Forget "Best Of" contests, magazine reviews, and anonymous online ratings: if you want to know who the best chefs around are, ask other chefs.
That's the argument that Best Chefs America used to catalogue its ratings of the top chefs in the country.
The "Who's Who" style of the book used to be reserved for social movers and shakers, high-achieving students and everyone else willing to pony up for a listing in a handsome, leatherbound book.
But that's not the case here. The only way to be one of the 4,650 chefs profiled in BCA is to rack up peer recommendations in the 5,150 interviews of other chefs conducted by the publishers.
The good news for locavores: 196 of the culinary masters on that list operate restaurants in New Jersey. Twelve hail from nearby towns, and four are located right in Collingswood.
- Francisco Cabrera of El Sitio
- Alex Capasso of Blackbird/West Side Gravy
- Franco Lombardo of Sapori
- Nunzio Patruno of Nunzio's Ristorante
We asked Cabrera, Capasso, Lombardo and Patruno to reflect on what it took to earn their spaces in the publication.
'Almost like a fraternity'
"It's an honor, really, to be regarded that way in the industry by my peers," Capasso said.
"I'm really grateful that they see me that way, and I'm truly appreciative of their opinion and their respect for what I do. It means a lot."
Patruno said that the distinction means more because successful chefs command respect. The pressures of the job make restaurateurs "almost like a fraternity."
"We criticize their work, don't get me wrong," Patruno said, but "if, among us, we have somebody excel and stick out from the crowd, we acknowledge that."
Lombardo agreed, saying that being honored by BCA "makes it a little bit more legit" than any customer review "because it's done by people who know what it takes...to spend 12 hours in a kitchen and figure it all out."
"Magazines will do reviews of a restaurant just to please them," he said. "I look at menu, the website, even by how things are priced," to determine how good a chef is.
Cabrera added that his peers in Collingswood "have been very friendly to us and very helpful any time.
"Most of them work really hard to be the chefs that they are," he said.
Camaraderie outweighs competition
All the chefs agreed that although customer dollars in suburban New Jersey are becoming increasingly dear, they can share in the successes of their fellow restaurateurs without being divided by petty jealousies.
For Patruno, who opened his first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1982, that's a welcome relief.
"The city is very competitive, and especially now, with all the restaurants that open up left and right, they're very severe, very serious," he said. "Every time you had a critic coming to your restaurant, you were shaking. Now not everybody's so uptight.
"Going out to restaurants, it's no more an occasion," Patruno said. "You just go because you want to go out; the restaurant business has evolved in a more casual manner."
Capasso said that in the years since he moved from Max's on Route 130 in Cinnaminson, camaraderie has come to outweigh competition in the South Jersey dining scene.
"I co-founded the Hot Chefs association years ago with Robert Minitti, formerly of Bacio's in Cinnaminson, so I've always had the mindset of working with our neighbors and being friendly with the other restaurants," Capasso said.
"We've pretty much acknowledged that in South Jersey, as much as it is a little bit more casual, we're certainly working harder to fight the chains," he said.
"We're certainly working harder to get South Jersey recognized as a destination in addition to Philadelphia."
Added Patruno, "It's good for everybody and it's also good for the town. You have to work very hard to reinvent yourself almost every day so that you can function."
Where do they eat?
If you're looking for these chefs' recommendations of what's great to eat in town—aside from their own establishments—that's a bit harder to come by.
It's not because they're short on praise for their peers, but because the psychological toll of the industry makes it almost impossible to enjoy a meal out.
"I'm in the restaurant six-and-a-half days a week," Lombardo said. "On Tuesday, the day that I have off, the last place I want to go is to another restaurant.
"My wife is a great cook," he laughed.
"To go out and eat, it's like, stressful," Capasso said. "After a long week, I get one day off, and I don't want to spend it in a restaurant, turn[ing] my bread plate over and see[ing] who makes it.
"I'm going to start thinking about who manufactured the water glasses, how many servers are working, how often the phone rings, how loud the ringer is," he said.
"If I go out, I try a different ethnic cuisine," Patruno said. "If I want to cook Italian, I cook myself."
Almost universally, however, the group mentioned Masaharu "Matt" Ito of Fuji in Haddonfield as both a friend and an excellent chef doing excellent work. Capasso said that he actually recommended Ito in his own BCA interview.
"We've known each other for the last 25 years," Patruno said.
Capasso added that he's "really close with Mark and Lydia Smith at Tortilla Press, and get[s] takeout from there quite a bit." One of the few places in town where he can unwind is Sagami, where the service is "very well organized."
Lombardo spoke highly of Fred Kellermann, whose Elements Cafe in Haddon Heights reflects the work of "a chef who's putting his heart into this."
"IndeBlue is really good," Cabrera said. "I ate in Villa Barone, and one time in Tortilla Press.
"They are great cooks," he said.
Three other chef-owners from Haddonfield were mentioned in BCA, three more from Haddon Heights and one each from Haddon Twp., Cherry Hill and Voorhees. They are:
- Joe Brown of Melange Cafe
- Manish Chopra of Cross Culture
- Masaharu Ito of Fuji
- Fred Kellermann of Elements Cafe
- Jason Kunkel of Kunkel's Seafood & Steakhouse
- John Pilarz of Anthony's Creative Italian Cuisine Restaurant
- Samuel Giumarello of Giumarello's
- Vincent Fanari of Dream Cuisine Cafe
- Marianne Powell of A Little Cafe