2019 Local Heroes
Sometimes, as when I’m drinking a brilliant glass of Gruner Veltliner made in New Jersey from local grapes or when I’m eating a hand-crafted Bavarian pretzel made with grain grown in Pittstown, I feel exuberant, as though our nation’s culinary soul is slowly being revived.
Other times, as when I'm stuck in traffic because of the number of cars attempting to turn into a fast-food drive-through or when I go hungry at an airport because there are simply no good food options, I fear our culinary soul is forever lost.
If we are to be nourished well, it will be thanks to our Local Heroes. These are the farmers, the artisans and the philanthropists who buck trends and push boundaries, who research and plan, who study ancient techniques and modern climate data. Their work is remarkable, exceptional and increasingly difficult. Often the financial rewards are limited.
We are pleased to announce the six winners of this year’s Edible Jersey Local Heroes competition. They were selected by our readers, from a field of hundreds of nominees, via online voting in December. Please congratulate them and please continue to support not only these six, but also everyone who works toward these same goals. These are the people who feed us.
2019 Local Hero
Matthews Seafood Market
Cape May Court House
Tom Matthews knows his fish. He was a scalloper who worked on a commercial fishing boat in his 20s and early 30s. Between the weather and the long hours, he also knew he wanted to get out. “Fishing is tough.”
Matthews bought the property that would eventually become Matthews Seafood in 2009. “Initially, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, so I worked on the boat until 2012 [when] I was ready.” He carefully considered his concept, which opened in June 2013 and is now a retail shop/fish market with takeout, as well as a casual restaurant that’s open for lunch and dinner.
“We strive to obtain and sell the best seafood I can find. While the majority of the seafood that I sell comes fresh from Cape May, there are some items (salmon, shrimp) that I need to outsource. For those, I go to the fish auction in Philadelphia and handpick the best stuff.”
“Originally, I was just going to do a seafood market, because I had no cooking experience, but seafood is one of the most perishable things out there, and in order to move it, I realized that I needed to bring in the cooking.”
Matthews posted a help-wanted sign, and local chef Claude Pottier walked through the door. “We just hit it off and I got lucky. He was with me for three years and showed me the basics. He really started the cooking part of the business, and I’ve been building on that ever since.” Matthews is passionate about customer service. “I know what I would want and would expect. We provide quality products. Customers know that we’re going to give them the best we can. We also give them techniques on how to cook [the seafood],” he says. “If you go to a big market, you don’t get that personal touch.”
As for in-house dining, Matthews believes the simpler, the better. He supplements his fish with produce grown on a family farm in Vineland. “I stay true to what is local and seasonal. You give people quality with a simple recipe. That’s all you need.”
Fish tacos are popular, as are the build-your-own seafood grain bowls. And Matthews enjoys sharing recipes from Spain, his wife’s native country. But one dish remains constant: “The fish and chips, says Matthew. “I don’t think I could ever take them off [the menu].”
MATTHEWS SEAFOOD MARKET & RESTAURANT
206 West Mechanic St.,
Cape May Court House
2019 Local Hero
Cow’s Brow Creamery
Windy Brow Farms, Fredon
The Hunt family, owners of Windy Brow Farms, have deep roots in northwestern New Jersey. “Our family has been here for 300 years,” says Jake Hunt.
Hunt’s parents bought the orchard and vegetable farm in Fredon Township in 2000. Hunt is especially proud of that community connection. “Some of the same customers who came to [the farm] in the 1940s are now coming in with their grandchildren.”
Of course, one of the main reasons they’re coming is for Hunt’s artisanal ice cream. He founded a creamery, the Cow’s Brow, in 2013, and has since been perfecting his recipes. The 15 or so flavors are anything but vanilla, ranging from honey-lavender and basil–sweet cream to blueberry–sweet corn. “We do weird things, not your typical flavors,” says Hunt.
Last summer, Hunt debuted his “only in New Jersey” flavors, something he expects to bring back in 2019. Tomato pie, cranberry creamsicle, and blueberry–buttermilk cornbread were popular conversation-starters with a nod toward New Jersey traditions, but the runaway hit of the season was his French toast-Taylor ham flavor. “I didn’t make it to go viral,” says Hunt, though the flavor showed up all over social media and drew crowds who were often surprised at the delicious taste. “I wouldn’t make it if it’s bad,” he jokes.
Hunt averages about 7,000 pints of ice cream each year, but his plan isn’t to give Ben & Jerry’s a run for their money. “My goal is to get people out to the farm. Rural New Jersey isn’t something most people think of, but I want them to come out and enjoy the experience. Come pick stone fruit in the summer or apples in the fall. It’s all about being with nature.” Hunt shares that he is especially proud that his family farm offers an inexpensive day out for the whole family. “The idea is to get back to our roots. We are so stretched for time now.”
