The menu for that Wednesday evening nearly one year ago today had to be perfect. That is, if Christopher John “C.J.” Reycraft Jr. — chef and managing partner of Amuse in Westfield — wanted to make history at age 33.
The menu for that Wednesday evening nearly one year ago today had to be perfect.
That is, if Christopher John “C.J.” Reycraft Jr. — chef and managing partner of Amuse in Westfield — wanted to make history at age 33.
His guests, 40 members representing the International Academy of Gastronomy, were first served a simple, smoked Portobello soup.
That was just a warmup. From duck confit with beet puree and green garbanzo beans to Tomahawk pork chop with celeriac puree and lollipop kale — to, of course, pomegranate parfaits to profiteroles with salted caramel ice cream — Reycraft had only one goal in mind:
To become the first New Jersey chef — and the third continental U.S. chef overall — to be honored as a Prix au Chef de L’Avenir, or Leading Chef of the Future, by the prestigious organization.
It would be nearly a year before the results were announced.
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Raised in Freehold, Reycraft returned home in 2004 after graduating from The French Culinary Institute in New York to accept an internship at Chez Catherine, an upscale French restaurant in Westfield, and work part-time as a chef at Huntley Taverne, a Harvest Restaurant Group establishment in Summit.
His talent was in demand.
Just one year later, Reycraft was asked to be the opening chef at 27 Mix in Newark.
“They took a big chance on me,” he said.
While Reycraft was excited to contribute to the economic revitalization of downtown Newark, he would again be made an offer two years later that he couldn’t refuse: to return to Chez Catherine as head chef.
Reycraft stayed put for the next seven years to help solidify Chez Catherine’s iconic status in the state.
“I had a great career there and learned a whole bunch,” he said.
So much so that in 2014, Jim Ford, a diner at Chez Catherine, approached Reycraft about opening a restaurant together with his wife, Missy.
Reycraft again seized opportunity and created Amuse, a small, modern French brasserie with 12 employees that seats 50 inside and 10 outdoors.
“The owner (of Chez Catherine) and I are still in touch,” Reycraft said. “I was blessed to have a supportive neighbor with whom I could go to with questions.”
He would soon learn that talent does not equal experience.
“Owning your own place is a 24/7 job. From when I wake up to when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about how we can improve, I’m answering questions, I’m interviewing — it’s all-encompassing and consuming,” Reycraft said. “From a sink breaking, to an electrical problem, to an issue with a neighbor — you never know what you’re going to get. You have to be very well-rounded in your skill sets. I wish I could just go into work and cook every day — that would make my life easy.”
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It’s the food — and where it comes from — that interests Reycraft most.
Amuse uses seasonal and local ingredients whenever possible in order to support local growers and suppliers in the state.
“In the summer, we do very well. Westfield has a farmer’s market every Saturday; Summit on Sundays; Roselle Park on Wednesdays,” Reycraft said. “Almost every day you can find a farmer’s market within reasonable driving distance that is supporting local farms.”
It’s the winter, Reycraft said, that naturally poses a challenge.
“We do our best to give our customers a great product at a lower cost, but it’s not always easy,” he said.
A seat at the table
Christopher John “C.J.” Reycraft Jr. is preparing to sit on the board of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association — and he couldn’t be prouder.
“(Amuse) has had a seat at the table and has been part of the conversation,” Reycraft said. “We let them know our concerns.”
For example, Reycraft believes that a restricted liquor license would not only be a great source of revenue for the state, but also for Amuse.
“I don’t need a bar; I just need the ability to serve beer and wine by the glass or by the bottle,” he said. “We’d be able to lower our prices because our food is our single source of revenue right now.”
A second source of revenue, Reycraft said, would change Amuse’s business model and make it easier to pay the bills.
“There is a bill in the legislation that would allow one to purchase a full (liquor) license from the state every year for $10,000, or a beer and wine license for $5,000,” Reycraft said.
That’s a lot more affordable than the latest liquor license for sale in Westfield, which is on the market for $850,000.
“For a restaurant of my size, that wouldn’t make sense,” Reycraft said. “A restricted license would incentivize other restaurants to open up and a tax credit would be provided for current license owners.”
Reycraft understands their concerns.
“In one sense, (restaurant owners) are worried about their current (liquor license) valuation,” he said. “But in another, they’re wondering how they can open other places without paying for liquor licenses.”
It’s divisive issues like this that Reycraft hopes will help recruit and encourage fellow chefs and restauranteurs to get involved, be part of the discussions and help shape legislative changes.
“There is strength in numbers — the more members we have, the bigger our voice gets,” he said. “I’m hoping that through these discussions and becoming more involved, I might entice more people to join the association so that their concerns are also voiced and more things get accomplished.”
New Jersey also doesn’t have everything: Reycraft sources his beef from Chicago, his duck from Long Island, his wild boar from Canada and his lamb from Colorado and Australia.
“But seafood, we keep close to home,” he said. “Cape May has beautiful scallops and the local fish is also very good.”
Reycraft also works closely with Happy Harvest Hydroponic Farms in Denville during the offseason.
“They will grow specific to what we use and tell us what kind of turnaround we can expect,” he said. “It’s a family-owned business that couldn’t be easier to work with. It’s really good product, too — literally in the soil still and still alive when we get it. You can’t get any fresher than that — literally from the dirt to your plate.”
Seasonal, local and hydroponic cuisine, however, always carries a higher price tag. And with rising rents in Westfield and the costs of goods increasing, it becomes more difficult for Amuse to maintain its $50 per person average.
“We just need to maintain portion control and watch our inventory carefully,” Reycraft said. “Week to week, it can be a very fine balancing act. It’s all about spinning plates and keeping everything streamlined.”
Cost does not deter Reycraft from using the best possible ingredients in his dishes — not doing so would be bad for business in more ways than one.
“People are very engaged with and excited about what they are eating and where it comes from now,” he said. “It is a well-educated, sophisticated customer that we are dealing with today.”
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In the single year it had been open, Amuse appeared on a prestigious organization’s radar.
For the past 20 years, the International Academy of Gastronomy has recognized and honored a limited number of emerging chefs from around the world with its Prix au Chef de L’Avenir title.
“A member came in for lunch and wanted to host a dinner here at the restaurant to decide if I should be put up for the award,” Reycraft said. “That gentleman, a retired surgeon, set up the menu with me.”
It was announced in February that the perfect Wednesday evening Reycraft had hosted a year ago in April had earned him the highly coveted title.
“It’s a humbling but very cool experience; very interesting chefs have won the award prior,” Reycraft said. “I’m very happy to represent our country and state with this distinction.”
Reycraft’s award, he said, makes all the more sense as to why people should continue to eat and shop local.
“We have wonderful, creative food and farming in New Jersey,” he said. “And not to knock the big chains, but there is something very unique about small businesses. We create a lot of jobs and opportunities for the people within our own neighborhoods
“When we open a second place, hopefully, it will be in New Jersey.”
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