Author Archive | Fran McManus





With a cooking résumé that spans three continents—and several highly acclaimed kitchens—it is not surprising that Ehren Ryan defines his cuisine as globally inspired. “To stick to one genre is, for us, impossible,” Ryan says. As executive chef and owner of Common Lot in Millburn, he focuses instead on “good food that we enjoy cooking and eating.”

Ryan’s confit duck leg and spätzle is a case in point. The dish marries traditional comfort food from Austria—the home country of his wife (and business partner) Nadine—with rich, meaty slow-cooked duck and a salty-umami kick from Asian-inspired cured egg yolks. The evolution of this dish began with cheese-infused spätzle, which Ryan offered at the restaurant he ran back home in Australia.

When he opened Common Lot in early 2016, he included a duckbreast dish on his menu, which meant that he had to find a use for the leftover legs. That sparked the idea of combining spätzle with intensely flavored, meltingly tender duck confit.

“From there, we needed a salty component,” Ryan says, noting that duck confit goes well with very pronounced flavors. “We needed an acidic component, we needed texture, and we needed that little bit of richness or fattiness to balance out the dish.”

After three weeks of tweaking, the final dish emerged. Texture came from toasted hazelnuts, which, Ryan says, have the right kind of nuttiness for a dish like this. Sauerkraut added a bit of acidity and a touch of Austrian influence. And saltiness— and a hit of color—came from cured duck egg yolk grated over the dish. “The cured egg yolk, when it’s grated, dissolves in your mouth. It’s almost as if it vanishes,” Ryan says. “But it’s a very intense duck egg [flavor].” As a final touch, leftover duck skin is fried, crumbled, and spooned over the dish.

Ryan tweaks and changes this dish in intriguing ways. Replacing the hazelnuts with pistachio cream, he echoes a classic terrine pairing that adds a pop of green to the plate and a creamy finish to the dish. In the hazelnut version, he moistens the dish with duck jus rather than a cream sauce, which creates a slightly drier finish. Ryan also likes to switch up the acidic element, preferring to pair sauerkraut with pistachios and pickled onions with hazelnuts. For a twist on another classic flavor combination, Ryan uses chestnuts with preserved or pickled cherries.

If cost were no object, however, he’d go with his home country’s favorite native nut—macadamia. “If I could use macadamia in everything, I probably would,” Ryan says. “That is my favorite nut by far. You just roast it slightly, a little bit of salt and it’s the perfect nut.”

Common Lot
27 Main Street, Millburn


Confit Duck Leg, Spätzle, Hazelnuts and Cured Egg Yolk


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The New Jersey man who knows the future of food



Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, King Croesus of Lydia asked the Oracle of Delphi if he should wage war on the Persians. If he did, the Oracle foretold, he would destroy a great empire. The prophecy was fulfilled when the Persians crushed Croesus’s army—a graphic reminder that how we interpret and act on information determines its ultimate value.

As global director of conceptual design in the flavors division at Firmenich, a global flavor and fragrance company headquartered in Plainsboro, Mikel Cirkus also traffics in prophecy. The messages he gathers and dispenses, however, come not from the spiritual realm but from streets and gathering spots in edgy neighborhoods around the world. His job is to seek out inspiration that can catalyze new product development and innovation for Firmenich’s internal teams—as well as for its customers, which include major manufacturers of consumer packaged goods worldwide.

A New Jersey native, Cirkus began recording sketches, ideas and inspirations in personal journals while still in high school—a habit he continues to this day. After earning a degree in advertising design, he worked as a creative director in advertising, packaging and graphic design at several NJ-based agencies before joining Firmenich. His background in design, illustration and creative thinking enables Cirkus to go well beyond simply compiling images and observations. He interprets and analyzes those observations—looking for patterns, connections and commonalities that give him insight into what will influence the food and beverage industry in two to four years and beyond. He weaves images, stories and cultural insights into narratives that forecast global trends and inspire innovation. Sharing these insights into the changing consumer landscape is a value-added service the flavors division provides to its customers.

A little time spent in conversation with Cirkus quickly reveals the qualities that make him well suited to his job. He has an intense and lively curiosity and constantly comments on details that escape the notice of those less deeply engaged in their surroundings. He’s a quick thinker who can analyze on the fly and connect seemingly unrelated ideas. He’s energetic and focused. And, as a look through his website will confirm, he is deeply creative—working in a range of media, from poetry to photography to travel logs to illustration to graffiti. “I’m not a marketing guy. I’m not a trend guy. I’m not in sales,” Cirkus says.