WINDY BROW FARMS
359 Ridge Rd., Fredon
2019 Local Hero
Beach Plum Farm
West Cape May
Curtis Bashaw grew up working on his grandfather’s farm in Cherry Hill. “It was easy babysitting for my parents to drop me off there,” he says.
Still, those hours spent getting his hands dirty on that 15-acre farm made an impression. “I was steeped in the lore of New Jersey as the Garden State.”
Fast-forward several decades. Bashaw, who now owns Cape Resorts, the umbrella organization for some of Cape May’s top hotels and restaurants, including the historic Congress Hall, was doing research for a book about Congress Hall. Bashaw learned that the hotel once had a farm that supplied the hotel. That knowledge, coupled with the fact that a local farm had just gone on the market, was his “aha” moment. In 2007, Bashaw bought the property. He thought it would be terrific to have a farm that supplied his hotels and restaurants.
Beach Plum Farm is now a thriving year-round farm, producing 100 varieties of vegetables, eggs, pigs and chickens. But it took a lot of hard work to get the 62-acre farm up to speed.
“I’m a pathological optimist and a serial entrepreneur,” says Bashaw. “I didn’t know how difficult farming is.”
That’s where Andrew Halbruner, livestock manager, comes in. Halbruner is “born and bred Cape May County,” with generations of his family rooted in the area. His family also happens to be farmers, and he was one of the first three staff members at Beach Plum.
“I spent a good year hacking down trees, clearing brush and opening fields,” says Halbruner. After two years away, Halbruner was enticed back to the farm to run a livestock program. “My goal was to raise enough pigs to supply the hotels.” He’s far surpassed that, with the surplus sold in Beach Plum Farm’s on-site market.
“Down here, Beach Plum Farm stands out because we’re really one of a kind. Over the last 20 years, so much of the farmland has been developed, but Curtis saved it.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Christina Albert, general manager. “Not only did Curtis preserve this land, but he preserved the farm occupation. Farmers like us have a place to practice our life’s work. We’ve all felt a calling to the land, and having that place to come and be able to express that is incredibly important.”
“It’s a farm that guests can reach out and touch,” says Albert. “People come and they see us working in the fields. They come here and can feed the chickens, have lunch and have a beautiful adventure. From landscaping to produce to meat, we are trying to keep the conversation going.”
BEACH PLUM FARM
140 Stevens St., West Cape May
2019 Local Hero
The Ebbitt Room
Jason Hanin became executive chef of the Ebbitt Room two years ago. Hanin, a New Jersey native, was living in Los Angeles when he got the call from Curtis Bashaw, owner of Cape Resorts.
“There are not many places where you have your own 62- acre farm a mile away,” he says. “Every chef would want that. That’s a pretty incredible opportunity.”
The Ebbitt Room, nestled inside the Virginia Hotel, recently celebrated its 30th year. Its contemporary American cooking lures locals and diners from all over the region. “It’s an iconic property in a beautiful historic town,” says Hanin.
“We’ve always targeted younger chefs to provide their firsttime executive chef role,” says Bashaw. “We know that they are going to grow with us, and I think that’s partly why the Ebbitt Room has made its mark, because we find culinary talent.”
Bashaw is particularly excited about the mark Hanin has made since he took over as chef. “He’s really great with ceviches and cold fish, but he’s taken the pork chop to the next level with the brining. He’s not afraid to nod to certain influences, particularly Asian overtones, but he loves local produce.”
The Ebbitt Room is open seven days a week, year-round. That schedule influenced the restaurant’s culinary direction. “We weren’t just doing light summer shrimp dishes, because, come January, you want something hearty,” Bashaw notes.
“There is a lot of love, thought, and care that goes into the food,” says Hanin, who sources vegetables, eggs, chickens, turkeys and pork for his menus from nearby Beach Plum Farm. Hanin, who is quick to point out that it’s a team effort, from the dishwasher all the way up the line to Curtis Bashaw, is clear about his respect for the institution.
“This is not the Jason show. It’s the Virginia [the storied hotel], and was before I got here and will be way after I am gone.” He’s also careful about walking the line between creativity and losing your audience. “The food is relatable. Our pork chop blows me away each time I taste it.”
He credits the farm for his quality products. “It’s all about the environment there. There’s good juju in the air. Unstressed animals yield you a wonderful product.”
THE EBBITT ROOM
25 Jackson St., Cape May
2019 Local Hero
JBJ Soul Kitchen
Red Bank and Toms River
Dining out may be a routine part of many lifestyles, but for those battling food insecurities, restaurants are typically off the table.
“There was a TV show about a local diner that was allowing people who couldn’t afford their meal to help around the restaurant instead,” says Dorothea Bongiovi, who together with her husband, rocker Jon Bon Jovi, founded JBJ Soul Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to issues of homelessness and hunger.
“I became obsessed with the idea of a restaurant where people in need could have a typical dining experience in a beautiful restaurant and volunteer instead of pay, and other diners could pay and cover the cost of that meal, and everyone would have the same dining experience regardless.”
