This tattooed master of fusion cuisine is convivial, unconventional, and always spot-on when it comes to his food. Capasso's time is split blending the finest French and Italian culinary techniques at Blackbird, and frying up all-American juicy burgers at sister restaurant West Side Gravy. And since the restaurants sit side-by-side on Haddon Avenue, it makes a conveniently hectic—but happy—career for Capasso.
A "local boy made good," Capasso is a longtime Collingswood resident, who started out washing dishes in a cafe at age 15. He quickly fell in love with the restaurant culture. A celebrated chef since his early days at Misto in Cherry Hill and Max's in Cinnaminson, Capasso brings his own unique flair to the already-creative Franco-Italian cuisine. He is the co-founder of South Jersey Independent Restaurant Association, an occasional television personality, and an active community volunteer. In addition to his various other awards, Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig Laban awarded Capasso the much-sought-after honor of "three bells" (excellent). For more information about this excellent chef, or his restaurants, visit blackbirdnj.com.
2. Chef Mark Smith: The Tortilla Press, Collingswood
People are sometimes surprised to find local chef Mark Smith at the helm of Collingswood's Mexican-inspired cuisine hot spot, The Tortilla Press. Despite his non-Latino background, and his upbringing in the Midwest, Smith grew to understand the cuisine and its culture. Today, Smith has a special way with Mexican flavors, and flawlessly applies them to traditional American dishes—even ones rich with the seasonal ingredients of Southern New Jersey.
A huge fan of Collingswood Farmer's Market, Smith relies on having strong relationships with local farmers to keep his creative fire stoked year-round. Cilantro, citrus, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes and corn, all locally obtained, play heavily in Smith's eclectic menu. Traditional Mexican favorites, like burritos and chile rellenos, sit alongside fusion dishes like mango salmon and chipotle peanut barbecue pork. The chef's numerous awards and strong commitment to green dining set him apart from others. For more information about one of Southern Jersey's finest chefs, visit the restaurant website at thetortillapress.com.
3. Chef Joe Brown: Melange, Haddonfield
Chef and author Joe Brown has been serving up a perfect blend of Cajun-Creole and Italian cuisines at his restaurant, Melange Cafe, since 1995. His longtime presence has received rave reviews from critics and local diners alike. Brown, formally trained at the Restaurant School of Philadelphia, attributes his love for cooking to his Tennessee-born mother. His culinary skill has won him countless awards, appearances on television and radio shows, and—most importantly—frequently-returning customers.
"I have always been the type of person who feels, as long as you're happy, I am happy too. I think I became a chef because I saw the look on people's faces after they enjoyed a great meal," said Brown. "That look said 'happy' and 'satisfied.' I then realized food changes your every emotion. When I found out I had the ability to do that with food, that I could affect my friends and family in such a positive way, it was then that I fell in love with cooking."
For more information about Brown and Melange, visit melangerestaurants.com.
4. Chef Richard Marsh: Andriotti's Viennese Cafe, Cherry Hill
A native of Cherry Hill, Chef Richard Marsh received formal training at Johnson and Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island. No stranger to making his way up the culinary ladder, he worked a pastry counter during his teens, which was housed in the same restaurant he currently co-owns—Andriotti's Viennese Cafe.
After becoming the youngest executive chef for Omni Hotels, and the subsequent youngest director of its food and beverage department, Marsh spent time working in several five-star restaurants in Rhode Island and Colorado. After returning to Southern New Jersey, the chef delights in his current surroundings. Customers rave about his signature Five-To-Ten Course Tasting Menu and wine pairings, as well as his famous cheese spreads and Viennese pastries. For more information, or to experience Marsh's "perfectionist" attention to detail for yourself, visit the restaurant website at andreottis.com.
5. Chef James Malaby: Blue Plate, Mullica Hill
Chef James Malaby had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant. And after nearly 20 years in the business, he saw his efforts pay off. Malaby's dream came to fruition in 2005, when he opened Blue Plate, in Mullica Hill. Serving up New American and French cuisines, he focused on creating dishes he was passionate about. Also a tireless community advocate and volunteer, Malaby takes part in many charity events and fundraisers, including working with Main Street Merchant Group to forge closer community relationships.
Malaby incorporates the knowledge he gained under the tutelage of George Perrier—of using fresh, local ingredients—with his love for the unique to create one-of-a-kind brunch, lunch and dinner specials. The basis of his approach include listening to customers' needs and respecting their desires to eat well affordably. Malaby offers lower-priced items as well as set-price menus—with both options still offering up the freshest, best-tasting local ingredients. For more information, visit blueplatenj.com.