“I’m a designer with a unique perspective on the world that I’m seeing. As an artist and designer, I was always overly aware of everything.” That awareness is what enables Cirkus to detect shifting cultural values and influences early on. That’s crucial for large food companies, which require a long lead time to bring new food and beverage products to market.


Cirkus notes that in
16-plus years of
interpreting signals from
the cultural fringe, he
and his colleagues have
never been wrong.

Take matcha (green tea), for example. No one attending the 2016 Summer Fancy Food Show, the Specialty Food Association’s largest annual trade show, could miss seeing that matcha has moved beyond the beverage category and is now being used to flavor a wide range of food products. For retailers, chefs and artisan producers, it is easy to pick up on this trend and offer matcha-infused products to their customers. For large food companies with wide distribution, however, it isn’t so easy to jump in on the matcha trend now. Ideally, they would have foreseen today’s growing interest in matcha years ago—much like companies that foresaw the explosive growth of coconut water back when it was only sold in yoga studios. “Nobody makes something tomorrow,” Cirkus says. “If I have to make a product and have it on store shelves two years from now, the development of that starts now.”

In her TED talk on the art and science of trend tracking, Alison Sander, head of the Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Sensing and Mining the Future, compares capitalizing on a trend to surfing. In order to catch a wave, a surfer must be patient and observant, scanning the water for the first, barely visible sign of a developing wave. Successful companies put much of their energy into detecting emerging trends and tracking their pace, she says, as they wait for the right moment to launch a new product or service. The trick is to be ready to act when the wave hits as it is difficult to ride a wave if you jump in too late.

Cirkus’ goal is to detect those nascent cultural waves. When he walks through the Fancy Food Show (or South by Southwest or Burning Man or the streets of a city neighborhood), he’s not looking for what’s hot today. He’s searching for signs of what may be hot years from now. To do that, he isn’t tracking trends: he’s observing change.

Companies today, Cirkus notes, are inundated with trend information. The difference that he brings is that out on the streets observing and recording, firsthand, the changes that occur over time—returning to the same neighborhoods time and again to make note of what’s new, what has evolved, what remains unchanged and what has disappeared. “Observing the changes taking place on the streets of edgy areas in uber-creative cities around the world,” Cirkus wrote in an article on LinkedIn, “gives insights to the many messages and themes driving consumer trends.”

In The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Random House Business Books, 2003), authors Watts Wacker and Ryan Mathews explain that many mainstream market successes begin as the ideas of “positive deviants” living on the cultural fringe. Those ideas, they write, then move through a series of stages—Fringe, Edge, Realm of Cool, Next Big Thing and Social Convention—en route to becoming mainstream. Wacker and Matthews also note that the initial “deviant” idea undergoes significant changes at every stage.

Early in his career, Cirkus explored stores on Main Street to see what was new. He quickly ventured on to exploring niche shops, cafes and markets in edgier neighborhoods—the creative centers on the cultural fringe where artists, innovators and early adopters are constantly exploring new ideas. It was in those neighborhoods that he found one of his primary subjects of observation—street art. “The messages in the street were very pertinent to what was happening in society at that time from an artist’s perspective, and from an edgy artist’s perspective on top of that,” Cirkus says. “We started capturing that and started collecting the messages, the themes, around some of these ideas—and the colors. And then we started to notice the patterns, because we are boots on the ground.”



Sometimes the connection Cirkus creates between street art and flavors is literal. “For instance, in 2010, I was seeing a lot of flame-orange color in the streets worldwide,” Cirkus wrote in an email. “The following year, Pantone declared their Tangerine Tango as Color of the Year, which, by the naked eye, is a shade or so different than the color I had been tracking in the streets.” Weaving his firsthand observations together with inspirations gathered at his first visit to Burning Man, Cirkus created a flavor concept he called “Burning Mandarin.” That … Read More

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Paul Bazzini has presented himself and his staff with a sizeable challenge. As executive chef of Hearth & Tap in Montvale, he’s promised his customers that no entrée or special will be priced above $25—ever. He makes good on that promise, he says, by maximizing the flavor of stellar yet humble ingredients with precise, classic cooking techniques.

“I firmly believe that you can eat really well and not have to spend a fortune,” Bazzini says. “I think that really good food should be affordable—it should be clean, real, chef-driven and as organic and local as possible. That’s what we’re building here.” He also believes that home cooks can improve the quality of their food by using that same formula: buying great ingredients and mastering a few basic cooking techniques.

