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Working in harmony At Restaurant Serenade, Chef James Laird handles cooking while wife Nancy Sheridan Laird takes care of business

James Laird, executive chef, and Nancy Sheridan Laird, of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

James Laird and Nancy Sheridan Laird are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year — in both marriage and business.

“We got married in March of 1996 and bought Restaurant Serenade in October,” Nancy Laird, co-owner and operator of the Chatham establishment, said.

The duo has managed to work together closely in the fast-paced, highly demanding restaurant industry for more than two decades, serving critically acclaimed, contemporary American cuisine to some of New Jersey’s top executives and politicians.

Their secret is simple: separation.

“Nancy has nothing really to do with the back of the house, and the same for me in the front of the house,” James Laird, co-owner and executive chef, said. “We are two different people working together as partners to control the most important areas of our business.

“When I am cooking for 250 people on a busy Saturday night, Nancy is dealing with all of the issues in the front,” he said.

“And I never have to worry about the chef quitting,” Nancy Laird said.

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Marital bliss didn’t always come so easy when the Lairds first created Restaurant Serenade, James Laird said.

“For us, it was much more difficult in the beginning.”

“We had very different styles,” his wife said.

James Laird — now consistently touted among the top chefs in the New York metropolitan area — started cooking when he was 14.

After graduating high school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America then went on to train in France with top chefs such as Georges Blanc and Alain Pic before working in esteemed New York City restaurants such as Aureole and Lespinasse.

It was during his time as a sous chef at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, working under Chef Craig Shelton, that he met Nancy Sheridan.

She, having earned her master’s in library science from Columbia University in 1979, had pursued a career as a research librarian for Morgan Stanley before becoming the vice president of the mergers and acquisitions group for Kidder Peabody in 1982.

“It wasn’t doing much for my soul, so I thought I’d change careers,” she said. “I went to be an executive director for a small off-Broadway theatre company, Repertorio Espanol, before deciding after a few years that I preferred to write the check rather than beg for one. Plus, I had always wanted to go to culinary school.”

She attended the Culinary Institute of America in 1993 and completed an internship at The Ryland Inn before working for Gray Kunz at Lespinasse upon her graduation in 1995.

“That’s when James and I decided that, rather than go into Manhattan or elsewhere, that we were both born and raised in New Jersey and we wanted to bring this kind of food and style of cooking home,” she said. “Craig Shelton and Dennis Foy had already brought some of it and we just wanted to make sure there was more.”

Timing is everything: James Laird knew that a well-known restaurant in Chatham, the Townsquare Inn, was facing issues at the time.

“The restaurant wasn’t even for sale; I just knew that they were having difficulties and that the owner, an international lawyer, wasn’t happy,” he said. “If you find a failing restaurant or one that wants to sell in the right location with everything in place, and it’s pretty much turnkey if it’s in good shape, you can get it for 10 cents on the dollar as opposed to starting from scratch after two years of planning and raising capital.

“We called him up, had it appraised and made a deal.”

It wasn’t going to be as easy as it had seemed. At just 27 years old, Laird knew no other way than to follow in the footsteps of his mentors.

“My style then was very ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” he said.

“More of a Marine-like, European-type chef,” his wife added.

“That’s just how I learned to cook when I was young,” James Laird said. “That was just what you did — you yelled.

“Five or six years into it, I realized I had to become a better person.”

Nancy Laird, however, approached the business with a more “politically correct, corporate style,” she said.

“It was challenging to try to convince him that we had to be a bit quieter, but then he had to convince me that I had to get a little tougher.

“Over the years, our styles melded into one.”

Recession-proof
Nancy Sheridan Laird, co-owner and operator of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, said it was a major accomplishment for her and her husband, James Laird, executive chef, to make it through the recession.
“It was just us and our line of credit for a few months there,” she said.
After having enjoyed year over year growth between 10 to 15 percent from the restaurant’s founding in 1996, the Lairds were disappointed to see that growth halt in 2008.
“But, because of the recession, Restaurant Serenade was forced to reinvent itself,” Nancy said. “We had always responded to the marketplace, but we really had to make sure we were flexible. That’s become a real habit now — we stay true to our principles, but we respond to the marketplace a lot more than we used to.”
For example, patrons began eating in the bar more frequently, as opposed to the dining room.
“We put more seating in there, and that has become a whole other business,” Nancy said.
Today, diners can enjoy small plates and appetizers at the bar, ranging from $11 boneless fried chicken to $28 steak frites.
When Restaurant Serenade’s growth began rising again in 2010, the Lairds tucked away money in preparation of a strengthening economy.
“We knew we had to come out of the recession looking new, because there would be new restaurants to compete with,” Nancy said.
Restaurant Serenade was completely redesigned in 2015 by design collective Studio 1200 in Short Hills to update its cozy American home setting with more modern and opulent appeal.

