A LONG WAY FROM BLUE HILL

In Cherry Hill, Josh Lawler is thinking big

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS ROBERT CLARKE

“Can I get you a beer?” chef Josh Lawler asks the alarm system contractor who’s just ambled in the door of The Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market in Cherry Hill. Lawler probably wants him to taste the latest craft pint from Cape May Brewing Company, a small operation that distributes its own kegs. Lawler has quickly become a cheerleader for the products and ingredients of the Garden State.

The tavern opened in November 2013. The dining room’s tawny banquettes and sprawling, square bar could hardly be more different than Lawler’s other restaurant, the tiny (but similarly named) Farm and Fisherman BYOB in Philadelphia. And it’s worlds away from Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, where Lawler spent six years working as chef de cuisine under the visionary chef and farmer Dan Barber. Barber set new standards for the farm-to-table movement by pairing a world-renowned restaurant with its own working farm, while enacting high standards of environmental stewardship and animal welfare.

The Farm and Fisherman Tavern is built on similar values, focusing on high-quality and locally produced ingredients, but that’s where the similarities to Lawler’s old stomping grounds end. The tavern has a warm, homey, come-one-come-all vibe, and it’s right next to a $1.99 dry cleaner. “Yes, South Jersey is the land of strip malls, but it’s also the land of farm stands,” Lawler says. “People here will drive out of their way to pick up corn from their favorite farm—they know what good ingredients taste like.”

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Back at Blue Hill, the chef spent a lot of time obsessively fussing over the ingredients that would grace the plates of international luminaries—both in the kitchen and at the on-site farm. “I once spent six weeks tending to four baby turnips that we were growing just for Ferran Adrià,” he says with a smile.

“But when I left there, I absolutely saw myself ending up in a strip mall,” Lawler goes on, and he’s not trying to be ironic. An unassuming spot like this was always part of his business plan. Here, the focus on exceptional ingredients is just as important to him as it was at Blue Hill, but he wants to make them accessible to everybody—not just the VIPs with hundreds of dollars to drop on a dinner for two.

After his years at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Lawler had the kind of culinary résumé that could have taken him anywhere in the world. He and his wife, Colleen, also a professional chef, had a new baby— and their schedules were getting tough. They decided to move closer to family, many of whom live in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

After decamping from New York to South Jersey, Lawler quickly set up his first restaurant, The Farm and Fisherman BYOB in the Center City district of Philadelphia. With white tablecloths, an austere dining room and menu items like bergamot-cured snapper, it offers a sophisticated dining experience. It’s pricey, too, making it a special-occasion spot for most people. Immediately, the restaurant started earning praise from critics and its position was secured on the list of top restaurants in town.

But a fancy, well-reviewed little restaurant was never Lawler’s end game. “I opened that restaurant because I could pull it together quickly and, being out of a job, I needed the money. I knew I wanted to grow into something bigger.”

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At Blue Hill, Lawler spent a lot of time obsessively fussing over the ingredients
that would grace the plates of international luminaries. “I once spent six weeks tending to
four baby turnips that we were growing just for Ferran Adrià,” he says with a smile.
“But when I left there, I absolutely saw myself ending up in a strip mall.”

And certainly, in terms of both square feet and guiding philosophy, the tavern space is bigger. With its lower price point—you can grab a burger with fries here for $13—Lawler sees it as accessible to a much broader audience than his Philadelphia spot. In addition to the tavern’s dining room and bar, there’s an adjoining market that offers a spread of prepared food, humanely raised meat, seasonal produce, local dairy products and other food essentials. “I was inspired by my trips to Europe—there are so many little shops there where you can shop for a few things and relax over a glass of wine and some cheese while you are there,” Lawler says.

The market has a higher purpose, though: it’s a testing ground for Lawler’s grand ambition. He wants to create a fast-food-style restaurant that serves wholesome, local, family-friendly meals at the same price as, for example, Panera. “Look, I know how hard it is to get dinner on the table for a busy family. And if it’s hard for my wife and I, both of us with professional cooking training, how hard is it for other people?” He dreams of creating a fast-casual spot so successful it can grow into a bona fide chain.

So if it’s a given that many regular people are not going to be able to prepare a from-scratch dinner some nights, and that they will seek out fast food, Lawler wants to be an alternative to the likes of Applebee’s car-side to-go. He wants to figure out exactly what kinds of meals work and what people want through a rotating preparedfood menu at the market. “I want to be able to do something like meatloaf or roast chicken, with some roasted root vegetables and a salad, for a family of four for roughly $40. I always end up spending at least that at Panera,” he says. “We can do better.”

For Lawler, the economy required to make this possible is a driving obsession. He won’t compromise when it comes to ingredients, but he is committed to offering diners a quality product for a competitive price. To achieve this, his two businesses must have a symbiotic relationship. For example, Lawler buys whole pigs because you get the best product and it’s the most affordable way for a restaurant to shop for meat. “There’s only a certain amount of pork loin, so I use that in Philly, where I can sell it in a fine-dining setting for a premium. Then, back here at the tavern and market we can have sausages, charcuterie, pork stews and braises sold for very reasonable prices,” he says.

While the market is still evolving on the other side of the bar, the restaurant quickly found its groove just weeks after opening. Some neighbors miss Andreotti’s Viennese Cafe, a pizza joint that occupied this spot for more than 25 years, but most have embraced the new tavern with enthusiasm. The sandwiches cost $11, and every item on the menu is priced under $30. That’s not to say there aren’t still some chefly flourishes. The onion dip stars an allium that’s been slow-cooked for 24 hours, and there’s a version of Lawler’s trademark “Bloody Beet Steak,” which gives the ruby root vegetable the rib-eye treatment. There are threads on this menu that an attentive diner can trace all the way back to upstate New York where Lawler had a leadership role in one of the most important and cutting-edge restaurant kitchens in the world.

Lawler doesn’t seem to miss the prestige or glamour of Blue Hill. He’s too busy bringing to life a vision all his own, and his target audience is decidedly different.

“If you can’t make food like this accessible to everyone,” he says, “what’s the point?”

THE FARM AND FISHERMAN TAVERN & MARKET
1442 Marlton Pike East, Cherry Hill
Tavern: 856.356.2282 Market: 856.356.2286
fandftavern.com

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