Foy, Nicholas Harary, and James Laird.
From left: David Drake, Craig Shelton, Anthony Bucco, Dennis Foy, Nicholas Harary, and James Laird.

For decades, New Jersey's culinary identity skewed more toward Diner Capital than Four-Star Dining Oasis. And God knows we still love our diners, with good reason.

Developing our own niche as a destination for innovative, world-class cuisine has come slowly for a myriad of reasons, two of the most obvious of which are the powerhouse dining destinations that bookend our state: New York City and Philadelphia. Without a major metropolis with a culinary pedigree, many discerning diners simply drove across a state line.

Today, Fromagerie is still chugging along at an escargot's pace, having settled into a secure niche as a quaint anachronism (though rumors are that a "big name" chef from one of those bookend cities is on the brink of signing the lease), while the Tarragon Tree is no more. But Foy is, and he has kept moving forward, opening two restaurants in Manhattan (though he's no longer involved in either), plus a handful of upscale-casual eateries, including Foy's and Bay Point Prime, both in Point Pleasant Beach.

During the three decades since Foy and Fromagerie broke ground here, countless chefs have passed through their kitchens, some en route to their own restaurants and fame, others to work elsewhere, all of them taking a pinch of this and a dash of that from masterful restaurateurs and their followers, remaking the dining scene here for an audience that has since grown by 1.4 million people. Indeed, New Jersey is now dotted with fine restaurants from north to south.

To celebrate this evolution, six of the state's best chefs gathered on a recent Monday night at Restaurant Nicholas, the chic, minimalist, spa-like hot spot in Middletown. Chef Nicholas Harary graciously welcomed his comrades-in-toques to whip up amazing food at his custom-built Jade Waldorf Suite stove (with 12 French flattops) in his new 1,400-square-foot display kitchen then engage in a roundtable discussion of dining in the Garden State. It's what we at New Jersey Life call The Ultimate Dinner Party. The lineup:

  • Dennis Foy, 53, is one of the state's founding fathers of haute cuisine. His seismic success at Tarragon Tree led him to open Mondrian and EQ in Manhattan, more than a decade apart. Foy, who is also known for his paintings, now owns two upscale-casual bistros in Point Pleasant Beach.
  • Craig Shelton, 45, of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, trained under Foy at Tarragon Tree before heading off to Europe, where he worked with Joel Robuchon, Ferran Adria, and Paul Haeberlin. Back in the United States, he cooked at Ma Maison in Los Angeles and the Rainbow Room, Le Chantilly, Le Bernardin, and Bouley in New York City, before taking over the Ryland in 1991 upon Foy's recommendation.
  • David Drake, 46, of his eponymous restaurant in Rahway, got his start at New Brunswick's the Frog and the Peach, then moved to the Ryland Inn where, under Shelton's tenure, he perfected his pastry skills. He rose to the top of New Jersey's culinary ladder, however, at the Stage House Inn in Scotch Plains. While Foy was consulting at the Ryland he signed Drake's checks, though the two never actually worked together.
  • James Laird, 36, of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, has never worked for Dennis Foy, but Foy built his restaurant. Laird, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, honed his skills in Europe under the tutelage of Georges Blanc and Alain Pic. He then worked in New York City at Lespinasse, the River Cafe, and Aureole, eventually working the line at--stop us if you've heard this--the Ryland Inn before leaving to create Serenade in the space that was formerly known as Dennis Foy's Townsquare.
  • Nicholas Harary, 31, of Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown, was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America at age 17. By 27, just before opening his much-lauded Nicholas in 2000, he had also taught himself enough about wine to become the sommelier at Jean Georges in Manhattan, pouring wine all night after working all day in the kitchen (he's been known to switch between a suit and chef's whites during a typical meal). Harary has no connection whatsoever to Foy, but Harary does go to the Fulton Fish Market at 1 a.m. twice per week to buy seafood from the same purveyors who sell to Jean Georges, Le Bernardin--and Foy.
  • Anthony Bucco, 30, of Stage Left in New Brunswick, is a relatively unknown commodity. Through a succession of chefs, Stage Left had been slowly rising to the upper echelon of New Jersey restaurants, but it wasn't until Bucco, a graduate of the New York Restaurant School, took the helm two years ago that the restaurant garnered universal acclaim as one of the state's best. He, too, has no connection to Foy. We pegged him as our representative from "generation next," because we think you'll be hearing a lot more about him in the coming years.