“Now, I never yell,” James Laird said. “My average cook has been with us for 12 years.

“That has helped our relationship, too, because when you have any anger, you can’t be happy. It made me a better person for our relationship and made our business stronger.”

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In line with the times, it helps also that James Laird’s modern, farm-to-table American cuisine is often made so flavorful without the use of heavy butter, cream or flour.

“It’s how I’ve cooked my whole life,” he said. “If butter makes it better, it is because it is not being cooked correctly. If you cook good, fresh food, you do not need to use a lot of butter or cream in order to make it taste better.

“It’s the cooking techniques that I use that make people say, ‘Wow, how is this soup (made without) cream?’ I simply use a special blender with good product.”

Restaurant Serenade’s menu fit the bill before customers even began asking for gluten-free dishes.

“Ninety percent of my menu was inherently already so,” James said. “My style of cooking is very healthy and vegetable-based, so you can take the protein off of any dish and it will still be good.”

Europe has been serving “farm-to-table” for over 400 years, James said. That’s why he continues to visit with local farmers to pick up his product.

“That’s where I get my creativity, seeing the produce grown, visiting the markets, talking with the farmers to ask what is in season,” he said.

“People have just finally caught up with (him),” Nancy Laird said. “It’s been a good 18 years of James working with some of these farmers. They know how much we buy from them year after year.”

Even though the Lairds also hand-pick seasonal and regional produce from their quarter-acre garden on their property in Harding Township, James Laird has continued to source local ingredients in the wake of rising food costs.

“Costs are expensive and get more so every year,” he said. “When there is a shortage and the price goes up, that price never really comes down.”

That doesn’t worry Nancy Laird.

“Newer generations that are coming into our restaurant are demanding this kind of quality, and they are willing to pay for it,” she said.

The average dinner entrée ranges from a $31 vegetable panache (quinoa pilaf, wilted spinach, cauliflower steak, baby carrots and haricots verts) to a $40 roasted Nova Scotia lobster with chanterelles, new potatoes and asparagus.

Restaurant Serenade currently enjoys profit margins of about 18 percent and year-over-year growth of about 6 percent.

Its 35 employees also appreciate the fact that the restaurant is 95 percent occupied at any given time.

“The backbone of any successful business is regular customers,” James Laird said. “That has always been key for us.

“We are also able to own our own building, which is impossible to do in Manhattan. We don’t have to do three turns to make a profit and, by providing quality over quantity, we can provide a better customer experience without having to do the volume that a Manhattan-based restaurant does.”

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The Lairds are currently gearing up for what is certain to be a busy holiday season.

“Fourth quarter is almost always nearly 30 percent of our annual revenue,” Nancy Laird said.

They are also expected to expand the reach of their culinary expertise within the year.

“Throughout our 20 years, people have said, having one restaurant is not good enough,” James Laird said. “We have one, very successful restaurant that continues to grow and makes a lot of money for our great staff. But somehow, sometimes, we are still (considered) a failure because we only have one (location) — but how many restaurants last 20 years?

“We’ve always looked at other opportunities in both New Jersey and New York and the numbers have just never worked for us.”

Until now.

The Lairds have been approved by NJ Transit to open an upscale bistro and neighborhood bar with outdoor dining in the Chatham train station.

“It will be a fun place to commute to by train and will also have some to-go business,” James Laird said.

“We can walk there if need be, it’s so close,” his wife said. “It will almost be an extension of here, in a way, even though they are two different properties. It will be the best of both worlds.”

The Lairds hope to retain some of the work-life balance they have found despite the expansion.

“We don’t work 100 hours a week anymore,” Nancy Laird said. “As we’ve made friends and as we’ve felt more secure in the business, we have been able to hire people who could help us. That is one of the things we sacrificed for early on — it’s better for the business when you’re in a good mood and not exhausted.”

“I’m still in the kitchen five days a week; Nancy is still in the front of the house five days a week,” James Laird said. “We are just not here for 14 hours a day like we used to be.”

Mentorship continues to be a major component in Chef Laird’s kitchen, too — not only to continue the growth of talented chefs, but also to provide the Lairds with such balance.

“That’s how I became a great cook,” James Laird said. “The owners let me play with specials and experiment and make new dishes — you just have to hire good people and, the more freedom we’ve given them, the busier we’ve gotten.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

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