To put the humble chicken pot pie on par with fine cuisine, the choice and preparation of each ingredient must build toward a highly flavorful, perfectly textured dish. “Everything should have a purpose,” Bazzini says. “It creates discipline. To know when to stop is a very strong skill to have with cooking.”

Proper technique is essential to building layers of flavor, which add depth and complexity to the dish. The filling begins with a well-dried three-and-a-half-pound chicken. Drying ensures that the chicken roasts rather than steams, and the specified size means that the breast and leg meat will finish cooking at the same time.

The chicken is rubbed with butter to keep the meat moist and produce a crisp, golden skin. It is seasoned with salt and pepper plus ground fennel seed, which adds a hint of anise. The chicken is stuffed with fresh thyme, lemon, bay leaves and black garlic—a fermented garlic with flavor notes of balsamic and chocolate—and roasted at a high heat until golden brown.

Once it has cooled, the meat is pulled (rather than sliced) off the bone. To create variety in texture and flavor, each pie contains chunks of breast, pieces of dark meat, and bits of the flavorful backbone meat. The buttery pan drippings are combined with chicken fat to make a flavorful foundation for the velouté—the sauce that holds the filling together.

The root vegetables, onions and herbs in the filling vary from season to season. Added interest and texture come from slicing the vegetables with a rough, triangular bias cut, rather than a perfect, tiny square (known as a brunoise). “It shouldn’t look like it came from a factory,” Bazzini says. “It should look like someone made this. Every piece isn’t going to be perfect, nor should it be.”

The vegetables are cooked over moderate heat in a combination of olive oil and butter. The goal is to cook the vegetables in their own liquid, which eventually evaporates and concentrates the flavor. It is important not to let the vegetables brown, Bazzini says, because the caramelization will overpower the delicate velouté and throw the dish out of balance.

Each individual pot pie is topped with a puff-pastry crust that is brushed with egg white. If you are using store-bought puff pastry, Bazzini suggests covering it with a tea towel or cheesecloth while defrosting. (Covering it in plastic wrap will make the dough mushy.) Stretching the dough a bit will aid in the puffing and flakiness of the baked crust. At Hearth & Tap, the pies are baked in the convection oven and then finished in the wood oven to brown the crust and add a hint of smoke and char.

All of this attention to texture and flavor helps overcome customers’ association with the bland, soggy frozen pot pies of their childhood. “You are taking all these preconceived ideas—these bad memories of what people think it is—and you are reeducating them,” Bazzini says. “You convince them and you win them over. That’s an even bigger joy because you’ve eradicated a bad food memory and replaced it with a really good food memory.”

Hearth & Tap Co.
125 N. Kinderkamack Road, Montvale




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Culinary craftsmanship at
England’s Chef’s Dozen restaurant

A sheep pasture on the hills above Chipping Campden

Years ago, I worked with a recipe editor who claimed that she always packed cookware when she traveled. Not just a chef ’s knife and a few treasured culinary tools—full-on cookware.

The burden of extra luggage was worthwhile, she said, because appreciating local ingredients required proper equipment—not that rubbish you find in the kitchens of holiday rental units.

At the time, I both envied her commitment and questioned her sanity. Envy won out last June as I looked in the shop windows along High Street in Chipping Campden, England. Here, inaccessible to a hotel- staying visitor, were enticing cuts of meat from a century-old butcher shop, regionally produced cheeses, and mounds of fresh produce— including some grown on the greengrocer’s own nearby farm. Those ingredients fed my desire to move beyond being a mere tourist-observer and to have, like that editor, a more intimate experience of place.

It is impossible not to be drawn in by the beauty of this ancient market town, with its honey-colored limestone facades, idyllic countryside footpaths and fragrant gardens spilling over stone walls. It is also very tempting to indulge in fantasies about how to make it a more perfect example of peaceful rural living. “This town would be so much lovelier if they outlawed parking on the High Street,” I muttered one day as I wandered in search of my own personal “authentic experience.” A similar sentiment, I later learned, was penned by Charles Robert Ashbee, who came to town more than a hundred years before me.

