EDIBLE JERSEY’S 2014 LOCAL HEROES

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOANNA TULLY & ALEKSEY MORYAKOV

FOOD ARTISAN
Michael Sirchio
The Arctic Market & Butcher
Point Pleasant Beach

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Left to right: Matthew Basilotto, Michael Sirchio and Andy Abeal

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Photographs: Aleksey Moryakov

They say there are two things one should not witness being made: legislation and sausage. Michael Sirchio, 31, a butcher in Point Pleasant Beach, would like to change that—at least the sausage part.

Sirchio, who opened The Arctic Market & Butcher in January 2011, thought there was a need for a butcher shop that took the mystery out of meat. A cross between an Old World butcher and a health food store, Sirchio’s shop offers customized service and highquality meat that contains no hormones, antibiotics or preservatives.

Sirchio says most people have gotten their education about meat in a grocery store, where everything is prepackaged. The more conscientious might pick up a package that says “natural,” but what does that even mean?

“If we’re buying ground beef, we’re now trained to pick up meat that says 98% lean, but where is it coming from, and what’s in it? Ammonium chloride? That red slime? It kind of skeeves me out,” he says. “I want to serve meat that I would eat.”

The lamb and beef sold at The Arctic Butcher is grass fed and grass finished, from an organic farm in New Zealand called Silver Fern. His chickens, which are certified organic, are from Tecumseh Farm in Nebraska, also known as Smart Chicken. (The founders of this company based it in the Midwest rather than the South, where most chicken farms are located, because they wanted to grow their own non-genetically-modified feed corn, and Nebraska provided a better climate for doing that.) Other poultry comes from Princeton-based Griggstown Farm, which raises animals that are cage-free and are not given hormones or antibiotics.

But while Sirchio cares deeply about from where he sources his meat, he sees customer service as equally important. Many customers walk in not knowing what they want to buy. All they know is that their kids have football practice on Monday, dance on Tuesday, their spouse is working late on Wednesday and so on, and they need meals to fit their busy lives. Sirchio will sit down with them and help design the week’s dinner menu.

“You get to know the family, the children, their habits,” he says. “You know how they want their cutlets cut.”

Other people want to buy just one chicken breast, or maybe they want to buy a whole chicken but to have it cut it up into parts, with the wing tips put into a bag for stock. He has a few customers who like their cutlets thick, and when his workers see them coming, they start slicing their cutlets before they even walk in.

His regulars are a mix of locals, foodies and people who are healthconscious. “The old-timers will say, ‘I don’t care what’s in it. I just want a juicy steak,’ ” Sirchio says. “And then I have someone coming in saying, ‘My daughter has an auto-immune deficiency. She can’t have corn. She can’t have grain. I need something I can trust.’ ”

Of course, health and quality come at a cost. Sirchio’s prices are higher than those of a supermarket. His best seller is butter steak, a top blade steak from the chuck area. It’s second to filet mignon in terms of tenderness but has more flavor and is a lot cheaper. Where filet sells for about $26 a pound, butter steak sells for about $10. When asked how his butter steak price compares with that of a supermarket, Sirchio says, “They don’t carry butter steak.” The refrigerated cases at the Artic Butcher are also stocked with other local products, such as Bay Head Cheese Shop spreads, Cherry Grove Farm cheeses and MaryAnna’s Tea.

Sirchio opened The Arctic Butcher in the same place a butcher shop had been located, on and off, since 1948. (The new shop is named after the old shop.) The business had changed hands several times and had a few incarnations, but ultimately closed in 2009. Sirchio’s previous work experience may help him survive where others failed. He began selling ice cream and Italian ices on Point Pleasant Beach when he was 12, and continued to do that job every summer until he was 25. He walked away with a solid understanding of how to treat customers, particularly regulars, and how to manage inventory. After graduating from Lynn University in Florida, where he majored in hospitality, Sirchio went to work for Jersey Mike’s Subs, helping open new franchises across the country. He and his colleagues on the franchise development team opened up about 100 stores in four years.

Sirchio left Jersey Mike’s in 2010 and was about to open up a bagel cafe with some partners when he saw a “for rent” sign on the butcher shop. He wasn’t sure the cafe partnership was going to work out, and he started thinking it might be better to strike out on his own. He had a family friend as well as an uncle who were butchers and could teach him the trade. He envisioned a new meat store that would follow old-school rules.

To his advantage, Sirchio grew up in Point Pleasant Beach, had wrestled in high school, and eventually became a local wrestling coach, so he knew a lot of people. He figured he would have a builtin customer base of people who knew him and trusted him, and that might be enough to get him started.

“People are foodies now,” he says. “They want to get back to their neighborhood butcher, their neighborhood baker. They want to know where their food is coming from and to trust their source. I thought, this was always a neighborhood butcher. I can bring it back.” And he has. With, of course, some help.