Each chef was given instructions to come prepared with a sous-chef and one of six courses, pulled from a hat, with enough to feed eight guests. They were also asked to bring a bottle of wine to pair with their course. When the chefs began to arrive, ready to cook, the fun and games (and barbs) began. Upon surveying who was cooking what when he arrived, Foy faux-whispered to Shelton, "How the f-- did we end up with the two hardest dishes? We got hosed!" Laird, who was teased by Foy for pulling dessert duty, was asked if he minded getting last licks. "Oh, no -- I'm competent in all skills in the kitchen, so I'm just waiting for them to call me on Iron Chef."

Despite their different approaches to cooking, nearly all the chefs emphasized their love of the business. There remained a palpable tension between perspectives of art and technique, and also between accessibility and artistry. Personality-wise, Foy loomed largest, the paterfamilias with advice for everyone. Shelton, the most cerebral, paused whenever interrupted and then plowed ahead on theories and observations. Drake was content to let Shelton and Foy compete for airtime, watching with bemusement. Laird played it pretty safe, allowing others to expel hot air before chiming in quietly-- or, more often, devilishly-- from the sidelines. Bucco played the newcomer well, and was both cocksure (when defending his positions against Foy) and refreshingly self deprecating.

Anthony Bucco's Roasted Sable with Caramelized Asian Pears and Acacia Honey Gastrique.
Anthony Bucco's Roasted Sable with Caramelized Asian Pears and Acacia Honey Gastrique.

Cooking-wise, Bucco did what was technically expected of him, but far surpassed his obligation by executing exquisitely complex miniature courses. Drake's egg was the triumph of simple ingredients ennobled by sophisticated technique. Harary offered up elitist food that was still accessible for all diners. Shelton, while arguing for artistry, proved to be the technical master. Foy served a once-avant garde dish that's now a classic, much like himself. And Laird gave a deceptively simple wink to the table when presenting Chocolate and Vanilla, but it was about as wonderful as any dessert can be, balancing bitter, sweet, hot, and cold.

Once the cooking was done, the chefs changed into the crisply starched white embroidered coats they typically wear during the "victory lap" around the dining room each night -- and headed upstairs to eat. Melissa Harary, Nicholas' wife, set a beautiful square "eight-top" table with two guests on each side (the six chefs, myself, and a fellow reporter), and seated us as she does all guests at the restaurant. Hungry and relaxed, with wine in hand, the chefs -- having been primed in the kitchen -- set off immediately talking to (and over) each other about everything from the real definition of what they do to the value of a good meal. Listen in:

On Meal Prices

Anthony Bucco's Roasted Sable with Caramelized Asian Pears and Acacia Honey Gastrique

Bucco prepared hors d'oeuvres and then an amuse-bouche -- a small taste the chef sends out with compliments to set the tone of a meal. On a long, white, rectangular plate he spread out four tiny tastes: a sweet seared day-boat scallop with a creamy foie gras torchon capped with a Calvados foam; a bite of pan-seared salmon with grilled fennel, Osetra caviar, fennel puree, and a little fennel frond; a wedge of grilled sardine with eggplant puree, olive tapenade and micro basil; a rabbit ballotine with carrot puree, baby carrots, and fortified rabbit jus. For the amuse, he proffered these plump, delicious chunks of roasted sable fish (aka black cod) atop slices of roasted Asian pears and pea leaves dressed with a sweet-and-sour acacia honey gastrique.

Wine selections: With hors d'oeuvres -- 2001 Domaine aux Moines Savennieres, Roche aux Moines; with amuse-bouche: 2001 Gravner Ribolla Gialla Venezia, Giulia, Italy

Makes four servings

Acacia Honey Gastrique (Sweet & Sour Sauce)

2 oz. acacia honey
3 oz. sherry vinegar

In a small sauce pan over medium heat, caramelize acacia honey until takes on a nutbrown hue. Add the sherry vinegar and reduce until mixture resembles caramel. (Should yield about 4 ounces)

Caramelized Asian Pears

2 Asian pears
2 oz. gastrique (see above)
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and core pears, lightly drizzle extra virgin olive oil and gastrique over the pear along with salt and pepper, and roast until the pear begins to soften and takes on some light brown coloring.

