Ashley Cutler talks quickly and intensely (in a good way). It’s a fair guess she cooks that way, too. The 28-year-old executive chef just moved from Taphouse 15 in Jefferson to Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph. And while that’s just about a 15-minute drive, the move is bigger for Cutler, placing her (enviably) at the helm of what she calls a “blank slate” kitchen. We caught up with Cutler, who’s two months into the gig, to talk about her first menu for the restaurant, what we should expect, and what it means to rebuild trust with a new set of diners.
Table Hopping: You’re only 28 but very focused. When did you start cooking?
Ashley Cutler: Around 6 or 7. My great-grandmother cooked for the entire family. She taught me. I always knew I wanted to be a chef. Some kids draw pictures of being a firefighter. I drew pictures of me being a chef.
TH: Did you go to culinary school?
AC: I went to the Institute of Culinary Education [in Manhattan]. I worked three jobs, around the clock, it was madness! After that I wanted to intern. I took advantage and worked in maybe 20 restaurants in New York City. [Tom Colicchio’s] Craft was probably my favorite.
TH: How would you describe your style?
AC: I have a “collective” style. It’s versatile, a little bit of everything, any culture. I like a lot of West African culture, Creole food, Hispanic foods. I’m half Puerto Rican so I’m all about Spanish food, too. My current favorite chef right now, I worked for her for a short period of time, is Leia Gaccione of South + Pine. I use her for a lot of my inspiration, actually. My style is whatever is new and exciting, trends, I try to incorporate that into what we do daily… My favorite thing to cook is something I know nothing about.
TH: You were at Taphouse 15 for two years. Why the change now?
AC: Taphouse definitely gave me a lot of exposure, but I was looking for something a little more personal to my style. At Morris Tap & Grill, they have a very, very blank slate but they were [also] an established business. That’s a great chance to expose myself to the media and have a strong chef-customer relationship. And I could do the food on my terms.
TH: What does that mean in a new kitchen, with a new team?
AC: At Taphouse, I had 14 people underneath me. Right now at Morris Tap & Grill we’re rocking with nine. It’s now all about trust—developing personal relationships with your staff, counting on them to really give a crap about what’s going on.
TH: What about diners? Is it hard to earn credibility from a new audience, especially in the wake of another team or chef?
AC: I don’t know what went on in the past. I really don’t care. I’m here to show [diners] that those days are over. We’re the new sheriffs in town! We need to draw a new crowd in. We need trust. They lost their trust [for us] a while ago. We need to change peoples’ minds.
TH: Are you more comfortable at the helm of a kitchen this time around?
AC: It’s second nature now. I walked into a very, very small crew. I brought my sous chef with me—Jhonathan Taborda. He’s like my rock. He holds down the fort. And I have some young chefs who just graduated culinary school whom I’ve known for many years, they’re under me as well. And my team is collaborating with the team they had…
TH: Both Taphouse 15 and Morris Tap and Grill are beer-forward restaurants. As a chef, are you especially interested in beer?
AC: I love beer, actually. I really didn’t know much about beer until Taphouse. I was an old school Yuengling person. Taphouse gave me really, really cool exposure into craft beer. We’re looking into beer dinners now. Obviously, we do beer mussels. We’re working on a chocolate stout ice cream float popsicle with Andre Culley—he’s my pastry chef.
TH: What should diners expect in terms of seasonality and purveyors?
AC: We’ll do four solid seasonal menus a year. I want to do monthly specials, burgers of the month, local seafood of the month, a local veggie I can turn into an entrée for a vegan. As for purveyors, I’m in the middle of working a deal with Fossil Farms. We’ll do local Purple Haze goat cheese from Perona Farms. Zone 7 is a really good purveyor for me. We have a produce company called Brubella, they grow a lot of specialty stuff—all kinds of weird things, purple cabbage, ramps, trendy produce items, too. The mushrooms are out of this world. For fish I use Bay Treasure. Most everything I get is local, aside from the salmon, which is Scottish. But all the clams and mussels I use are caught on the New Jersey coastline.
TH: Okay, so it’s almost summer. What can we look forward to immediately?
AC: My summer menu’s going to be a nice chance to work with local farms. Stone fruit’s my absolute favorite. We’ll do stuff like Grilled Peach with Lobster Gnocchi. Really cool stuff. I don’t want to spoil it. I feel like a kid at Christmas!