‘The Plate Is Your Canvas’: New Chef Gets Creative at Cree Wine Company

Kadon Barnwell, executive chef at the Hampton restaurant since June, is energized by the chance to tell stories through tapas-style pairings.

Kadon Barnwell took over the kitchen at Cree Wine Company in early June. Photo courtesy of Cree Wine Company

Kadon Barnwell believes there are many dimensions to wine—and as the new executive chef at Hampton’s Cree Wine Company, he’s setting out to prove it.

Whites generally pair well with crudos and fresh fish, while reds typically complement poultry and red meat. But Barnwell wants to “create things people aren’t expecting.”

Prior to joining the Cree staff—he took over for AJ Sankofa, who runs ESO Artisanal Pasta in Morristown, in early June—Barnwell worked at the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster for four years, serving as chef de cuisine during his final year there.

Heading into fall, Barnwell is getting ready to adjust his seasonal menu. Company owner Chris Cree, who happens to be the only certified Master of Wine in New Jersey, works with Barnwell to pair a tapas-style menu with the 100+ available wines.

“The plate is your canvas,” Barnwell says. “You have to show the art skills you have.”

What changes did you make when you started at Cree Wine?
Kadon Barnwell: I looked at what was working and what needed improvement. There’s only a handful of things on the menu I changed. We do tapas-style wine pairings and small plates, so we’re just trying to emphasize that a little more. Keeping things seasonal and rotating, too. We’re trying to make an identity for Cree Wine Company.

What’s the difference between preparing a restaurant menu and preparing one for wine pairings?
At Pluckemin Inn, there were a lot of composed dishes that included a protein, a starch, a veg and sauces. I still develop dishes that way at Cree Wine Company, but they aren’t as intricate. It’s a bit quicker since they are small plates that everyone is likely sharing.

Did you know Chris prior to working with him at Cree Wine?
Yes. I didn’t work with him as closely as I do now. Chris was the Master of Wine at Pluckemin Inn while I was there. He was at the front of the house handling all the wine. He is really such a master sommelier at that!

What dishes are currently on Cree Wine Company’s menu?
One of my favorites right now is roasted baby carrots with tahini, dukkah spice and a little bit of honey. It has that Middle Eastern flair. It goes well with a Red Car chardonnay that Chris pairs with it. It’s a plant-based dish—I’m trying to add more plant-based items to the menu.

What ingredients are you looking forward to this fall?
I want to take advantage of a lot of the spices people love in the fall. I want to braise more things, too. I feel like once you’re all cozy and drinking some red wine, you’ll want a dish that’s a bit richer. One is a braised short rib with palm aligo (potato purée with cheese), cipollini onions, tomato confit and a demi-glace.

Do you and Chris craft the menu together, pairing dishes with wine?
Absolutely. We take turns. Sometimes, with wine dinners, it’s food-driven—the wine will be paired after the food is established. Sometimes we take a list of wines and see how we can build a meal around them.

What do you hope to bring to Cree Wine Company?
I’m really excited to learn. Being a chef is understanding that you’re here to serve, but you also want to tell a story with your plates. I want to stay humble because I am very lucky to be in the position that I’m in. I just want to keep at it!

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