When restaurants had a curfew in the early days of the pandemic, chefs Leia Gaccione and AJ Capella—both cooking in Morristown at the time—became close friends.
“There was definitely a lot of rosé drinking after our restaurants closed,” Gaccione says.
Now the corporate chef of Montclair Hospitality Group, Capella and his team at Ani Ramen House in Summit have dreamt up a culinary exchange that has he and Gaccione creating a dish for the other’s menu.
At Gaccione’s South + Pine, Capella has crafted roasted pork belly with kabocha squash, arugula and fennel. For Ani Ramen, Gaccione has created a fried-chicken bao bun with maple bacon jam, pickled brussels sprouts and Fresno chilies.
Capella says Gaccione’s dish has become Ani Ramen’s third most popular bao bun since joining the menu on December 1. As for his own creation, it’s getting rave reviews from South + Pine patrons.
“We had a table last week that said AJ’s dish was one of the best pork belly dishes they’ve ever had,” Gaccione says. “It’s a really good mashup.”
This collaboration runs through January—but if you can’t make it to Ani Ramen or South + Pine before then, don’t fret: More dish swaps are in the works.
“We have definitely seen success with this partnership,” says Jason Wanamaker, director of communications for Montclair Hospitality Group. “We are super excited, and it’s something we want to continue doing in the future.”
NJM: Leia, what made you jump into this?
Leia Gaccione: I love Ani Ramen! I’m not kidding. I go there every Christmas Eve for lunch with my mom, brother, sister-in-law. It grows every year!
How long have you two known each other?
AJ Capella: I started working at Jockey Hollow in Morristown in 2018, which is when I met Leia.
LG: We never worked together other than doing some events, but since he was my neighbor in Morristown, we had always kind of discussed working on something together. It was perfect timing.
What was the process of creating these dishes?
AJC: We wanted to design a dish that was slightly Asian-influenced. I have always tried to promote locality in my dishes, and I cook with a lot of sustainable proteins. So I created a dish around a local pork belly and went from there.
LG: For me, I wanted to do something that would be a really good representation of what we do at South + Pine, but could also translate into something that could be on the Ani Ramen menu. We decided to go with a fried-chicken bao bun, put our maple bacon jam on it with some pickled Brussels sprouts and little chilies, and that’s that!
Where did the local ingredients come from?
AJC: Leia buys her protein from Harvest Drop, which is a company based in South Jersey that sources local produce, beef, chicken, eggs, pork, sometimes lamb, out of Pennsylvania.
LG: We use Harvest Drop for a ton. Even now in the winter. We get all our lamb, beef, eggs, mushrooms. They are probably what I use most for ordering.
What was it like joining forces?
AJC: It’s like cooking with a friend!
LG: You get to work with someone you admire and respect in the industry. And I’m also such a fan of Ani Ramen. It’s like Wife Swap, except with chefs. It’s fun to hang out in the kitchen and cook with your buddy.