In the early 1900s, Chipping Campden was “rediscovered” by Ashbee, an English designer who founded the Guild of Handicrafts and was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Ashbee was inspired by ideas on craftsmanship and the value of handwork promoted by John Ruskin and William Morris—designer, political activist and author of musings such as Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. To escape London’s industrial grime, Ashbee brought his guild of artisans, along with their families, to Chipping Campden. There, in an abandoned silk mill, they set up workshops for blacksmiths, printers, metalworkers, enamellers, cabinetmakers and woodcarvers. They proceeded to make an indelible mark on the landscape and the story of this town. Some argue that they also inspired a renewed local appreciation for traditional customs, materials and building practices.

Visiting Chipping Campden rekindled my own youthful obsession with Morris and his belief in the superiority of handcrafted goods. Alan Crawford’s excellent book Arts and Crafts Walks in Broadway and Chipping Campden, as well as visits to the Silk Mill and the Court Barn Museum of Craft and Design, gave me a glimpse into that era. However, it was dinner at the Chef ’s Dozen that finally gave me that longed-for visceral connection to the landscape. It was a culinary experience of Ashbee’s ideals of individual creative expression, honoring local materials and direct connection between the artisan and the customer.

Hay-smoked lamb with spring vegetables, lamb
sweetbreads and ewes milk cheese from The Chef’s Dozen

It was dinner at The Chef’s Dozen
that finally gave me that longed-for visceral
connection to the landscape.

Craven and his apprentice-chef Jamie picking blackberries

Richard Craven, chef-owner of the Chef’s Dozen, is a local boy with a passion for great food born of superior ingredients—many of them procured locally through friendships and personal relationships. Craven’s enthusiastic hospitality and commitment to local ingredients and designers made dinner at the Chef ’s Dozen a threehour glimpse of what it is to live in a place rich in history, artisanship and wild and cultivated ingredients.

Craven got his start in a local hotel, where he rose from kitchen porter to sous chef. He honed his cooking skills at the Kingham Plough under Emily Watkins (former sous chef at Heston Blumenthal’s legendary Fat Duck) and at South Africa’s world-renowned Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français. His cooking has snagged him numerous local and regional awards as well as accolades from reviewers, who praise his “wonderfully creative menu” (London Telegraph), “taste sensations you’ll never be able to replicate in a million years” ( and “incredible skill and knowledge and inspired flavour pairings” (Crumbs Magazine). “Richard Craven,” writes Marina O’Loughlin in the Guardian, “is a chef with it all going on: ability and creativity rather than tedious modernist grandstanding.”

The tiny (26-seat) restaurant is an inviting mix of rustic and refined. The tables are set with plates custom-made by a potter in near-by Winchcombe and sleek candleholders and cutlery from Robert Welch’s studio, just across High Street. The thick stone walls, exposed timber beams and Tudor fireplace make an inviting backdrop to the intimate but comfortable dining room. It is a pleasure to linger over each of the four courses that are the restaurant’s sole menu offering (a three-course option is available for lunch and early weekday evenings). Craven’s wife, Solanche, manages the front of house and has gathered her own praise from reviewers for creating the restaurant’s friendly atmosphere and welcoming charm.

Solanche describes the Chef ’s Dozen as “the sum of everything that we have experienced.” The couple’s time in South Africa solidified an interest in using local game. From Kingham Plough came a focus on precision and fine tuning—and a deepened interest in traditional Cotswold cookery. At the helm of his own kitchen, Craven, like the guildsmen of old, favors local materials and traditional techniques when applying his craft. “We start with a really good product—local, authentic, as high-quality as possible,” Craven says. “Then we try to give it our little spin. We try to be a little bit imaginative with it.”

Chef Richard Craven

a game bird being plucked

“We start with a really good product—
local, authentic, as high-quality as possible,”
Craven says. “Then we try and give it our little
spin. We try to be a little bit imaginative with it.”

The Chef’s Dozen’s main dining room


A detailed list of the month’s local produce, fish, foraged foods, meat and game is subtly integrated into each table setting—printed in pale gray ink on translucent vellum napkin rings. The list is finalized the night before the start of each month, reflecting up-to-the-minute information from the farmers. That same list goes on a whiteboard in the kitchen, where it is used to develop ideas for dishes and menus. The menu itself offers further details on ingredients—and the Cravens’ relationships with their purveyors. The stoneground flour in their wholemeal bread, for example, comes “from a friend’s farm (milled just for us).” Their cheeses come from Gorsehill Abbey, “our favorite local organic producer.” The menu features “a cross section of the best seasonal ingredients that Richard, Solanche and the team are most excited about.”