Sirchio wasn’t open long when a veteran butcher, Andy Abeal, walked into his store to see what kind of new shop had opened up. Abeal had once worked for one of the large grocery store chains before opening up his own shop, Porky’s, in Brick Township. He had since sold the shop and gone into retirement. The two got to talking, and Abeal now works at The Arctic Butcher, helping train Sirchio and his employees.

“He is a godsend,” Sirchio says. “He taught me how to put love, care and pride into everything. We’re not just throwing slabs of beef down and roughing them up. Butchering is an art. Like a painter has special brushes, and musicians have their instruments. How you cut meat makes all the difference.” —Caren Chesler

THE ARCTIC MARKET & BUTCHER
816 Arnold Ave., Point Pleasant Beach
732.899.6328 arcticbutcher.com

Caren Chesler is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Salon and Popular Mechanics.

FOOD SHOP
Lucy’s Kitchen & Market
Princeton

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Caron Wendell & Joe McLaughlin

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Photographs: Joanna Tully

Caron Wendell and Joe McLaughlin first made ravioli together in 1990 while sharing a beach house on Long Beach Island with friends and family. A year later they partnered to begin making hand-crafted, all-natural ravioli under the name Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen. Fast-forward to 1996, when their wildly successful wholesale business, which had been operating out of a borrowed space in Trenton, relocated and morphed into a retail food shop in a strip mall on Route 206 in Princeton. In no time flat, it became a local favorite, not only for the many varieties of ravioli and fresh pastas—which are still made behind an open wall of glass in the rear of the shop—but also for pasta sauces, prepared foods to go, excellent baked goods and shelves stocked with premium groceries that round out customers’ meals.

Through it all Wendell and McLaughlin have maintained their commitment to using all-natural, premium ingredients from local sources. “I learned early on to use fresh produce from South Jersey farms,” Wendell says. “It was more expensive, yes, but it made a difference.” Among the many Jersey products used and stocked at Lucy’s: Small World coffees, First Field ketchup, Terhune Orchards apples and cider, Muirhead fruit butters, and Gilda’s Biscotti. Greens and other produce come from Blue Moon Acres.

In 2006, after Lucy regulars begged them to open a restaurant, Wendell and McLaughlin debuted ONE 53 in nearby Rocky Hill. Under executive chef Juan Mercado, it’s been a critical and popular success ever since.

If you ask Wendell and McLaughlin what accounts for their continued success they will tell you that one key is the people who work for them. “Caron and I work well together, yes,” says McLaughlin, to which Wendell adds, “And I’ve been in the food business forever.” (She was a caterer before Lucy’s.) “But,” McLaughlin says, “we also surround ourselves with good and talented people who stick around.” Adds Wendell, “We also try to make it a fun experience. The people here are excited about food and have good palates.” Part of the reason they “stick around” is that the duo continually looks for ways to grow. (Stay tuned in 2014 for a possible second restaurant.)

In 2013, the pair renovated the store, keeping the same footprint and the glass-walled pasta-making operation but adding more dinein space and new offerings. They’ve kept their signature prepared foods—lasagna, cedar-plank salmon, soups, gourmet sandwiches— but added three kinds of fresh vegetable juices and new sandwiches, such as McLaughlin’s mini ham panini on pretzel bread. They also changed the store’s name to Lucy’s Kitchen and Market. There’s even a new logo—which still includes a raviolo in the center. —Pat Tanner

LUCY’S KITCHEN AND MARKET
830 State Rd. (Rte. 206), Princeton
609.924.6881 lucystogo.com

Pat Tanner is a food writer, restaurant reviewer and blogger (dinewithpat.com) based in Princeton

BEVERAGE ARTISAN
OQ Coffee Co.
Highland Park

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Ben & Jessica Shellack with baby Tobey

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Photographs: Joanna Tully

Ben Schellack never liked coffee. Even during his college years, with a part-time job at Starbucks, he never drank the stuff.

That is, until one day when he was visiting New York and a friend’s gentle nudging pushed him to sample a shot of espresso. It was his eureka moment, and it ignited a passion in him for freshly roasted coffee, one that would prompt him to drop out of seminary school and, with his wife, Jessica, become one of New Jersey’s latest food artisans.

They opened OQ Coffee Co. in Highland Park in late 2012. “We wanted to see more good coffee being sold in New Jersey,” Ben says. In 2009, he began roasting coffee for wholesale in a borrowed space at Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based nonprofit that operates a soup kitchen, pay-as-you-can restaurant and culinary school. Three years later the couple was ready to open their own shop; today all the baked goods are still provided by Elijah’s Promise.

