Jersey’s Rollicking ‘Pirate’ Chefs Are Cooking Up Fiery and Unforgettable Outdoor Feasts

“Gather a bunch of passionate, creative cooks, Jersey farm food and adventurous diners, and let all hell break loose.”

Jersey’s “pirate” chefs cooking a meal outside

Jersey’s “pirate” chefs get together for one of their primal meals, cooked outside. Photo: John Bessler

The “pirates” have landed. They’re lighting fires and flashing daggers. But look closer—those daggers are knives, and the fires fuel an outdoor kitchen. Meet New Jersey’s “pirate” chefs, a roving band of culinary pros who create unforgettable, open-fire-fueled outdoor feasts. “Pirate” dining was first a hit and then a trend. Now, it’s a New Jersey culinary movement.

It’s no coincidence that “pirate” chefs thrive here. New Jersey is blessed with brilliant cooks, sophisticated diners, and an agricultural revival boasting superlative foodstuffs. But the nugget of “pirate” dining’s appeal is its emotional impact. “People want better than fast meals and factory food,” says Ben Walmer, the “pirate” crew’s de facto captain. “Especially in Jersey, what we crave now is fresh, local food shared at a meaningful meal.”

The Somerset County architect and chef grew up “amidst nature on a pioneering sustainable farm.” His dad is a fifth-generation farmer and his mom, “a part-Native American hippie social worker,” Walmer says. Mother and son spent idyllic time together year-round in a cabin in the woods. “We did all our cooking outside over a wood fire,” he says. “I’ve loved it ever since. Gathering by the fire to eat is profoundly human and soul satisfying. It restores our connections to nature, our family, our tribe, our community.”

Walmer’s Jersey-based “pirate” community numbers more than 100 hospitality and agricultural pros: cooks, farmers, foragers, caterers, chocolatiers, pitmasters, winemakers, cheese makers, bartenders, butchers and bakers, as well as designers, dancers and musicians, he says. His Highlands Dinner Club (HDC) group on Facebook is the virtual pirate ship. The majority of the club’s events are outdoors, often ticketed benefits for local nonprofits like Kiwimbi International in Gladstone and Whittemore Community Culture & Conservation in Oldwick, whose executive director, Carolyn Thow, has booked the “pirates” about a dozen times since she met Walmer in 2019. “HDC’s mission, like Whittemore’s, is to honor the land and one another. Their dinners are unparalleled, multisensory events. We fill every seat,” she says. The “pirates” make regular voyages to Ironbound Farm, whose Walmer-designed open-fire kitchen is the state’s only permanent outdoor kitchen. Walmer is currently building open-fire rigs at The Lone Pilgrim, a pub and restaurant opening this year in Johnsonburg.

When the club is hired for a “pirate”-chef dinner, Walmer assembles a crew with a team leader. They design an on-budget, collaborative menu “based on peaking ingredients from our partner farms and purveyors,” he says. They often contribute personal specialties. Dan Lipow of the Foraged Feast brings forest mushrooms and ramps. Pastry chef Kathryn Alberalla might furnish candy-cap sweet mushroom ice cream. Grillmaster Andrew Mercado totes smoking wood, wine exec Lee Chasalow kicks in vino, and Hank Reed of Mazur Café and Chocolate Lab in Hackettstown might craft bonbons.

[RELATED: ‘Dining at Its Most Human’: DJ-Turned-Chef on the Art of Asado Cooking]

Walmer says, “You can’t control the outdoors. We deal with unpredictable weather, unruly smoke, unfamiliar surroundings.” “Pirate” Lars Crooks, a chef who is also a tree farmer, “troubleshoots challenges,” says Walmer. “Our cooking is in the moment and improvised, like jazz. The adrenaline surges, and we do our best work together.”

“You’re in a zone,” says Emily Downs of Emily’s Hearth bakery. “I came to a (club) dinner to contribute my bread. Ben leads me to a fire grill and says, ‘OK, here’s your cooking station.’ I got to work and everything flowed. It’s the ‘pirate’ magic.”

Adam Press, a caterer and forager from Montclair, says that “for chefs used to cramped, hierarchical kitchens and set recipes, cooking with the club is liberating.” Ben Del Coro, who runs his own open-fire dinner series at Fossil Farms in Boonton, feels there is a recipe: “Gather a bunch of passionate, creative cooks, Jersey farm food and adventurous diners, and let all hell break loose.”

Walmer got into professional cooking while catering parties in Manhattan. Soon, he was invited to run his own table at a Michelin Guide tasting gala spotlighting underground New York City dining.

Farmer Jake Boritt hosted a 2009 dinner party, which Walmer considers the “pirate” chefs’ launch. “(Ben is) a visionary chef who, like a great coach, leads his team to triumph,” says Boritt. “You’re spellbound and an instant fan.”

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more Eat & Drink articles.