Game, the restaurant’s website notes, “is often ‘shot to order’ by local gamekeeper friends from the surrounding hills and estates.” Their game offerings include pheasant, deer, rabbit and the giant (and ubiquitous) wood pigeons, which were making a nuisance of themselves when I was visiting town. “It’s mating season right now,” Craven explains, adding that pigeon … Read More

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Makes 4 individual pot pies

8 ounces Kerrygold Irish butter, room temperature, divided
1 whole fryer chicken, 3 to 3½ pounds, preferably organic, washed and dried
Coarse sea salt, fresh-cracked black pepper and a pinch of ground fennel
2 cloves black or roasted garlic, smashed
2 thyme sprigs
1 lemon, cut in half
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, cleaned and roughly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 celery ribs, washed and roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
2 sprigs tarragon, chopped
4 sprigs flat parsley, chopped
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 quart chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup frozen peas
2 sheets puff pastry
1 egg

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Divide the butter into three pieces. Rub one-third of the butter all over the chicken. Season with salt, pepper and fennel. Place the garlic, thyme, lemon and bay leaf into the cavity of the chicken. Place the chicken breast side up in a roasting pan and roast for 50 to 60 minutes or until a thermometer in the leg registers 160°F, basting a few times throughout.

Let the chicken rest until it is cool to the touch. Reserve the juices. Remove all white and dark meat, reserving the skin and bones for stock.

Heat a Dutch oven over moderate heat and add one-third of the butter plus the olive oil, vegetables, tarragon, and parsley. Cover and stir often with a wooden spoon until the vegetables are fork tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining butter, the flour and the reserved juices. Stir until well mixed. Add the stock, cream and reserved chicken meat and cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat until the sauce is creamy. Turn off the heat. Add the peas.

Place the filling into four 12-ounce ceramic dishes and top each with a piece of puff pastry to cover the entire dish and drape down a little on all sides. Cut two slashes in the top and brush with a beaten egg.

Place the dishes on a sheet tray and put them in a 400°F oven for about 15 minutes, until the dough is golden.

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Red Star Egg | Chicken Bacon | Potato “Risotto” | Golden Enoki | Tarragon

CHEF: Greg Vassos
RESTAURANT: Brick Farm Tavern
LOCATION: Hopewell


When presented with a chicken and an egg, Greg Vassos has a far greater challenge than weighing in on the ageold conundrum. As executive chef and partner at Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell, Vassos must prepare and serve 45 dozen eggs and 30 chickens a week in a way that honors the care they’ve received at Double Brook Farm—the adjacent pasture-based farm that supplies the Tavern’s kitchen with all of its meat and poultry. Egg in a Nest exemplifies the creative approach Vassos and his team take to this whole-animal challenge.

“It goes with the philosophy of the restaurant,” Vassos says. “Every week we’re getting whole animals through the door. How do we use everything, from nose to tail, with no waste? It’s all about utilizing as much product as we can.”

Egg in a Nest is built on a foundation of rich, creamy potato risotto, made by dicing potato to the size of grains of Arborio rice and cooking it in the same manner as risotto. Topping that is an egg that has been poached in the shell at 147°F for one hour. “It cooks the egg white and the egg yolk to the same consistency, so it is very pudding-like,” Vassos says.

The poached egg is surrounded by a crescent of glazed squash and by mushrooms cooked in fat rendered from “chicken bacon”—cured chicken thighs smoked with hay gathered from the farm. These larded mushrooms add umami and richness to the dish while also bringing in a salty, smoky element. Along with a sprinkling of microgreens, the dish is finished with tarragon foam, which adds brightness and balance. To serve, the dish is placed in an aromatic nest made from hay that has been washed, dried and baked.

The thighs Vassos uses to make this dish are from Freedom Ranger chickens, which are bred to do well while foraging on pastures. The eggs are from Red Star chickens—prolific layers that produce eggs Vassos describes as rich and “unlike any supermarket egg you’ve ever had.” While the choice of breeds matters to the flavor of the meat and eggs, Vassos also credits the chickens’ free-roaming diet, noting that “everything that’s out on the farm that they’re foraging on—bugs, grass—adds to the end product.”

Double Brook Farm, which is owned by Jon McConaughy, Vassos’s business partner, has one of the only on-farm USDA-certified abattoirs in the United States. This intimate farm-to-table relationship gives Vassos total confidence in the quality of his ingredients. “The animals are raised on the farm, they’re slaughtered on the farm. Nothing leaves our property,” Vassos says. “We can really stand behind what we’re serving and know exactly how are animals were treated, what they’re fed—all the way through the cooking process.”

