Earlier this month, four well-known New Jersey chefs made a splash in snowy, ritzy Park City, Utah, to craft fund-raising dinners at the annual Red, White & Snow festival. The event benefits the National Ability Center (NAC), which teaches skiing and snowboarding to kids facing a range of challenges, and also assists disabled athletes, many of whom compete in the Paralympics and Special Olympics.
The Jersey chefs—Ryan DePersio of Fascino (Montclair), Battello and Kitchen Step (Jersey City and at Newark Airport’s wow-worthy new Terminal A); Jamie Knott of Saddle River Inn, Saddle River Cafe and Madame (Jersey City); AJ Capella of Montclair Hospitality group; and Leia Gaccione of South & Pine (Morristown)—did not disappoint.
“Our mission is to help people live their best life,” says Carin De Milo, the NAC’s event director. “And Jersey chefs throw themselves into everything they do, whether cooking, snowmobiling or meeting our athletes. They brought a lot to Red, White & Snow.”
So, chefs, how did you get invited?
DePersio: One of my oldest friends, Clay, whom I met in a restaurant in Paris when I was apprenticing, became a big-deal winemaker in Sonoma. He started donating his Mauritson Wines to Red, White & Snow and invited me to cook the vintner dinner that paired with his wines. I’m a festival regular now, and brought in Jamie and AJ, who invited Leia. The more Jersey in the mix, the better.
Capella: This was my second year, and it was a blast all around. The four of us are friends who make the time to hang, and we did, big-time.
Gaccione: At home, we get together every month and try an interesting restaurant, usually in New Jersey.
Knott: It’s like our own supper club.
For the Red, White & Snow dinner, you were paired up—one as executive chef, the other as sous-chef. Since you’re all executive chefs, how did that feel?
Knott: To be honest, it was so relaxing to just cook and not sweat over creating the menu. Ryan did that. I actually was his sous-chef when he started Fascino in Montclair 20 years ago. I was only 22, and Ryan was barely older.
Gaccione: I assisted AJ in Park City, and we were a great team. I’m always up for learning new kitchen tricks. I also got to meet the other guest chefs, from Park City and other places. Funnily enough, two of the women were also from Jersey, so we felt right at home.
Tell me about your one-night-only menus.
Capella: Numerous courses, a fantasy dinner. Leia and I did a potato and caviar hors d’oeuvre; a local elk tartare starter; then a roasted duck breast; local lamb wrapped in nori with lamb-cardamom jus; and banana sticky toffee. The diners really liked the meal. No, they loved it.
DePersio: Designing the menu for a one-time, sky’s-the-limit meal for 30 or 40 diners is creative, and also very demanding. Red, White & Snow diners expect to be wowed. We started with bison tartare on a bison-jus croquette; then a Taleggio arancini with harissa aioli; sea scallop carpaccio; smoked pork shoulder ravioli with black stripes from charcoal; ribeye from a family farm in upstate New York with parsnip and maitake; and finally, a perfect ricotta cheesecake made by my mom, Cynthia, who’s my pastry chef at Fascino.
Sounds like you strutted your Jersey stuff.
DePersio: Definitely. Jersey chefs have made a huge dent in the dining scene, and we showed our Park City diners that we’re doing world-class cuisine. I feel so proud of having helped shape Jersey’s exciting dining scene. The ex-Jerseyans we met at the festival all wanted to hear what’s going on back home. They miss our restaurants.
Knott: Everyone has an opinion about New Jersey, even if they’ve never been there. Unfortunately, they’re thinking Jersey Shore. In Park City, people saw who we really are: hardworking, passionate and original. Guest after guest at my and Ryan’s dinner begged us to open a restaurant there.
Gaccione: We got the word out about the New Jersey food scene. There’s so much talent here, and it’s very diverse. Whatever you want is here: the hot new ramen place, a classic Jersey pizza joint, disco fries at the diner, or a big bowl of pho. We have so many great restaurants, from the Top 30 to the hidden gems. And incredible foodie shopping, too. Other than the cold winters, what’s not to like about Jersey?
Capella: I’m a deeply rooted Jersey boy from Sussex County. I’ve made a few attempts to work out of state, and failed miserably. New Jersey has everything, and for a chef, it’s heaven. Not leaving.
Any standout experiences on the trip, apart from the cooking?
Gaccione: For me, there was a breakthrough. Ten years ago, on a snowmobile, I went off an eight-foot cliff at 45 miles per hour and shattered my pelvis. I was in the hospital for 11 days. It took six months to recover and learn to walk again. This was the first time I got back on a snowmobile, and I was really anxious. I ended up having so much fun. It was exhilarating
Knott: We spent an unforgettable half-day snowmobiling from village to village in the Utah mountains, God’s country. The landscape is miraculous. Then we met the National Ability Center athletes and got some inspiration of the human kind. One of them, a wheelchair skier, was exactly my age, which made me think. He played sports his whole upbringing and when he discovered giant slalom skiing, he felt, ‘This is what I was meant to do in this world.” For him, there are no limits, nothing he can’t do.
Capella: This kid from the National Ability Center program came to talk to us. She was born with no control, no use, of her limbs. Yet she was so self-confident and upbeat and jazzed about her future. Nothing can hold her back, she said. What a person.
Gaccione: It is very moving to hear the stories of young people who thought they would never ski, and then made it to the Paralympics. It was such an honor to have even a small part in raising money for the awe-inspiring National Ability Center.
DePersio: I work with several foundations, and they make this [world a better one]. At Red, White & Snow, everyone is so happy just to be there, including the athletes.
Knott: Red, White & Snow was simply a lovefest.