Chef Michael Carrino believes in local, sustainable, progressive cuisine. It’s what, as then-owner and chef of Restaurant Passionne in Montclair, garnered him an induction into The Chaine des Rotisseurs — a high society of wine gurus, chefs, hotel executives and restaurant owners — at age 28.
Chef Michael Carrino believes in local, sustainable, progressive cuisine.
It’s what, as then-owner and chef of Restaurant Passionné in Montclair, garnered him an induction into The Chaîne des Rotisseurs — a high society of wine gurus, chefs, hotel executives and restaurant owners — at age 28.
It’s what earned him several invitations — 10 to date — to present his views at “Jersey’s Best” dinner concepts for the prestigious members of the James Beard Foundation in New York City.
And it certainly helped him win during the inaugural season of the “Chopped” cooking competition on the Food Network in 2009.
But don’t think of Carrino as a celebrity chef.
“I don’t like the idea of having so many different restaurants that I can’t be at them. People come here because they want me to cook for them,” Carrino said. “Do I oversee everything that goes on here? Absolutely. Am I cooking? Yes. That’s hard to find. But there are a lot of great chefs in this industry in New Jersey that are actively cooking — and you can tell.”
Carrino, now chef and partner of Trois Cochons, operator of Pig & Prince in Montclair’s historic Lackawanna train station, is not only committed to revitalizing an economic redevelopment area, but also strongly contributing to New Jersey’s agricultural sector by showcasing local meats and produce on his menu.
Restaurants are a not-so-hidden part of the New Jersey economy — though many may not realize just how big a sector it is.
According to the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, the industry represents $16 billion in annual economic activity and employs more than 330,000 people among 27,000 restaurants, nearly 18,000 of which are full-service.
The industry differs from others in that each restaurant may have different goals and ideals.
For Carrino, it’s about local farms. And he’s just thrilled his success as a chef is helping him get his message out.
“Now, I have an even bigger soapbox on which to stand and voice my opinions on farms and locality,” he said.
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Carrino — a Nutley native — represents a new generation of chefs that are either relocating to or taking full advantage of their home in the Garden State.
“When people think New Jersey, they think about the northeastern corner of it — Bergen, Essex, Hudson,” he said. “You’ve got to make a decision — are we the sixth borough of Manhattan or are we New Jersey? We are New Jersey. We are a producer of proteins, meats, produce, game — we are an adventurous and beautiful state. … You’ve got everything at your fingertips in New Jersey.”
Michele Brown, CEO and president of Choose New Jersey, the privately funded business attraction arm of the state, agreed.
“(Choose New Jersey) has engaged not only in a concerted effort to drive new food business in the state but also to highlight through advertising and marketing why New Jersey is a great place for food companies and those who enjoy food,” Brown said.
According to Choose New Jersey, the state has more than 10,300 farms spread across 730,000 acres. New Jersey generated $1.12 billion in farm revenue last year while ranking as a Top Five producer for cranberries, bell peppers, spinach, peaches, blueberries and cucumbers.
“Part of what’s going on is the trend toward fresh food, organic food, farm-to-table,” Brown said. “It’s about knowing where your food comes from.”
To Carrino, that’s not a trend — it’s the way it always has been.
“Fifty years ago, my parents and grandparents didn’t call it farm-to-fork — they just called it food,” Carrino said. “Here’s what’s true: If you know that this chicken ate this corn that was grown in this field that has no (genetically modified organisms), that’s a good chicken. … It just boils down to the simplicity of things. Follow the rule of three: If you know that ate that from there, you’re good. If it grows together, it goes together.”
A meal fit for a king
When Chef Michael Carrino renovated the historic Lackawanna train station in Montclair, he wanted to maintain the integrity of the main dining room.
“We did everything we could,” Carrino said. “It’s the original structure, original brick walls, all original fixtures from when electricity was introduced into the building.
“We even only took the huge, solid bronze chandeliers down to insert our sound system and reinforce with airplane cable.”
