Last year, The Park at Berkeley Heights, a 185-acre work-life campus, gained three prominent additions to its culinary team. Formerly known as Connell Corporate Park, the campus hosts offices for L’Oreal, Celgene and Samsung, as well as an Embassy Suites Hotel, a fitness center, outdoor walking trails and more.
The Park welcomed corporate executive chef Brian Bistrong, director of pastry and baking Ashley Davis, and Louis Bayla, the executive chef at Grain & Cane, The Park’s on-site premier restaurant.
For Bayla, the most important aspect of Grain & Cane is its seasonal menu, crafted with as many local delicacies as possible. Earlier in his career, when he worked in New York, he was no stranger to New Jersey.
“All the vendors selling products to restaurants in New York are from New Jersey, and that never really gets showcased,” he says. “The truth is, I’d rather work closer to all of the great produce and products here. New Jersey has so much to offer. That’s something we want to showcase.”
Tell me about your background.
Louis Bayla: Most of my experience has been in New York City. I worked under some amazing chefs, like Michael Anthony from Gramercy Tavern and Andrew Carmellini with Locanda Verde. For 14 years I was in New York City, and now I’ve come back to New Jersey to work on this great project at The Park.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve always loved cooking. When I was in college, trying to figure it out, my parents said, “You love to cook. It’s a hobby; why don’t you try it out for real?” When I got into the kitchen, it just clicked. I love the pressure, and I love learning something new.
What are your food predilections?
When I first went to New York, I worked at a French restaurant. I got my base in learning that food. When I went to Gramercy Tavern, as well as working for Tom Colicchio in New York, it taught me sourcing, working with farmers and showcasing what’s in season. Showcasing, and not messing with it, is the best cooking: like a beautiful heirloom tomato in the middle of summer. I also really fell in love with making fresh pastas and dough when working with Andrew Carmellini.
What drew you to Grain & Cane, and how is it different from past roles?
The restaurant has an amazing vibe with an urban feel to it. The food has always been really strong, and was led by chef Brian Bistrong, who is the culinary director for The Park. When I met him, we pretty much had the same language in the sense of wanting to constantly improve and bring our New York City experience and dynamic into the restaurant. New Jersey has the best produce in the area, and I’d rather work closer to all the best ingredients and try to showcase them.
What changes did you make to the menu?
The food here has always been good, but I always want to push a little bit more. I’m very aggressive in changing things seasonally. Not just that, but changing things based on what inspires me, or the cooks, or sous chefs. We make our pastas and pizza dough fresh every morning. We want to make everything in-house and be as seasonal as possible. There was one point where I wanted to make a bottle of our own hot sauce, and that’s what we did. We get all the peppers from the local farm and make our own.
What’s it like being part of The Park and the Berkeley Heights community?
It’s definitely different for me. I’m used to New York, where it’s busy and always constantly moving. It’s nice to have this beautiful space and see a lot of projects come to fruition. Chef Brian, and our pastry chef, Ashley Davis, we are all from New York, and we are bringing our New York experience to this suburban environment. We are trying to give the people of Berkeley Heights a place where they don’t have to commute to have an amazing restaurant experience.
Do you have any favorite dishes on the menu?
That’s a tough one. All of it is something we work so hard on; it’s like choosing a favorite kid. One of the items we have on the menu right now is a butternut squash agnolotti with a pumpkin seed pesto. That’s an example of my experience showcasing what’s in season. We get our ingredients as locally sourced as possible, and people love it.
What are you looking forward to in the new year?
One thing is cultivating teamwork. I’ve always tried to get my team involved with coming up with ideas, how to improve and how to be more hyper-seasonal. I try to get everyone involved in creating the menu, and we will all be part of critiquing a dish and giving constructive criticism. I’m looking forward to seeing the team grow, especially with all the projects coming up at The Park.