The Schellacks, residents of Highland Park, settled on a space just off the main strip. While serving up a cup of coffee from freshly roasted coffee beans, they see it as their mission to make sure those beans were ethically sourced and sustainably produced. “We have direct relationships with growers,” Ben says. The Schellacks can rattle off the first names of their growers in places like Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Framed descriptions of the farms hang at the entrance of the shop, underscoring the OQ Coffee commitment to farm to cup. “Our hope is that when people drink the coffee, they realize there’s a life behind it,” Jessica says.

While promoting farms in faraway lands, OQ Coffee has already become a favorite place for locals to gather. Rutgers grad students and professors mingle with young families and businesspeople, and the entertainment includes live music and art installations. The shop is run by one full-time employee, a roaster, and six other part-timers, while Ben spends his days teaching history and Latin at a private school in Princeton, and Jessica works in public transportation planning.

OQ Coffee Co. fulfills one of the highest callings of a local coffee shop: It’s become a welcoming place for people to read, chat, relax or dream. Not to mention get a really good cup of coffee. But really, what does OQ mean? True to form, the Schellacks chose a locally inspired name. OQ stands for Old Queens, the oldest building on campus at Rutgers. —Nancy DePalma

OQ COFFEE CO.
13 South 3rd St., Highland Park
732.455.2994 oqcoffee.com

Nancy DePalma is a freelance writer based in Pennington who loves a good cup of coffee.

FARM/FARMER
Jess Niederer, Chickadee Creek Farm
Pennington

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Jess Niederer and Tillie
Photograph: Joanna Tully

Jess Niederer once described a chickadee as fierce, persistent, social-minded and cheerful. To me, that sounds just like her. When asked how it feels to be entering her fifth year running Chickadee Creek Farm, Niederer recalls her beginnings. “It wasn’t a sure thing that starting up a vegetable farm with a super-meager budget and minimal experience was going to pan out,” she says. In 2010, Niederer leased five acres of her family farm in Pennington and started growing vegetables on two of them. That first year, she sold produce at two farmers’ markets and had a small number of CSA members. With each year that flew by, the farm grew. Now Chickadee Creek sells its certified- and transitional-organic produce at five farmers’ markets and the CSA counts 130 members.

This growth is no coincidence. Niederer works like a wild woman, driven by fervent dedication to her farm, her community, local ecology and environment, and the people that work with her. She is tenacious, taking meticulous notes on her successes and failures and then, just as the pace of the season slows in the fall, incorporating her new knowledge into the next year’s plan. This is one of the great rewards Niederer finds in running a farm business: the chance to grow upon everything she has learned.

And somehow, she finds time to give to her community through off-farm activities as well. Every Thursday during the slower months, Niederer volunteers as an EMT for the Pennington First Aid Squad, and she attends monthly Mercer County Board of Agriculture meetings. She teaches a class through the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey that helps beginning and aspiring farmers decide if it is the right career for them. And for all her apprentices, her door remains open after they move on from her farm. I know from personal experience, as I was a Chickadee Creek Farm apprentice in 2012.

When Niederer started out, she says, she was working toward financial stability, improved local ecology and human health, and the creation of a business that she could be proud of. Now, as some of these goals are beginning to be realized, she is adding a fourth goal: to get, as she says, “food to people who cannot afford it or access it but would reap great health benefits from fresh produce.”

Even with her success, she doesn’t forget her risky beginnings, saying, “I feel so lucky to have acquired what seems to be the most awesome group of farm members ever. I feel relieved that all this even worked.” —Helen Chandler

CHICKADEE CREEK FARM
Pennington
609.462.3854 chickadeecreekfarm.com

Helen Chandler, in her second year of farming at Whistling Wolf Farm, is a regular contributor to EJ.

NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION
Franciscan Charities, Inc./ St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen
Newark

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Chef Jon Marchesano
Photograph: Joanna Tully

It is in the single digits in Newark on the day I visit, and the smell of delicious food emanating from chef Jon Marchesano’s kitchen at St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen on 16th Avenue is inviting. So much so that some of the guests have gathered early for socialization and warmth while they wait for their meal. A smiling toddler peeks his head in the kitchen door, to get a sneak preview of what’s on the menu.

Marchesano is in the thick of things as the meal is prepared. He’s planned a hot meal for 400 guests, and the elements of the feast are all over the room: artisan breads near the far wall, oranges on the island, and, piled on the side table, desserts baked by a talented group of women from Summit. St. Ann’s is privately funded through donations from local sponsors, and this morning food donations are still streaming in from local grocery stores and produce markets.

