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Restaurant Gets Help from Competition

Chef Clemens Averbeck puts the finishing touches on one of his signature dishes at Stage Left in New Brunswick

Rarely do you hear about a chef who leaves his own restaurant for several months, to help out competitors in another place. But for David Drake, who left his Stage House restaurant in Scotch Plains in the hands of his staff in January to take over the kitchen at Stage Left Restaurant in New Brunswick, the lessons learned were invaluable.

Of course, there was a consulting fee. And it made good business sense on both ends.

For many chefs, it's a jungle out there. According to the New Jersey Restaurant Association, 80 percent of all new restaurants go out of business in their first year, staff turnovers hover at about 200 percent, so you're training new cooks all the time and, if no one bites on the lamb chop special of the day well, thank goodness for tomorrow night's mixed grill.

Still, there are those who stay put for decades--giving stability and identity to a restaurant, and that uniformity can keep customers coming back for generations. It's a sign of the times that we follow our favorite chefs to their new restaurants and that we develop personal relationships with them. They're a quirky bunch, these culinary artists and, as some reach celebrity status on TV and in the media, you've probably heard a few stories about their adventures in and out of the kitchen.

When the chef at Stage Left, Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome, left the restaurant, the partners, Francis Schott, Mark Pascal and Lou Riveiro wanted time to find a successor. The trio felt they wanted to hire the right person who would fit into their vision for the future. In the meantime, they needed a seriously high caliber chef who could take over without interruption of quality and who respected their concept. Enter Drake, a friend for about 20 years, who saw it as a new challenge and an opportunity to learn if he could someday own two restaurants. This was his way to discover if he could be in two places at once--figuratively speaking.

Did it work? Yes, for all concerned. Did Stage Left hire the right person? Finally, yes. Would Drake do it again? Most likely not. But he says the experience made him a better manager, and now that he's back in his own kitchen, he sees things around him with a fresh eye, a new creativity and a renewed energy level.

As for his friends at Stage Left, they and their new chef, Clemens Averbeck, have embarked on a road they hope will bring them into the national culinary arena. And, everyone's still friends.

It's actually a happy ending to a story that began in the early 1980s, when Schott and Pascal were bartenders and Drake was a chef at The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick. They became friends, and though they went on to open their own places, they saw each other at wine tastings and met for dinner as time allowed.

Previously, Drake had cooked at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station and Tacquet in Philadelphia. A self-taught chef from Summit, he purchased the Stage House Inn, a historic stagecoach stop (ca. 1737) 10 years ago. It had become a restaurant around 1900. In almost 10 years, Drake's modern French cuisine and nightly five- to seven-course tasting menus have transformed Stage House into one of the state's most consistently well-reviewed restaurants.

With appetizers like fruitwood-smoked salmon with caviar, creme frâche and shaved fennel and herbs or roasted sweetbreads with gulf shrimp, wild ramps and chanterelles, Drake starts off dinner with an assault on all the senses. Entrees of monkfish osso buco with squash risotto, black trumpets, candied baby beets and butternut squash emulsion or roasted Colorado loin of lamb with artichokes, asparagus and fondant of chevre tell you loud and clear that French food has raised a new voice.

But as always, French cuisine requires the proper accompaniments. "Our food goes in the direction of the wine," says Drake. "We started out originally with 32 wines on our list; I had wanted only southern Rhone and Provençal wines to match the ingredients.

"But as we evolved, so did the list. I recently hired a young French sommelier and we go to tastings and talk about wines. My food is a lighter style, so our wine choices go hand in hand. But wine inspires our food."

Learning about wines was an important part of his development as a chef, but when Drake met Schott during their tenure at The Frog and The Peach, his education went into high gear.

Schott had learned to love wines at an early age, and he was responsible for developing the restaurant's first-rate list.

Schott, Pascal and friend Riveiro went on to open their own restaurant a few blocks away in 1992. Stage Left, a contemporary American eatery focusing on seasonal ingredients by local producers that's also garnered great reviews throughout its run; the partners celebrated their 10th anniversary on Memorial Day by removing tables from the three small dining rooms and taking fewer reservations on the weekends.

"Not exactly your typical way to run a restaurant" says Schott. "But we were growing in size, we had opened Old Vines--our wine shop next door--we were doing private parties, we had bought the building. Now it's time to slow down, limiting reservations and slowing down the pace a little to concentrate on diners more."

One of the things Drake had accomplished during his months at Stage Left was to begin to refine the menu and make it more current. It has evolved even more under Averbeck, combining the simplicity of classic European cooking with the ingredients now available (to him) through family growers, game farms and fishermen producing small quantities of specialty foods.

For example, breast of Amish chicken with a sauce of morels on a saffron risotto cake or caramelized New England diver scallops on parsnip cakes with a reduction of California Merlot are proof you don't need a dozen sparring ingredients on a plate to call your concept contemporary. Less is always more at Stage Left.

In retrospect, Drake and Schott say neither business was hurt at all by the switch, and may have actually improved due to new ideas. They also stress that restaurants are not necessarily natural competitors; in fact, they have always regularly referred customers to each other's place.

"Restaurants don't need to cut each other's throats," says Schott. "People eat out all the time and they like to live in a rich culinary world that we're experiencing for the first time in New Jersey. Twenty years ago, food was lousy; now it's getting pretty interesting."

Especially for those watching the pot in the kitchen.

Stage House Restaurant, 366 Park Ave., Scotch Plains. (908) 322-4225.

Stage Left Restaurant, 5 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick. (732) 828-4444.

Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444
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