Chef Chat: Valentina Fortuna of the Constellation Collective

The Garden State Culinary Arts Awards's 2018 Rising Star Chef gives us the scoop on her latest venture in Collingswood.

Valentina Fortuna grew up in Haddon Heights, a suburban town just a few minutes from the community she has helped to make a food mecca: Collingswood.

On Sunday night, shortly after Fortuna was crowned 2018 Rising Star Chef by the Garden State Culinary Arts Awards, a group of well-traveled culinarians attending the ceremony at Bell Works in Holmdel talked about spending a weekend in Collingswood. They wanted to visit the Rising Star’s Constellation Collective, the GSCAA’s 2018 Outstanding New Restaurant Hearthside and the hot spots home to the other Collingswood awards finalists and nominees.

Fortuna, who recently turned 31, is an integral part of the culinary community making Southwestern New Jersey a dining destination. Factor in the burgeoning beverage scene—with William Heritage Winery, Mullica Hill, nabbing the 2018 Outstanding Wine Professional Award, and a pair of talents from The Farm & the Fisherman, Cherry Hill, named awards finalists (Danny Childs in Spirits Professional and Jess Gaspero in Pastry Chef/Baker)—and you can see why scene-seekers are heading to that neck of New Jersey.

Fortuna in 2015 founded Constellation Collective, a bakery and cafe that serves morning foods, lunch and weekend brunch in seasonally dictated fashion, with partners Maura Rosato and Lindsay Ferguson. Ferguson later became a full-time mother, and the bakery-cafe today is run by Fortuna and Rosato. The name? After much brainstorming, hard work at area farmers’ markets selling their handmade goods (Fortuna: pastries and baked foodstuffs; Rosato: all things pickled and preserved), pop-ups and part-time jobs, they decided “it was written in the stars for us to be together.”

Thinking first they’d do a commissary kitchen in the old Factory Building in town, but buoyed by a kitchen-warming party that attracted more than 400 people and kickstarted their business, the storefront at 685 Haddon Avenue opened up. More kismet. Fast forward three years, and there’s a constant waiting line to get into Constellation Collective and plans for expansion in the offing. Valentina Fortuna catches us up on how she got here, what’s happening now and what will be happening soon.

Table Hopping: You and Constellation Collective are real stars! How did this happen?

Valentina Fortuna: Growing up, I thought I had to live in the city. Had to. Not the ‘burbs. I went through that and came back to my roots. I became part of the culinary community, starting in Moorestown. I worked for Christine McHale at The Pie Lady Cafe. She taught me so much. She taught me how to be someone’s boss. We’d talk for hours, across the prep tables, making pies and quiches. She taught me about pastry and life.

After stints in Philly, at places small (Cafe Loftus) and huge (Urban Outfitters’ corporate kitchens) and multi-functional (Terrain), she returned to her food family in South Jersey.

TH: How did you get back into the South Jersey groove?

VF: In 2013, I met Doug Kelly, who does the Westmont Farmers’ Market. He’s such a great influence, so helpful; he brings a social aspect to the town, doing a beer garden, bringing in a musical festival, creating event spaces. I started selling my food at his market, mostly desserts, and then I hit the pavement. I’d sell wholesale to restaurants and coffee shops. I took a part-time job at The Farm & the Fisherman, which is such a good restaurant and has created such a great community, too. I met Maura (Rosato) there; she’d been a customer of mine at the Westmont market.

TH: So that’s when the brainstorming started? What is Constellation Collective about today?

VF: We have signature items, a small breakfast and lunch menu, brunch on the weekends. But it’s not a set menu—it’s about what’s fresh; we do seasonally dictated pastries. We’re doing a rhubarb-apple pie now, a shoofly pie. One of our staples is our salted honey pie. Now we’re waiting for the fresh spring ingredients. They’ll be in everything we do—scones, pies, pastries, all our baked goods and menu items. Our grower is D&V Organic Farm in Swedesboro. A husband-and-wife farm. Our farmers are Vicki and Derek Zember.

TH: There’s a wait all the time to get into Constellation Collective, right?

VF: It’s crowded. We’ve got a counter where you order, some small tables, a large communal table. It’s a small dining room right now.

TH: Can you expand?

VF: The place next door has become available. It would give us 40 to 50 seats. We have dreams about doing pop-up dinners, which would allow us to let loose creatively. Maybe focus on a vegetable theme, something in season, for a dinner.

TH: Anything else in store?

VF: This weekend, Saturday, May 5, the Collingswood Farmers’ Market reopens for the season and we’re doing a full-service cafe there. It’ll be every Saturday, from 8 am till noon—sandwiches, frittatas, yogurt bowls, pastries, bagels. (The Collingswood Farmers’ Market is located between Collings and Irving avenues, astride the “Speedline”—the commuter rail line to Philly.)

TH: That’s quite a plateful. You sound like you’ve become what your mentors were.

VF: It’s all a learning process for me. We’ve got six—no, seven—young women working at Constellation Collective now, and I love working with them. It’s not just teaching them the process of a recipe. It’s hard to see myself talking and talking—and they’re all ears, with pen and paper, taking it down. It’s so cool. I’m so happy!

Constellation Collective, 685 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm. 856-240-7787; theconstellationcollective.com.

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