The Year of Living in Limbo

Used to grueling, 14-hour days, the chefs of Elements suddenly had time to hike and dream as the new (and very different) Elements was being built. But chefs can take only so much relaxing.

The core staff of the new Elements.
The core staff of the new Elements stand in what will be a glass enclosed part of the dining room, overlooking Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton. From left, chef/co-owner Scott Anderson, co-owner Stephen Distler, chef de cuisine Mike Ryan and general manager Fia Berisha.
Photo by Eric Levin

One irony of being a chef is that you don’t get to eat out a lot. You’re too busy—and Monday, the day you’re most likely closed, is also the day most restaurants you’d like to try are closed.

So when Elements—the NJM Top 25 restaurant on the outskirts of Princeton—closed on June 28 last year to prepare for its move to new quarters downtown, executive chef Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan, his longtime chef de cuisine, suddenly seemed free to dine wherever, whenever. Wish-fulfillment time!

Except for one thing: All the equipment in Elements’ big, state-of-the-art kitchen had to be dismantled and put in storage while massive alterations were made to the building it would share with its sister restaurant, Mistral, already operating on the ground floor of that location on the corner of Witherspoon and Hulfish streets.

“Scott and I took a lot of the kitchen apart by hand,” says Ryan, “because it would have cost thousands otherwise. We had friends come with their trucks and help. For the really big stuff, we hired a moving company. Basically, until September 1, we were working every day to tear apart that kitchen. Then it was like, We have nothing to do now. For the first month, it was fantastic. Then it was, We have to get back to work. Except there was no place to work.”

Chefs are a little like athletes. “When you suddenly come to a halt,” says Anderson, “your body doesn’t know how to respond. You can’t just automatically relax.” Ryan flew to Seattle “for their mushroom season,” then to Vancouver, then to Austin, where he met Anderson to stand in line with all the other pilgrims to eat at the famous Franklin Barbecue. Anderson later went camping and canoeing with his wife in the Adirondacks.

While the two chefs and their top two cooks remained on the Elements payroll, other staffers went to work at Mistral, which was instantly able to use the liquor license Elements brought to the building from its old location. Even beyond that advantage, the relocation was driven “by pure economics,” as Anderson puts it. “Lower overhead; one building instead of two; fewer employees, but working together better.”

Mistral gains a large bar area for the legerdemain of mixologist Jamie Dodge, who will also create cocktails for Elements, which will occupy the second floor. The new Elements will have 28 seats instead of 85; a choice of four-course menu or larger tasting menus; an open kitchen visible to all tables; and dishes brought to the table not by servers, but by the cooks.

“No matter how good the front-of-house staff,” Anderson says, “it doesn’t affect the diner as positively as when you have a cook actually describing a dish.”

The new Elements will offer a 4-course tasting menu, then on weekends “smaller and larger menus.” Anderson says. “Whatever the chef’s tasting of the day might be—five, nine, 12 courses.” In addition to wine pairings, other kinds of beverage pairings will be offered with each course, including beers, low-alcohol cocktails and non-alcoholic infusions, juices and sodas.

A potential flashpoint: All tables, regardless of number of diners, will be assessed a 20 percent “service charge” in lieu of tipping. “Legally speaking, that’s how we are able to have the chefs participate in some of the money that comes out of the service charge,” says co-owner Stephen Distler, the team’s business brain. “It’s a trend across the country, though it’s not really here in a big way yet.

“I’m not excited about taking away the element of discretion from the diners,” Distler adds. “Certainly you can leave a tip above 20 percent, but we’re not encouraging customers to do that or trying to trick them into doing that.”

Distler has had a trying year himself. “Making major alterations to an existing building is a very complex process,” he says. “If we could have built from scratch, this might have gone faster; it definitely would have been cheaper.”

Surprisingly, neither chef longed to eat at, let alone do a volunteer kitchen stint, or stage, at influential restaurants. Early in their careers, ambitious chefs often take every opportunity to learn by staging, but Anderson, 40, and Ryan, 35, are well beyond that.

“We realized,” says Anderson, “we didn’t necessarily want to be influenced by what other chefs are doing. And if you stage, it’s inevitable. We want to be influenced by each other and by the ingredients around us.” They had long since sworn off looking at restaurant websites and feasting their eyes on food pictures. “It gets into your brain, it comes out in your food,” he explains.

They did read books, especially those by or about restaurants. “The most important thing is not the techniques or the platings but the stories of the restaurants,” says Ryan. “Restaurants are alive. You see how they evolve when you read their book. A good restaurant starts one way and then evolves. It doesn’t stays the same for years on end.”

Even though it has been closed a year, Elements has been gestating in the minds of its creators. “As I get older,” says Anderson, “I find myself enjoying simpler and more pristine preparations, really paying respect to the ingredient. I honestly think it’s how a chef’s career goes. It’s not necessarily an intentional thing, but from line cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine they go through a phase of wanting to do things more complex, then they relax a little bit.”

“The complexity of our food now,” comments Ryan, “is in using fewer ingredients but bringing out the complexity of their flavors.” Like many forward-thinking chefs these days, Ryan and Anderson have gotten deep into age-old techniques like pickling, curing and fermentation.

Elements was to reopen in January, so the chefs dreamed up winter dishes. Delays pushed the opening to Valentine’s Day, then to spring. The chefs finally gave up on menus. They foraged in autumn, then the long, cold winter shut them in, cutting them off from farms, streams and forests. “The outdoors is really where we find our inspiration,” Anderson says.

Ryan concurs: “We go out and find ingredients and curate the dishes from that.”

“We are not center-of-the-plate protein thinkers,” Anderson explains. “We’re more vegetable, then sauce, then what protein will go best with that. So we kind of work backwards.”

As winter dragged on, the cold unrelenting, the two chefs suffered a kind of whiteout. No thoughts of food at all.

Anderson rallied by baking bread at home. “I made things I never made before,” he says, a touch of wonder in his voice. “I made a lasagna—from scratch. To have a one-dish meal is kind of cool.”

At deadline, Elements expected to reopen just after Fourth of July. “For most chefs, two weeks is about the most you can relax, then you start getting antsy,” Anderson says. “Now I’ve been antsy for like eight months.”

In that new kitchen, the fireworks will be of the heart.

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