Cod

7 oz. black cod filets
1 oz. grapeseed oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place a saute pan over high flame. Season cod with salt and pepper. Add grapeseed oil to pan, then sear cod until it begins to caramelize (peek underneath with spatula carefully but don't flip it). Place saute pan in oven and look for flesh to flake and gently separate, within five minutes. Using oven mitts, carefull remove pan. Using a spatula, gently turn filets out onto plates (dividing as necessary, depending on size) and spoon over remaining gastrique equally. Garnish with pea leaves (see below).

Pea Leaves

Pea leaves are often sold pre-packaged in plastic containers alongside fresh herbs in most supermarkets. Gently wilt one bunch of pea leaves in a saute pan, and then season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Shelton: It's a shame that so many people deprive themselves of what I believe is the finest value of anything involving service in America because they've been propagandized [by the press] into thinking they're overpaying. A meal for two at any of our restaurants is about $200 -- that's the same thing they pay to go to a baseball game.

Bucco: We get $125 per person with wine, $6o a head without.

Foy: I'm not doing something right.

Harary: Prices have not gone up at our restaurants in 10 years; however, if you go to a Friday's today you'll get an entree for $15 while ours are at $27 to $28.

Shelton: The margin between top restaurants and moderate restaurants has shrunk.

Foy: That's the point that should be made. When you go to Friday's, you're spending $25 per person, but if you come to one of our places and spend the same money, the value of what you receive is off the scale

On Technique Versus Artistry

Shelton: For living artists in every other field, an original work of art of theirs is commanding millions of dollars. You want to have a private audience with Pavarotti, a private recital by the Stones, or ... any other art form, it's not accessible for anyone but billionaires.

Foy: But food is not an art form!

Shelton: Food is accessible, and it is art.

NJ Life: But food disappears.

Shelton: So does a performance -- so does a ballet.

Foy: Food is not art. There's not a damn thing any one of you are going to cook for me today that's an art form (Note: He will take this back after he sees Shelton's Marron Glacee of woodcock brains). You guys are technicians and craftsmen.

Shelton: I'm going to disagree with Dennis, because (John) Ruskin's definition of art was something that can create in the person who experiences it an intended emotion. Of course our intended emotion in cooking can only be pleasure -- but, still, I consider it an artistic endeavor.

NJ Life: To hit a baseball out of the park is technique. But there are people who hit it and then there are people who hit it.

Bucco: I don't agree with that.

Foy: I don't agree with that at all!

Bucco: No -- see, a pitcher has his art. Greg Maddux is an artist. Randy Johnson is not.

NJ Life: So how can you say that cooking isn't technical?

Foy: Cooking is pure technique!

Shelton: Not really -- when you create anything, you bring together all of your life experiences, what you've read, who you've loved, how you've loved, the mistakes, things you've seen.

Foy: I'll agree with that.

Shelton: All these things ... f- it! What I am is a chef, and all of us at this table are simply this: We're paid to make aesthetic decisions all day and nothing but aesthetic decisions all day long. And hopefully, at the end of the day, we can pay your bills.

Drake: I remember working for Craig. All of us were learning Craig's techniques, and we were basically using his techniques without so much emotion until we got to a certain point, and then when we got to the next level we were using emotions to cook, using the techniques as a backdrop.

Laird: There has to be art involved in it.

Foy: The only art in food is probably the intelligence to buy food properly, buy the best out there, and present it beautifully. Everything is there for you to put out a great meal.

Shelton: We need to agree on a definition of art, then.

Foy: Food is conceptual art! That's it! It's not lasting!

Shelton: Next question!

On Stars (and Snipes)

The ultimate dinner party.
The ultimate dinner party.

Harary: We've always been very lucky with good press.

Foy: You're not lucky -- you're talented! Talent dictates luck. A prepared mind is what gives you the ability to be lucky. Talent gives you luck.