She and her husband began in 2009 by running two weekly pilot programs in Red Bank, opening their first location on Monmouth Street in October 2011.
“We chose Red Bank because Jon and I lived in the area for many years and had a strong connection. It is also an area that has people with very high incomes and people living in poverty in close proximity to each other.”
They opened a second location in May 2016 in Toms River. “After Superstorm Sandy, we began looking for ways to help those affected by the storm and identified the Toms River area. Most of the people were getting by, but the storm really exacerbated problems the working class was already struggling with.”
But if you’re thinking JBJ Soul Kitchen is just another soup kitchen, think again. This inviting restaurant subscribes to the farm-to-table philosophy, growing its own produce on donated farmland. It’s also a community space open to all, though on any given night, typically at least 50% of the diners are in need.
“The beauty of Soul Kitchen is that it is very difficult to figure out who is paying and who isn’t. Sometimes people have a preconceived notion of what hunger looks like. It isn’t always what we think or imagine,” says Bongiovi.
“We have no prices on our menus, but we ask that people donate a minimum of $20 for a three-course meal. There are very few restaurants where you can get a seasonal, freshly made dinner with choice of entrée for that price.”
In the winter, the restaurant serves hearty dishes, such as seasoned pork loin or wild mushroom risotto with quinoa in a coconut cream sauce. The kitchen always offers a vegan or vegetarian option and freshly made dessert.
While JBJ Soul Kitchen has full-time chefs, one-night pop-ups from visiting celebrity chefs like Carla Hall and Tom Colicchio add to the rock star vibe.
Those who are unable to pay the suggested donation are asked to volunteer their time in the restaurants. “We are trying to remove economic barriers while also connecting people to resources and services. The good news is there are lots of resources; the bad news is most people don’t know about them.”
During the government shutdown, JBJ Soul Kitchen opened its doors to furloughed federal workers feeling the pinch. “Soul Kitchen acts as a lighthouse in the community,” says Josh Wiggins, head chef at JBJ Soul Kitchen, Red Bank.
“During dark nights, we are a safe haven for the in-need members of our community. Individuals become a part of our family and pay it forward when they can.”
JBJ SOUL KITCHEN
207 Monmouth St., Red Bank
1769 Hooper Ave., Toms River
2019 Local Hero
Asbury Park Distilling
Zack Ohebshalom, co-founder of Asbury Park Distilling Co., was already in the business when then-Gov. Christie signed the bill making way for craft distilleries in the Garden State.
“It was incredibly exciting,” says Ohebshalom, a former wine executive who had seen the lure of artisan brands from New York and other out-of-state distilleries. “Even though they weren’t really local, I saw the demand for these products.”
Ohebshalom, along with Andrew Karas, Phil Simpson and Rob Wile, set to work founding a distillery that would be native to New Jersey. The group settled on Asbury Park for a number of reasons. “Asbury is near and dear to my heart, as well as [to] other members of the group. I spent summers here, went to shows and watched the transformation. It’s a hub for music, art and culture—a place where there is an amazing array of different entrepreneurs. Good-quality spirits go hand in hand with that.”
Asbury Park Distilling is located near the heart of the city’s booming downtown area. “We fit into the fold of an evening out in Asbury.”
The business opened Memorial Day weekend in 2017, the same year Ohebshalom became a first-time father to twin boys. “It’s been a whirlwind couple of years,” he says.
A whirlwind, indeed, as Asbury Park Distilling has been racking up medals for its vodka, gin and double-barrrel bourbon. “We’re very fortunate to have Bill Tambussi, master distiller,” notes Ohebshalom.
Tambussi has a master’s degree in distilling from the prestigious Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. “He’s truly an artist, a rock star.” Ohebshalom is also quick to point out the rest of the team who make Asbury Park Distilling a success. “Outside of award-winning spirits, we have some of the most skilled, creative bar staff anywhere. The tonic, tinctures, garnishes . . . they’re all made in house.”
The distillery is open year-round, and spirits aficionados and newbies alike come for the action. “Sitting at the bar, you’re able to look through the giant windows into the production area and see the process. You come in for a cocktail and get a little bit of theater. It’s like an open kitchen concept, but for spirits,” he adds.
“Asbury Park” is emblazoned on the company’s bottles, and Ohebshalom and his co-founders recognize their roles as ambassadors for the city. It’s something they take to heart. They worked with local artist Porkchop to craft a locally inspired vision for the brand. Rye stalks and juniper berries recall the state’s agricultural history, while the Medusa-like mermaid was inspired by the town’s carousel. It’s important to notice her closed eyes.
“Asbury Park is one of the most tolerant communities around,” says Ohebshalom. “The closed eyes represent that we’re free from judgment and intolerance. A brand for all.”
ASBURY PARK DISTILLING CO.
527 Lake Ave., Asbury Park