Last spring, Aishling Stevens was promoted to succeed Anthony Bucco as executive chef of the Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County. This makes her the first female chef to oversee the multiple culinary operations of the state’s leading resort.
These include weddings and other catered events, the Springs Bistro, the outdoor Chef’s Garden, the Crystal Tavern (which Stevens calls “the hub of the resort”) and the crown jewel, Restaurant Latour, recently inducted into Wine Enthusiast’s Hall of Fame and a perennial on New Jersey Monthly’s Best Restaurants list.
We caught up with Stevens, 39, during a typically busy day.
Table Hopping: You cooked in Australia for 11 years. How did you end up at a major golf resort in New Jersey?
Aishling Stevens: When I came back to the U.S., I had no scope on the New Jersey food scene. I was lucky enough to be embraced by [former Ryland Inn icon and New Jersey’s first James Beard Award winner] Craig Shelton. He toured me around local farms and restaurants, introducing me to some of New Jersey’s top players.
TH: What’s an average day like for you?
AS: On a property this large, it’s never the same. I take an average of 18,000 steps daily! I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m in Latour for evening service, but the rest of my days are spent planning, teaching, meeting, testing and tasting. Knowing how much time to dedicate to particular outlets was a learning experience. A lot of things pull me from the kitchen, but they’re necessary. In an environment like Crystal Springs, it takes a lot more than a cook in front of a cutting board to make thoughtful and delicious food, and I’m up for that challenge.
TH: Do you feel pressure?
AS: I do feel pressure, but it is one I put on myself to keep pushing forward with new and interesting dishes and flavors. The format of the [tasting] menu in Latour has changed. In the past, courses were separated into fish, meat, vegetarian, etc. The offerings now read “light to heavy” and include all varieties [vegetables, meat, seafood].
TH: What’s your philosophy of food?
AS: Food to me was never just there to be eaten. There was always reasoning behind it. Growing up, I was taught to relate food to how I feel. When I got sick I didn’t take traditional medicine—I ate or didn’t eat specific things. This has made me a conscious eater and therefore a conscious chef.
I am working with all my cooks to think about everything that is on the plate and be thoughtful of how you are plating, what fits on a fork, how the patron will eat it, and how garnishes should be considered both [for] flavor and visually.
TH: Latour has been working with local farms and also with foragers. Will that continue?
AS: I’m continuing those kinds of relationships within Restaurant Latour. My chef de cuisine, Matt Laurich, is foraging with two expert foragers from Armstrong Farm. My bread baker, Emily Down, is getting fresh water from Stokes National Forest Springs and locally milled flour from Farmer Ground Flour. I’m getting cheese from a lovely woman named Jesse at Meadowburn Farm, where her and her family are doing everything from raising cows to making cheese. I’m working with a family farm in Upstate New York [to source] Silkie chickens, a rare breed. It’s these types of relationships that get you excited in a kitchen.
TH: Speaking of excited, what can we expect this fall?
AS: I look forward to all the season changes now that I am back in the U.S. You can expect to see a game meat, warmer spices, organic grains. I love cooking with the seasons and this not only means what ingredients are seasonal, but what peoples’ bodies tend to crave in the cooler months to feel satisfied.
Crystal Springs Resort, 1 Wild Turkey Way, Hamburg; 866-348-0958