The space — with its impressive arches and imposing echoes — is now fit for such events as Carrino’s 12-course tasting with wine pairings.
At $199 per person plus tax, reservations must be made three weeks in advance to take a culinary tour of the fifth quarter, including kidneys, hearts, tripe, sweet breads, trotters, head cheese, foie gras, foie de veau, foie de mer and more.
Trendy or not, both Brown and Carrino work within a $105 billion food and agriculture sector in New Jersey that can distribute to more than 20 million consumers with almost $1 trillion in income within a two-hour drive.
“But between late November and April, inevitably, I have to supplement certain things because nobody around here is growing anything,” Carrino said.
Whenever possible, Carrino chooses to support local food, education and civic organizations such as the New Jersey Foodshed Alliance and Jersey Fresh, frequents local farmer’s markets, proactively works with breeders for livestock — such as the Berkshire pigs raised by L.L. Pittenger Farm in Andover — and cures his own meats.
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Carrino believes he knows the secret to success in the restaurant industry.
“You’ve got your labor, your overhead, your cost of goods and your profit,” he said. “If you can keep everything at 25 percent, you’re a happy person.
“But for the type of establishment that I have, the restaurant industry generally runs on a 12 to 19 percent profit margin.”
Hence why Carrino — as well as many chefs and restaurateurs in New Jersey — are concerned about some of the current legislative proposals.
“I pay people what they deserve to be paid, but if every single person in here started at $15 an hour, I would only be able to have 18 employees — not 39,” Carrino said.
“The problem is that nobody understands what it really costs to run a restaurant. People don’t understand what the price on a menu reflects. When you have a dish that costs $30, it’s not just what’s in the dish — it’s who made that dish, it’s the dish itself, it’s the seat and the table you’re eating that dish at, it’s who’s washing that dish, it’s the electricity it takes to wash that dish, it’s the light that you’re washing that dish under, the building you’re washing that dish in, etc.”
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, knows this argument all too well.
“That is always the delicate balance of legislation,” Halvorsen said. “For every action, there is a reaction.”
Getting that word out is what the NJRHA does.
“We want to create a better understanding of this industry and the positive impact that it has on New Jersey,” Halvorsen said. “How can we, through advocacy and education, help our members do what they do a little bit better?”
Surprising, then, that only about 2,300 restaurants, lodging facilities, amusement parks and attractions are current members — a number Halvorsen and her team hope to drastically grow.
“We’ve probably seen about a 35 percent increase over the last three years,” she said.
In order to generate buzz and continue to advocate on behalf of the restaurant industry, the NJRHA is currently hosting roundtables in which district members will be invited to speak directly with legislators about the issues affecting their businesses — such as, for example, paid sick leave, and the real life fallout that such an initiative might have on their costs.
Carrino, however, does not believe that the biggest challenge facing New Jersey’s restaurant industry is legislative.
“I think the biggest problem that restaurant owners have is the customers’ perception of value,” he said.
For example, when the market crashed in 2008, Carrino remembered the recession-proof menus all over town.
“I said I wasn’t going to lower my prices — in fact, I increased everything on my menu by $1,” he said. “Here’s the position I took: If you’re going to spend $1, get your dollar’s worth. … Flash forward, four years later, they still have those damn menus. They can’t get rid of them because they’ve created a clientele base that goes for that perceived value.”
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Quality product may be Carrino’s No. 2 priority at Pig & Prince in Montclair — but it’s ultimately what draws both the associates and the guests.
“We are very finicky and particular about many things that we use,” he said. “I spend a lot of time at farms and with producers — I’ll go through hell and back just to find the perfect egg. I’ve gone through five farmers since November just trying to find the right egg.”
What exactly constitutes the perfect egg? According to Carrino, orange yolks; hard whites; and firm shells.
“I ask, what’s in the feed? Is there enough calcium in the (chicken’s) diet? If not, the shell is weak and porous,” he said. “An egg is the most important ingredient in the kitchen.”