Drake: I was in France on my honeymoon and went to all these Michelin three-stars (the highest rating possible in the famous Guide Michelin) and then came back to Ryland. (To Shelton:) It was the first year you were open (1992), and it was definitely a four-star (the highest rating in typical American publications, New Jersey Life included) meal -especially for New Jersey.

Foy: No, no, take that phrase back- that is so unkind and that so pisses me off, like, We're New Jersey, like our food should be cheaper or inferior (because it's) for New Jersey.

Bucco: I don't think that's what he's saying. He's talking about how Shelton didn't get four stars immediately.

Drake: I was comparing Craig to (French chef) Roger Verged in 1992.

Foy: As you should!

Harary: But I need to say this, the difference between three stars and four stars, here in the States, matters only to us the chefs. I promise you that it only matters to us.

Shelton: The ironic thing is this: If you get two stars you'll do a good business. If you get three stars you'll do great business. If you get four stars you'll do less business.

Harary: I agree with that.

Bucco: You'll still do a great business, but...

Shelton: The fourth star can also be the poison pill because it intimidates the hell out of everyone.

Foy: My favorite kind of review is four-star kitchen, three-star dining room--they'll come in droves.

Shelton: None of us at this table should have an ax to grind about stars, because all of us at this table have gotten nothing but total support from the press.

Laird: It's true.

On Champagne, Caviar, and Creativity

Drake: I haven't eaten this much caviar in a long time -I've been eating a lot of areas.

Foy: In our business you should have caviar and champagne at the restaurant at all times. It's the only reason to own a restaurant.

Shelton: (Upon being complemented universally for his multi-course dish) You know, there's an old adage that creativity is simply a failure of memory Two hundred years ago, they used to pair woodcock and game with Riesling all the time, so this pairing is not unique at all. There's not a lot that's actually new in the world. (Marie-Antoine) Careme was doing gelatin works 300 years ago. It's just that we have better techniques and better equipment today.

On Good Value and Good Chicken

NJ Life: If I am out to dinner at a restaurant, how do I know if I'm getting good value?

Shelton: That's easy. If you are in America and you have food that tastes good, that is good value.

Foy: Here we go with Craig's pontificating.

Shelton: No, really, it's an amazing value, because the restaurant lost money. No restaurant is selling quality food at break-even.

Foy: It's true. You're either doing catering or something else to make money.

Drake: I'd like to hear Nicholas' opinion on that.

Harary: I think what we do is noble. People come here all the time, and they come to every one of our restaurants, and the question is, "What are you celebrating tonight?" An anniversary, a special occasion, and you only have one 25th anniversary, only one 50th birthday dinner. You know what? You're a memory that they'll never forget because they want to never forget it, they want it to be special. What we do is like a spa for the culinary arts -- you owe it to them to take care of them.

Drake: You have a relationship with them -- it's our obligation.

Harary: Certainly, we have dishes on our menu that wouldn't be my first choice -- the chicken, say -- but if the customer wants a chicken, I'm going to do a chicken the best I can.

On Ambiance

NJ Life: How much does ambiance play into your formulas? Some people decide on a place after considering the lighting.

Laird: My wife is the same way. She'll ask, "Where do you want to go?" And then say, "No, it's too bright."

Harary: It's true. You sell food, you sell liquor, and you sell ambiance -- you can't sell service, it comes with it. We designed this place to be cool, modern, and soothing, like a spa.

Shelton: It's taken 14 years of hard work to get to a point where I can turn the Ryland Inn into a restaurant finally that I like. I believe that 25 years ago decor/atmosphere were in third place: food, service, decor, in that order. And it was a more elite, diverse crowd. Today, decor 8o percent, service 15 percent, and food 5 percent.

Foy: I wanted to do a restaurant where the food was just the focus, with red table tops, a chair that I love to sit in, bare bones, nothing on the walls, just simple, upscale bistro food. The reactions [to Foy's in Point Pleasant] were just horrendous: "stark," "bare." And so I spent over $20,000 to upgrade the decor, which is so important today because dining is entertainment. It's just crazy; for people who want to go out, this is their theater -- we are their theater.


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