Brick Farm Tavern
130 Hopewell Rocky Hill Rd.




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Rerouting the road to healthier eating



When Cindy Foss talks about the physical and emotional challenges she has faced, it is difficult to reconcile the gravity of her words with the lightness of her demeanor.

So, too, with Bebe Attar. With wide smiles and easy laughter, the women describe years of depression, anxiety, debilitating headaches and physical pain. They speak with deep gratitude of Dorothy Mullen, the woman whose groundbreaking work led them to make the dietary changes that turned all that around. And their stories challenge some food activists’ prescriptions that any one diet or level of cooking skill is essential to improving public health.

Mullen is the powerhouse behind the Suppers Programs—a free (except for the price of ingredients) program that provides safe, friendly settings in which people who are managing food-related health challenges can gather to prepare and share a healthful meal. The organization’s motto—“If you can make a pot of coffee, you can make a pot of soup”—is meant to ease the anxiety that cooking triggers in so many people. But Mullen has found that getting people back in the kitchen takes more than simple recipes and a pithy slogan. It requires a supportive community that welcomes a variety of learning, cooking and eating styles.

A holistic health practitioner, master gardener and former board president of the Foundation for the Advancement of Innovative Medicine, Mullen chose to get a master’s degree in counseling rather than nutrition because she knew that, to help people change their eating habits, she needed to understand the motivations behind their addictive behavior toward food. Foss was Mullen’s first test case for the ideas that would form the core of the Suppers Programs.

She also presented Mullen with a challenge: Cooking is not something that Foss feels driven or able to do. “I have no desire to do it without support,” Foss says. For her, support means learning to cook a new dish with one-on-one guidance on what and how much to buy and step-by-step instruction on how to combine ingredients into a dish. Because she is a single mom to two children, the dish has to be easy to prepare. It also has to fit within the dietary guidelines that she has developed for herself, in part through her engagement with Suppers.


Getting people back in the kitchen
takes more than simple recipes and a
pithy slogan. It requires a supportive
community that welcomes a variety of
learning, cooking and eating styles.

right: Dorothy Mullen

As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with more than 22 years sober, Foss is a person who is comfortable working a program— that is, having the path forward laid out in clear steps. This made her a valuable asset to Mullen as she designed the Suppers Programs. In return, Foss learned that foods such as gluten, coffee, dairy and sugar were contributing to her depression and anxiety. By eliminating those foods, she has gone what she described as “25 percent good days, 75 percent anxious and depressed” to 70 percent good days, with the ability to feel when she is “going off the tracks.” To maintain her health and energy, she now basically lives on the recipes for breakfast chili, soups, slaws and stews that Mullen has taught her.

“I had such an ‘aha’ moment out of eating breakfast chili that I copied that exact recipe and I ate that exact recipe every day for about two years,” Foss says. “Because I felt so good on it, I didn’t want to not have it.” She makes substitutions within those recipes, with the help of food lists she has made, to guide her toward choices that are right for her, such as replacing beef with turkey. While she would like to expand the number of dishes that she feels comfortable making, the repetition of eating a small selection of dishes doesn’t bother her at all. Being judged on her food choices, however, does. So, when Mullen began to hold Suppers meetings based on the ideas that she and Foss had worked through, Foss pulled back.

“It kept showing me how different I was,” Foss says: “what I didn’t like, what I wasn’t good at, what I didn’t want to do.” In those early meetings it became clear to Mullen, too, that people become defensive or withdrawn when others make pronouncements about what is healthy, ethical or delicious. “That judgment thing—that was my first really huge inconvenient truth,” Mullen says. “If you don’t focus on non-judgment, you can’t have people with all these different opinions and preferences around food in the same room together.” She had to go back and incorporate non-judgment as a central aspect in the program’s design.

Still, for Foss, who describes herself as highly sensitive and emotional, it was only the formation of a Suppers group devoted to those in recovery that brought her back to the Suppers table. “I think being in that like-minded place, knowing what other AAers have been through, on some level, creates more safety for me.” Part of that AA experience is knowing how to speak about one’s own experience, strength and hope while refraining from judging or giving advice about the experiences of others. For Foss, it means a place where she can be open about her dislikes and insecurities around cooking and have it be well received by others.