Carrino is lucky to live in a state where such perfection can be readily available, said Al Murray, assistant secretary of agriculture at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
“Five years ago, we had over 10,000 farms in this state,” he said. “That’s the most we’ve had since 1964 when we had hundreds of acres.”
Furthermore, an increased interest in farming and community agriculture has spurred more production.
“In member co-ops for farmers, such as the one in Hightstown, they’re able to pool their produce — which then becomes a very easy one-stop shop for restaurants,” Murray said. “We are also in such an urban area that farmers have had to adapt to serve a more urban clientele. Our farmers now offer over 100 different varieties of vegetables in order to serve the ready-made market in our midst.”
The agricultural industry has many more challenges ahead.
“Next to Rhode Island, we are second when it comes to highest land prices,” Murray said. “Some farmers in areas close to urban areas are finding it more profitable to grow houses rather than plant crops on their land.”
So farmers — and restaurants, for that matter — have had to get creative.
“Our land isn’t getting any bigger — so we are transforming old factories in urban areas into vertical farms,” Murray said. “Instead of growing out, farmers are growing up, with very good hydroponic fruits and vegetables.”
The one aspect that Carrino wishes more restaurants would understand and follow is seasonality.
“New Jersey is actually a cornucopia of wealth when it comes to farms and locality — but obviously, when it’s 50 degrees outside, we’re not getting product that we don’t need,” he said. “You only have tomatoes four months out of the year, so you can anticipate and be excited about them — so you can look forward to remembering what a tomato tastes like.
“Nobody needs a tomato in February. People should be eating potatoes, rutabagas, root vegetables, sun chokes, citrus — things that are in season.”
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“Waste not, want not” always has been Carrino’s specialty — whether it’s eating produce that is readily in season or raising and completely utilizing livestock.
“When you harvest an animal, you have a responsibility to take care of and use 100 percent of that animal’s energy,” he said. “You don’t just take what you need and throw the rest away. That would be poaching.”
On the menu at Pig & Prince, for example, it reads, “single-steer burger.”
“That means that we acquire all of our ground from one animal,” Carrino said. “Every animal has two of every cut — I grind the rest of the animal. … It’s red. It’s purple. It’s dark. And you can smell the grass.”
The state of New Jersey and higher education institutions like Rutgers University are touting hydroponic gardening as the way of the future.
But Chef Michael Carrino has some suspicions.
“Let’s call a spade a spade — no pun intended. Some of these hydroponic guys might only be opening up because they know that one day, cannabis is going to be legal,” Carrino said. “They are setting up their systems to eventually harvest cannabis. They’re selling whatever now, micro basil and spinach, but maybe, in the back of their minds, in a few years they can cash in — and all of that food will go away.”
Carrino said that the state would be wiser to instead pour more money into the Department of Agriculture to better support and subsidize farms.
“Support the farmer whose lettuce crop melted in the heat in August,” Carrino said. “Support him because he will pump out more lettuce in three months than any hydrofarm could pump out in a year.
“I’m not saying hydrofarms are bad — they’re just expensive.”
Of course, not every diner wants to view their meal that way.
“My chickens live outside. When you see them running around, flapping their wings, building up muscles with nutrients flowing in and out — a happy chicken is a tasty chicken,” Carrino said. “But people don’t want to recognize that their food has a face.”
This business model also significantly escalates Carrino’s costs.
“When you buy a steer on the hoof, one-third is bone, hide, head — and a steer head is not useable by law,” he said. “If I’m paying $2 a pound in live weight, that means I’m paying $3,000 for an animal, fractioned out into useable trim.”
With a menu where appetizers costs between $9 and $13 and entrees are in the $20s, balancing costs can be challenging.
“A lot of people want to do the right thing and be local. But eventually, it comes down to price,” Carrino said. “For example, if I can get a gallon of milk for $2.19 from a big supplier and a pint of all-natural grass-fed organic milk for $2.50 — do I want to use that? Yes. Can I use that? Well, that will increase my costs. And, you’re not guaranteed that milk all the time.”