It’s Marchesano’s job to make sure the 250 volunteers gathered from all over northern New Jersey know what to do with the donations so nothing is wasted. Today is meatloaf day. The ground beef is a donation from a local farmer, who gives two steers each month to St. Ann’s. The vegetables arrive weekly from a specialty produce market. The bread comes from national grocers and stores that specialize in natural and organic foods. Marchesano uses the connections he made as executive chef for restaurants like Palm in New York City and Papa Razzi in Short Hills to bring high-quality food providers in to donate food. “I think everyone deserves a restaurant-quality meal,” Marchesano says. “We work hard to make sure each meal has protein, starch, a garden salad with fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and dessert.”

Paul Miller, a member of the Secular Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, is the chairman of Franciscan Charities, which runs the soup kitchen. “The number of daily meals is up over 60% in the last three years, so our work is more critical than ever,” he says. “The composite of people who come to us has changed, too. We used to serve mostly the unemployed and homeless. Now the people who come to us are working poor,” he reports.

Marchesano is happy to have the opportunity to help, but isn’t happy about the reason. “In the restaurant business, I was always happy to build the number of customers served. But here, more customers means more people aren’t able to manage,” he says. In 2012 (the most recent year for which these numbers are available), St. Ann’s provided 43,000 home-cooked meals and distributed 8,000 bags of groceries.

Luckily for the people who need his help in Newark, Marchesano’s at the soup kitchen six days each week to put together a nutritious meal. Says the toddler who runs out of the kitchen: “Yummy!” —Adrianna Donat

FRANCISCAN CHARITIES, INC.
355 South 6th St., Newark
973.732.4736 franciscancharitiesinc.org

ST. ANN’S SOUP KITCHEN
(in the basement of St. Ann’s Church)
103 16th Ave., Newark
973.642.4220

Adrianna Donat is a freelance writer who lives and eats in northern New Jersey. Her most recent children’s book is Medicine for Monster.

CHEF/RESTAURANT
Aishling Stevens
Americana Diner
East Windsor

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Constantine Katsifis and Aishling Stevens

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Photographs: Joanna Tully

Don’t let Aishling Stevens’ slight figure and quiet demeanor fool you. This small and mighty Allentown native may refer to herself as a “little, skinny chef,” but she gains the daily respect of roughly 20 line cooks plus bakers as culinary director of the Americana Diner in East Windsor. She and diner owner Constantine Katsifis (whose American Hospitality Group also includes Skylark on the Hudson and other properties) have collaborated to transform the sacred cows of traditional diner fare into healthy, thoughtful, seasonal and flavorful food for upwards of 13,000 weekly diner guests. People have started to notice. In 2013, The Star-Ledger named Americana the best diner in the state, which perhaps means it’s the best diner anywhere.

After a ten-year personal and professional adventure throughout Australia and England, which included attending culinary school and cooking in a seaside bistro, a farm-to-table country pub and a hotel, Stevens returned to her home state early last summer for what she thought was a pit stop on her journey. Stevens recalls the first phone meeting with Katsifis. “I felt I had known him for a long time; we were really on the same page,” she says. Katsifis remarks that his head chef ’s official title, director of culinary operations, “takes away some of the day-to-day management responsibilities and allows Aishling the freedom to focus on what is actually being put on the plate and what the menu should be.”

Stressing the education taking place throughout the diner, Stevens, 34, encourages the line cooks, “the guys” as she refers to them, to create new dishes with her, and teaches why something as basic as a sharp knife matters. “If you have a gorgeous heirloom tomato and a knife that’s a bit dull, you cannot make the two meet,” philosophizes Stevens. “You have to treat each ingredient with respect.” The youngest daughter of a nutritionist, she learned early on to pay attention to the impact quality and seasonal ingredients have on the body. “I think it is important to be mindful of that when you are cooking,” she says.

Katsifis himself has become a “food hunter,” establishing relationships with local purveyors and farmers. He is constantly bringing Stevens new ingredients to experiment with. Offering freerange chicken as well as grass-fed beef for burgers, steaks and what he calls an “amazing” roast beef, the Americana Diner is clearly paying attention to the movement towards healthier, pastured meats.

The ever-evolving menu includes a light Niçoise salad featuring seared rare tuna with lemon-wasabi vinaigrette, and a proscuittowrapped pork chop stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and apples. Warm, flaky, baked-from-scratch croissants are presented during breakfast service with house-made orange marmalade. Breakfast classics such as savory farmer’s or Florentine omelets and turkey hash are accompanied with roasted tomatoes and artisan whole-grain bread.

Some early resistance to change by the diner’s patrons has been replaced with excitement about the all-day eatery’s delicious take on the classic diner. “I think most people want to eat this way,” Katsifis says. “We’ve earned the trust of our guests in how we are preparing their food, and that’s probably our biggest accomplishment.” —Chris Cirkus

AMERICANA DINER
359 Rte. 130,
East Windsor
609.448.4477
americanadiner.com

Chris Cirkus is the manager of the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market.

 

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