AJ Capella had a whirlwind 2019. In January, the 29 year-old chef and New Jersey native was still building momentum in his first year at the helm of A Toute Heure in Cranford. By summer, he was accepting a role as a replacement for chef Craig Polignano at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, suddenly transitioning from a small boite restaurant to 15,000 square feet of hospitality real estate that houses three concepts in one. No shock, Capella was up for the challenge; the 2017 Garden State Culinary Arts Awards Rising Star Honoree and alumnus of New Jersey restaurant kitchens like Latour, the Ryland Inn, Uproot, Pluckemin Inn (not to mention Aviary in New York City), Capella is easily among New Jersey’s most focused and ambitious chefs. Curious as to what that kind of passion would look like in an outlet as massive as Jockey Hollow, we caught up with Capella for a quick chat where we learned, among other things, to say yes to opportunity (and, on occasion, A5 Wagyu beef).
Table Hopping: How’s it going? What was it like taking over for chef Polignano?
AJ Capella: It’s been going great, honestly. I’m really happy. Chris [Cannon] and I are getting along really well, and I’m finding staff, which is really good! That was the biggest problem. It’s a huge place, so it takes a lot of people. And Craig [Polignano] stayed with me for almost a month. He showed me ordering was the biggest thing for me to learn, just because the amounts necessary to get through a week are so different.
TH: You’d spent less than a year as a sort of game-changing addition at A Toute Heure. Was it hard to break it to the owners, the Florios, that you were leaving suddenly?
AC: It wasn’t something I was planning. It’s not like I was out in the market looking for a new job. I was happy in Cranford and I got along well with the Florios. Then Chris [Cannon] called…One thing led to another and it was just, like, the biggest opportunity of my life.
TH: What was it like going from a smaller restaurant to Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen?
AJ: I could probably fit the entire A Toute Heure restaurant in the Jockey Hollow kitchen. [At A Toute Heure], we had two cooks, one dishwasher, on weekends a second dishwasher, altogether five or so employees. At Jockey Hollow I have 11 line cooks, five prep cooks, two sous chefs, and nine dishwashers. It’s a lot different—bigger than anything I’ve ever run. Even being the chef de cuisine at Ryland—it’s not as large as this.
TH: Speaking of your prior career, you took a break from rising up the Jersey chef ranks to work the line at Grant Achatz’s Aviary in New York. Did that environment prepare you for this in any way?
AC: Working at Aviary definitely helped. I feel like very few restaurants in New Jersey are doing 300-plus covers on busy nights, but at Aviary we were doing 400 to 500 covers every day except Sunday. Working there really showed me how to set up for numbers, how to create dishes around volume while still being able to execute at a very high level.
TH: Speaking of volume, were you at all concerned coming into Jockey Hollow that you’d lose control? Quality?
AC: The minute I took the job at Jockey Hollow, Anthony Bucco texted me, said something like “Heard the good news, couldn’t be happier, now you’re in the Major Leagues.” As for maintaining control, I train the cooks as well as I can and design the dishes to look elaborate without actually having that many components. Our plating technique is simple but still elevated. It’s really a matter of prep. Getting ready to be busy.
TH: You had full creative control at A Toute Heure. What is your relationship with Chris Cannon like?
AC: Chris has been super supportive since I got here. I can pretty much do anything I want as long as it makes sense at the end of the week monetarily. Jockey Hollow is the biggest restaurant that supports locality and that’s really what I’m all about. In fact, the restaurant’s become even more local since I started. For instance there was a cheese board on the menu with no local cheese. Now we do cheese from New Jersey—Bobolink, Jersey Girl, Valley Shepherd. It’s all farmers and artisans I’ve known for years and years, and I like to support them. They were already using local fish, so that was an easy jump for me. I’m working on getting local meat; that’s posing a challenge right now.
TH: Are there any other changes you’ve implemented?
AC: We’ve pretty much switched the concept of Da Pesca (the upstairs seafood concept) to something called the Washington Room—it’s focused on super seasonal, local food. It’s a similar menu to the Oyster Bar, but we offer more upscale dishes like a foie gras appetizer, expensive crudo, caviar. I just got some A5 Wagyu from Japan. It’s not local, but it’s magical. That’s another cool thing about being at Jockey Hollow; when I was at Aviary, there was no expense spared. We were using the best possible ingredients wherever we wanted, but that comes with a price. Here at Jockey Hollow I have a lot of wiggle room in the budget to get things like caviar and white truffles by the pound. But most importantly, it gives me more ingredients to play with.
TH: Speaking of playing with ingredients, any new dishes you can tell us about?
AC: There’s a Caesar salad that’s super cool. It’s local little gem lettuce from Let It Grow Farms [in Chester]. It’s basically two romaine heads but instead of Caesar dressing, I take crème fraiche with modified tapioca starch and whip it, steep it in Caesar flavorings overnight, whip it again, pipe it over the salad and cover it all with crispy crumbled chicken skins and Parmesan with brioche croutons. It tastes exactly like a Caesar salad and looks nothing like it. Since I’ve become an executive chef in New Jersey, that’s something I’ve been doing. You have to find your own style, and I’ve been taking things that are relatable and using what I learned at the Aviary to change them.
TH: What about special dinners, now that you’re settled in? Are you nervous for the holidays?
AC: We’re planning a dinner in November with Pinhook Bourbon. And I’m going to start bringing my friends in for guest chef dinners, people like Brett Smith from Fossil Farms, Sam Freund from White Birch. Robbie [Felice] will be down, for sure. I’d like to bring one in every month, do a six- or eight-course dinner. As for the holidays, I’m definitely nervous. All the cooks are new, so no one in the kitchen has experienced a busy season here yet. All the people in the front of house have and are just constantly telling me “You don’t know what’s about to happen!” But I mean, it’s going to be the same things we do, just more of it. I’m just gonna be tired come the New Year. But I’m excited.
TH: So no regrets?
AC: I don’t have a lot of nights off, unfortunately. I live with my girlfriend, who’s like “I haven’t seen you!”
TH: I’d have to assume there are some consolation dinner arrangements?
AC: I get home after she goes to bed. But Sundays and Mondays, she eats well.
You can sample chef Capella’s cooking during regular hours or, if you can snag them, by getting last-minute tickets to the Gaja Wine Dinner on Wednesday, October 16. If you can’t make that, they’re also doing weekly “Cannonball Blind Wine Dinners,” with five of owner Chris Cannon’s favorite wines and absolutely no cannonballs to worry about. Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, 110 South Street, Morristown; 973-644-3180Click here to leave a comment