Mullen is a seat-of-the-pants cook who is at ease in the kitchen. She can simultaneously cook and direct the prep work being done by a kitchen full of Suppers members with varying levels of skill. Mullen never cooks from a recipe, so while some Suppers members are busy chopping ingredients and making salad dressings, others shadow her in the kitchen, writing down each step and addition. If members deem a dish tasty, the recipe gets posted on the Suppers website, which has a searchable database of over 700 simple-to-prepare recipes.

This can be a difficult learning environment for inexperienced cooks like Foss, who need more structure, a step-by-step approach and a feeling of safety around asking very basic cooking questions. For those who are new to the program, it can be overwhelming at first to figure out how to join in the cooking portion of the meetings. Because health concerns are what brings most people into a Suppers meeting, Mullen has found that their fear and emotion around that health issue has to be addressed before the cooking instruction begins to take hold. “You have to get them past their anxiety,” Mullen says.

“The food has to be delicious enough and the process has to be socially engaging enough that they can actually eat the food that’s going to turn around their diabetes or reduce their need for medications. Then they can relax and start learning how to do food preparation.”

As an accomplished and improvisational cook, Attar has no problem learning from Mullen’s free-flowing style, which she likens to watching a ballet dancer in the kitchen. Through Suppers, Attar has learned tricks to enhance flavor. She has refined the way she uses and combines spices. And she has discovered new vegetables such as collard greens and a wider variety of squash.

“Dor … Read More

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CHEF: James Costello
LOCATION: Lavalette


It may seem surprising that, for two years running, a New Jersey chef who designs fish dishes around culinary trends happening 5,000 miles away has been honored by the NJ Department of Agriculture as one of the state’s top seafood chefs. In fact, chef James Costello, owner of Ohana Grill in Lavallette, sees the Jersey shore and the island of Maui as much more closely linked than that mileage suggests. What’s more, he sees his restaurant as a place where he can showcase both his Jersey Shore pride and his love of Hawaii and its cuisine.

“If I was in Kaanapali, walking my dog down the beach, it would be a much different feeling, but it’s that same love of the beach,” Costello says. “That was part of the reason we got into Ohana. I wanted to wear shorts and flip-flops every day—just to have that lifestyle.”

Costello has a standing order with Pisces Seafood, his seafood purveyor in Toms River, to purchase Hawaiian fish such as opah (moonfish) and opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper), whenever it is available wholesale in the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point. Mahi-mahi, which is fished throughout the world, including along the east coast of the United States, is also a regular item on Ohana’s menu. Costello says the texture of mahi-mahi makes it perfect for stuffing, especially when the fillets are thick enough to allow a pocket to be cut. His preparation is inspired by stuffed fish dishes he has eaten on family trips to Maui. “This dish evolved from our trips to Hawaii, and then we sort of tweaked it into our own with adding some Jersey Shore gumption to it,” Costello says.

His original idea of stuffing mahi-mahi with crabmeat quickly evolved to include lobster tail meat— adding a richness that Costello says “really puts the dish over the top.” The salsa he devised to accompany the dish is based on the restaurant’s mango salsa, which he made more tropical by adding papaya and pineapple. (In the original version of this salsa, which is served with a wasabi calamari appetizer, the pineapple is grilled.) Finally, a topping of macadamia nuts—a classic (but not native) Hawaiian ingredient—adds texture and another layer of flavor.

“We just kept adding different things to it until we came to the final dish,” Costello says. “We cooked it, loved it and it became a menu item.”

Ohana means “family” in Hawaiian —an apt choice for the name of Costello’s restaurant, both because family members pitched in to get the restaurant up and running and because Costello’s two trips to Hawaii have revolved around family. The first was his honeymoon, which ended in a tearful airport plea from his new wife that they find jobs and stay in Hawaii. The second trip included nine family members.

As the head chef of a restaurant that serves dinner seven nights a week, however, time with his family is a rare luxury during the height of the season. On the up side, though, that schedule— along with his use of nightly specials—gives him ample opportunity to experiment with new culinary techniques and exotic ingredients, such as dragon fruit and jackfruit. “Every week that goes by with food, you learn something,” Costello says. “That’s the nice part about our restaurant being open seven days and constantly doing specials. We constantly cycle new ingredients. We don’t just do the same menu every day.”

Ohana Grill
65 Grand Central Ave., Lavallette





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CHEF: Andre de Waal


Andre de Waal was barely a teen when he had a gastronomic epiphany: It is cooler to like all foods than it is to be a fussy eater. From that moment forward, the future executive chef and co-owner of Andre’s in Sparta began whittling away at his list of food aversions, knocking off the final two items—hard-boiled eggs and bananas—when he was well into adulthood.

