Present at the Creation

Now that Jersey City is recognized as one of the hippest dining destinations in the state, it's worth noting that only 14 years ago it was a culinary desert. The chef and restaurant where change for the better began? Ian Kapitan at Marco & Pepe. Now we have one last chance to taste his food before he flies back to his native Canada.

Chef Ian Kapitan
Pioneering downtown Jersey City chef Ian Kapitan.

On Thursday, December 11, Kapitan will cook dinner at Escape in Montclair with Escape’s chef/owner Bryan Gregg.

The menu for the evening…

–Amuse Bouche: a surprise from Gregg
–1st Course – Sea urchin, delicata squash, amaranth – Gregg
–2nd Course – Lobster knuckle, smoked maitake mushroom, foie juice – Gregg
–3rd Course – Arctic char, cucumber, tomato gelée, rye, dill – Kapitan
–4th Course – Pork belly, winter succotash, blue corn, smoked pear – Kapitan
–5th Course – Gingerbread, apple crumb, crème fraiche – Gregg

This limited-seating event is a prelude to the next day’s Winter Bounty Dining Experience at the James Beard House in Manhattan, where Gregg and Kapitan will cook a five-course extravaganze with former Ryland Inn executive chef  Anthony Bucco (now with 1 Hotel Central Park), Bruce Miller, the a.m. sous chef of Mas(farmhouse) in Lower Manhattan and John Sauchelli, pastry chef of Maritime Parc in Liberty State Park, Jersey City.

How did this pair of dinners come about for a chef living in Toronto?

"Bryan and I are friends," Kapitan explains. "Bryan is very complimentary. He’s one of those aces in the back pocket I never expected I’d have in life. He’s just a really great guy who goes above and beyond on every level. He’s a chef’s chef. It’s very humbling to know him."

When Kapitan, 44, first came to America from Toronto more than 20 years ago, he headed for New York, where he worked for famed chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley. It wasn’t long before he discovered the lower rents of Jersey City and its easy access to the city, and moved there to live.

He got a good deal on a spacious, 1500-square-foot brownstone apartment. But Jersey City “was nothing at the time, it was all bombed out,” he says. “Now I’m proud of what it has turned into, but it was pretty rough back then.”

After awhile, instead of commuting east into the city, Kapitan began driving west to Whitehouse Station and the Ryland Inn, then the epicenter of culinary excitement and innovation in New Jersey.

Working for executive chef Craig Shelton “was an intense experience,” Kapitan says. “He is an incredible chef who could look across the entire kitchen at your mashed potatoes and know if you didn’t have enough salt in them. There are a few key chefs who have marked my soul greatly. He’s a badass who knows his stuff.”

Shortly after the devastating body blow that was 9/11, Jersey City resident Ralph Rodriguez, a Wall Street consultant and native of Seville, opened Marco & Pepe on Grove Street in downtown Jersey City, across the street from City Hall. His goal, he told NJM in 2007, was “to recreate the comfort of a neighborhood tapas bar in Spain, where people go to drink, snack, and meet up with friends,”

Rodriguez hired the talented Kapitan as his opening chef, and Kapitan, with his sous chef, Nicole Puzio, swiftly put the restaurant on the New Jersey dining radar. After a few years, Kapitan moved on to the Light Horse Tavern, about 10 blocks closer to the Hudson River, and cemented his reputation as one of the city’s culinary pioneers.

Kapitan left Light Horse to become chef of Alobar in Long Island City, which was undergoing a Jersey City-like renaissance. Then Hurricane Sandy struck. It literally shook the foundations of the brownstone and destroyed Kapitan’s apartment. Homeless and thinking about his mother, who was struggling with kidney failure, “I found myself in the position of looking at my life," he says. "I’ve been away from Canada and my family for 20-plus years, so I made the decision to help a friend open two restaurants in Toronto.”

Kapitan is still involved in those projects,  Old School BBQ and Recess Diner.

Still, he says he keeps the door open to a return to New Jersey.

“I was accepted and loved by the state," he says. "I have roots here. I love the state and the area. I’d come back in a heartbeat."

In the meantime, lucky for us, his next Jersey appearance is just around the corner.

Escape
345 Bloomfield Avenue
Montclair
973-744-0712
escapemontclair.com

 

 

SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.

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