The historic Bernards Inn is no stranger to Brian Fuller, who has been cooking throughout New Jersey for the past 17 years. After working as a sous chef at the Bernards Inn for three years, Fuller was named executive chef in February, just in time for a global pandemic.
Despite the struggles the restaurant industry has endured this year, Fuller and his staff are continuing to move forward—and that includes making some big changes to the Inn’s structure, menu and overall atmosphere. With new bar-friendly plates and a vibrant staff, Fuller hopes to attract a younger crowd to what had previously been deemed a fine-dining restaurant.
“My whole philosophy here has just been good food,” says Fuller. “We’re starting slowly to put ourselves out there to try to get in touch with those younger crowds, to get some of them coming in.”
We caught up with chef Fuller to ask about his restaurant experience, plans to revamp the Inn’s kitchen, and the changes he’ll be making to the menu.
Table Hopping: So you’ve been cooking for quite a while, what does your food experience look like?
Brian Fuller: I went to the French Culinary Institute when I was 19. It was a six month program. After that, I worked at the Pleasantdale Chateau for four to five years, then was fortunate to team up with a chef who had restaurants in Madison. I also spent some time at the Park Avenue Club in Florham Park, as well as a private catering company called David Ellis, before the Bernards Inn was wanting a sous chef at the time. I started as executive chef in February right before the world kind of ended.
TH: What was it like starting in February and not returning for months?
BF: There was definitely a little pushback with a small prix fixe we did in the very beginning just to turn the lights back on. A lot of people don’t understand that restaurants are operating at a very small capacity. So to bring those high ticket items back, to bring duck breast and very expensive steaks back, there is a huge risk involved for all of us. A lot of us in this industry at the end of the day still have to try to attempt to turn a profit.
TH: How has the ongoing pandemic thrown fine dining on its head?
BF: Daniel Boulud said it best the other day—fine dining might be done, fine eating is what people are after. We had a great conversation with the ownership here and talked about changing the logo, lobby, uniforms. We’re just trying to get away from the stuffiness of a suit and tie because it’s just not what today’s world would define as going out to dinner. It’s about the food and the atmosphere.
TH: In what ways are you working to change that atmosphere?
BF: I have a great team of sous chefs who all bring something different to the table. We haven’t had beer taps here in forever, so we’re finally getting those installed. We’re going to be updating our website so that we’re more accommodating. Nobody really wants to pick up the phone anymore. They want to be able to do it online.
The next step is social media. It’s a big part these days. We’re a little behind on that but one of my sous chefs is great at it and that’s kind of his wheelhouse. We just need people to understand it’s gonna be a little different. And I think for the most part, people are starting to get that.
TH: Tell me more about your plans for new beer taps.
BF: We have a very old bar but it’s always been a cocktail bar. It wasn’t a place you go to watch the game but now we have a newer TV and we’re gonna get a couple beer taps in. Just if anything to support the local Jersey beers that we have in the state and be able to do some events with them. We’re also very lucky to have a small wine vault space downstairs that currently sits 40 to 50 people that we want to do a lot of stuff with.
TH: What does the millennial customer look like versus the boomer customer?
BF: Well, that’s been the big paradigm shift here. We’ve had an older crowd that doesn’t want cell phones in the dining room and wants a jacket. When you ask around town, people have been not afraid of it, but they think they can’t afford it. Things like changing the music and buying new plates have helped us tremendously to get some of these younger people in.
TH: What kind of changes are you making to the menus?
BF: We’re starting slow, but we’re adding more bar-friendly things, more snacks and more small plates. I will still have the high hitters, like we will always have duck breast on. We’re gonna start making some charcuterie, housemade bar nuts, pretzels, fried pickles, and things like that, where people might want to stop by and just have a drink on the patio and get something to eat before they head home. And we are rolling out our new fall menu.
TH: What kind of things will be on the fall menu?
BF: We have a great connection with Flying Duck Farms, a personal farm that we get access to. So beyond lettuces, and herbs and things that we can usually get from them, a whole bounty of apples are starting to come in. We’re going to have an Autumn Wedge Salad on the menu, we have a Duroc Pork Belly that we’re going to be using the house made cider to make a glaze, as well as pickling some apples to go on that.
TH: Are you leaving some of the Bernards Inn classics untouched or you’re completely revamping?
BF: Actually, they’re not going to be thrilled, but we have done lobster bisque forever here. That is something I’m going to be taking off. It doesn’t mean it won’t resurface or it might come back in a different way, but that’s old standards, like a shrimp cocktail and things like that. I’m not opposed to them, but it’s taking up space on the menu right now. It’s also a sign that we’re trying to tell everybody, you know, we have changed and are going a different direction here.
TH: What is your one main goal that you hope to accomplish as executive chef at the Bernards Inn?
BF: I want people to think of us synonymous with good food and a good time. I just want people to feel comfortable trying anything that’s on the menu, because they just know it’s good food.
If people are saying “It’s Friday night, we’re going to the Bernards Inn, no matter what we’re going to have a good time,” then I think I have a win there. I want my staff to grow too, that’s a big part of it. I want to empower them as much as possible. So if I can make them confident and stronger, and I know the food is going out well, I’m a happy guy.
The Bernards Inn is located at 27 Mine Brook Road in Bernardsville. Open daily for dinner and drinks from 5pm-9pm. Check out their new Fall inspired menu that launched October 15. For more information, call 908-766-0002.Click here to leave a comment