Although ratatouille was on that original list of disliked foods, de Waal now sees it as a versatile and indispensible platform on which to build seasonal dishes. “I love it cold, I love it warm,” de Waal says. “It is great to just have on hand—mix it with a little mayonnaise, spread it on bread and it’s the beginning of a sandwich. Or toss it into an omelet. It is very versatile.”

De Waal begins his ratatouille by forming a picture in his mind of the flavor and texture he wants in the finished dish. That decision takes into account the season as well as the protein that the ratatouille will accompany. “If it’s a hardier dish or a colder time of year where I want it to be more stick-to-your-ribs, then I would do the more classical preparation where it’s all cooked slowly together,” de Waal says. “If I am going to serve it with some fresh poached seafood as a cool summer salad or if I want it to be a little lighter, then I go with the version where each vegetable is cooked separately and combined at the last minute.”

To accompany his garlic-glazed halibut, de Waal chose a summer-style ratatouille, in which the ingredients are finely diced and each is cooked in a way that optimizes its flavor. The result is that each vegetable maintains its own integrity, both in texture and flavor. “I’m cooking each one individually, with its own proper temperature and the right amount of oil,” de Waal says. “The onions are going to cook nice and slow to bring out the sweetness. The zucchini will go much faster. The super-beautiful in-season tomato is just going to get warmed up. I don’t even need to cook that.”

To avoid overpowering the flavor of the vegetables, de Waal uses an 80/20 blend of vegetable oil and olive oil. He recommends seasoning throughout the cooking process. He also leaves the skin on the eggplant to add a slightly bitter edge to the dish.

Once each vegetable has been cooked, de Waal combines them briefly so that their juices mingle. The juices are then strained out and cooked down to make a sauce for the dish. To retain their flavor, fresh herbs are added to the sauce at the very end. The herbs can vary depending on the time of year, but de Waal is adamant about using only fresh herbs.

To finish the sauce, he adds a swirl of butter or olive oil. This added fat brings together the flavors of the sauce and, says de Waal, coating your palate so that, after you swallow, you have a lovely lingering taste of summer vegetables and herbs.

112 Tomahawk Trail, Sparta




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CHEF: Josh Bernstein
RESTAURANT: Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas


When Josh Bernstein owned his own restaurant, he had only himself to please when creating a new dish for his menu. Now, as executive chef at Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas in Clifton, Bernstein must send each dish to a panel of reviewers for their critiques. If needed, the dish is remade, retasted and tweaked again until it is considered perfect. The process is long and time-consuming—and, says Bernstein, it is fun, creative, and has helped him grow immeasurably as a chef.

“I didn’t love it when I first started. Now I can’t live without it,” Bernstein says. “I wish I had this kind of team when I had my own restaurant.”

Even dishes for special events, such as Spuntino’s charity dinner to benefit Table to Table, a food-rescue program in Englewood Cliffs, are tested by the restaurant’s six-person tasting team, which includes the general managers and executive chefs from both Spuntino locations (Clifton and Westbury, Long Island), the director of operations— who is also a trained chef—and the owner of the Spuntino brand, which is a specialty restaurant of Doherty Enterprises in Allendale.

In honor of the many local farmers who attended the Table to Table dinner, Bernstein created a risotto that pays homage to one of the state’s most beloved farm products—Jersey sweet corn. That corn risotto was such a success that Bernstein and the tasting team agreed it should be added to the menu. Expanding on the original dish, they added lobster and other flavor tweaks to create a flavorful, summery risotto.

Lobster shells introduce a hint of ocean flavor into the risotto stock, while lobster meat increases the risotto’s richness and heft. For a more pronounced corn flavor, Bernstein and his team decided to add a puree of grilled corn, adding a smoky char and additional complexity to the dish. The amount of fresh chili peppers was fine-tuned to give the right level of underlying heat, and chives were introduced to add a fresh, green flavor component. The dish is finished with mascarpone cheese, which adds additional creaminess.

All of these layers, says Bernstein, yield a risotto with great depth of flavor—a result that he credits to a collaborative team effort. “In this culinary field, if you think that you know everything, then you pretty much know nothing,” Bernstein says. “The wise chefs know that you learn every day from somebody.”

Clifton Commons, 70 Kingsland Road, Clifton




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