Meet the Chef Behind One of NJ’s Most Celebrated Farm-to-Table Restaurants

Chef Aishling Stevens enjoyed an idyllic Jersey childhood, followed by culinary adventures around the globe. Both inform her cooking at Restaurant Latour.

Restaurant Latour's chef Aishling Stevens

Chef Aishling Stevens Photo: Courtesy of Rob Yaskovic

Aishling Stevens masterminds the splendid dining at Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, home of the upcoming New Jersey Wine & Food Festival. Its signature Restaurant Latour is a citadel of farm-to-table cuisine, earning it a spot on NJM’s 30 Best Restaurants list in 2023.

We recently chatted with chef Stevens about her picturesque Jersey upbringing, her first cooking gigs abroad, and what she strives for at Restaurant Latour.

NJM: Aishling, please tell us about your interesting first name.
Chef Aishling Stevens: My name has a lot to do with my career! My mom is from Ireland, and my name is Gaelic for dream or vision. I’m a dual citizen through her, and I’ve been able to live and cook in Commonwealth countries.

But behind your global approach is a local farm girl’s love of nature.
Completely! From third grade on, my family lived at Sunhill Farm, a 14-acre gentleman’s farm in Allentown, east of Trenton. My family—older brother, sister, parents—raised animals for the joy of it. We had horses, cows, sheep, chickens and lots of dogs.

Sounds like an idyllic childhood.
I was a happy kid. I pretty much lived outdoors. But I had chores and responsibilities. To care for animals, you can’t not show up. I learned to respect livestock and manage my time, an essential for chefs.

So how does a girl in muck boots become a chef?
It’s been a journey. But I was always into food. My mom, a nurse, fed us incredible organic local food she’d get around nearby Princeton. Fish, chicken, produce. Dinner was a family ritual. We’d pass around each dish and talk about it. I was the littlest of three, but I had big opinions. In high school, I worked in diners and casual places, bussing, serving and washing dishes.

Did you set out to become a chef?
No. I studied hospitality in college and got a job doing marketing for a wellness company. It was so unexciting; I fought it every day. One day my Irish cousin, Adina, called to say she was going to Australia to rent a van and travel around. She asked, “Are you in?” I looked at my desk and said yes.

So Down Under was your cooking startup?
For sure. I loved Australia. Ozzies are so warm and inviting, and their dining culture is true hospitality, rooted in welcome. When Adina went home, I stayed. I’d roam around, pinch-hitting in restaurants. In semitropical Queensland, I fell for a 40-seat bistro, Waterview, set on a cliff over the Pacific. The owners took me under their wing and let me work in the kitchen.

Major new chapter!
[Laughs.] Big time. I felt that everything I’d learned and done so far had led me to the kitchen. Waterview’s owners sponsored me to earn a culinary diploma while working there. I stayed a total of five years and then cooked around Australia, climbing the ladder to sous-chef.

And your next move?
I wanted to be closer to my relatives in Ireland and got a sous-chef job in Norwich, on the eastern coast of England. The restaurant had a Michelin Bib Gourmand symbol, meaning good value on good food. It served very elevated pub grub with a lot of game and local fish. It was so farm-to-table. Hunters, fisherman and farmers would bring what they had, fresh, to the kitchen door. That’s a chef’s fantasy.

Were England’s restaurateurs as committed as Australia’s?
Definitely. The best time was our Sunday roast: suppers with pork or roast beef. It’s an English tradition, a community event that the whole town waits for all week. I stayed for two years.

And the Aishling Chronicles continue.
I was planning to return to Australia. But I got an offer out of the blue to turn a group of restaurants near Sunhill Farm into culinary destinations. I accepted and revamped the ingredient sourcing and quality. Instead of clichéd dishes, I put new spins on classics. It was a success, and I stayed two years, soaking up the suddenly lively Jersey food scene.

And then Crystal Springs appeared in the crystal ball?
Yes. Anthony Bucco, then culinary director, needed an executive sous-chef. I arrived in 2017 and absorbed his refined style for over a year. Anthony took another job, and I became the big cheese. I couldn’t believe I was now top chef at Crystal Springs’s legendary Restaurant Latour, designing three-course and seven-course tasting meals that are more like culinary voyages. And the wine pairings, from the famous wine cellar, were amazing.

What’s been your direction at Restaurant Latour?
My cooking style evolved along with the dining room’s modern but natural new look. I bring a lot to my cooking. All my encounters with food have influenced it, from being the youngest at the Sunhill Farm dinner table to cooking in destination restaurants.

I strive for what I call “intentional” food: created with a purpose. Eating should be more than filling your stomach. My goal is to create tasting menus that spark your palate and warm your soul. I want my delicious ingredients to make you think about their freshness and origin. That origin is often Crystal Springs’s kitchen garden and local farms.

Your approach is very forward-looking. But thank goodness you don’t serve those foams and gelées that dominate molecular cuisine.
No chance. Innovation shouldn’t be weird or experimental. The aim is dishes that are exciting yet yummy.

That sounds like a recipe for success.
Yes, and my whole team at Crystal Springs is a part of it. We’re so proud of our food and our service, and our diners love us back. We’re really cookin.’

Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs Resort, 1 Wild Turkey Way, Hamburg, 844-205-1857

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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