The Untouchables

Chefs thrive on creativity, but certain dishes become so popular chefs risk revolt if they alter them or take them off the menu.

Illustration by Chris Gash.

Does a violinist play the same tune every day? Does a lawyer write the same brief? Then why should we demand that our favorite chefs cook the same dish for us, month after month, year after year, like they’re merely working an assembly line? Put yourself in chef David Burke’s clogs.

The 49-year-old chef/owner of David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson remembers serving the Fromagerie’s famous onion soup when he worked there as far back as his high school years. (He bought the business five years ago.)

Three years ago, he finally summoned the courage to take the onion soup off the menu. “It’s a little old-fashioned,” he says. “It’s not exciting for a chef to make.” He was taking a risk, since he was selling 10 to 25 bowls a night at $12 each. Then his customers weighed in. “They said, ‘What the hell happened to the onion soup?’” Burke recalls. “I think there were people outside with picket signs.” Within a week, the onion soup was back on the menu.

Some diners bring adventurous palates to the table, but many (and you know who you are) insist on the tried and true. At Lorena’s in Maplewood, the must-have dish is braised shortribs. “I tried taking that off one night,” says chef and co-owner Humberto Campos Jr. “They were up in arms.”

Carmen Rone, chef/owner of Tomatoe’s in Margate, almost rues the day 30 years ago when he came up with one of his most popular dishes, crispy duck with blueberry glaze. It’s been on the menu of all four restaurants he’s owned over the years on Absecon Island. “It’s like McDonald’s—one billion sold,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. I tried twice to take it off the menu, and I had to put it back on.”

Chef Adele DiBiase of Bona Vita Osteria in Summit loves the coconut cream pie she makes from her grandmother Delia Tucci’s recipe, and so do her regular customers. She uses mascarpone cheese, an all-butter crust and raw shredded coconut. But enough already. “I change the dessert menu every week, but I can’t take the coconut cream pie off,” she says. “When you make something every day for 10 years, you kinda get bored of it. I don’t like to get in a rut.”

Ryan DePersio, chef and co-owner of Fascino in Montclair and Bar Cara in Bloomfield, feels the same way about his cornmeal-crusted calamari appetizer with tomato-fennel compote. He dreams of substituting a grilled calamari stuffed with swiss chard and barley, but he dare not. “It’s calamari with tomato sauce. It’s not creative,” he says. “But it sells like wildfire.”

At the Light Horse Tavern in Jersey City, executive chef Ian Kapitan says any attempt to take the Tavern green salad with pears, blue cheese and candied walnuts off the menu would trigger an insurrection. It pains him, because he likes to use local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible, and in winter and spring the pears must be imported from South America or Mexico. “We sell 50 of the salads every night,” he says. “It’s like the Rolling Stones having to play ‘Brown Sugar’ for 20 years.”

Sometimes seasonality is the only thing that gives a chef a break. Although Will Mooney, chef/owner of the Brothers Moon in Hopewell, has given up banishing the long-running caramelized onion and goat cheese tart and Mediterranean appetizer platter, he will not budge on the roasted kabocha squash soup. No matter how many times people ask for it on a summer day, he can’t cave even if he wants to: Kabocha squash is, mercifully, only available during the cold months. “We tell them they have to wait,” he says. 

In the 13-year history of Andre’s in Newton, crème brûlée is the only dish that’s never come off the menu. It’s not as if chef/owner Andre DeWaal hasn’t tried. Then last year, on a whim, DeWaal entered a photo contest sponsored by Zagat. He asked a photographer friend to shoot a main dish for him, but when the time came, DeWaal was too busy to make the dish. So he grabbed a crème brûlée and stuck it in front of the camera. It won the prize—a trip for two to Las Vegas.

“Now every time I make the crème brûlée,” he says, “I smile.”

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