Stage Left was packed. This past Monday night, May 15, Anastasia Mancini of Buccia Nera in Tuscany, was in the house pouring her lovable, affordable wines.
There are two entrees on the special menu for the night: Stage Left’s burger and its crab cake. There was zabaglione for dessert.
Happiness was everywhere.
Including on the faces of Francis Schott and Mark Pascal, the two Rutgers grads who opened the restaurant in 1992 with a dream and determination. They are working every table, as they have done for 25 years, watching folks down the iconic 11-ounce burger, served with thick-cut steak fries and both chipotle-spiced mayo and ketchup. The crab cake benefits from this same combo, its “dressing,” so to speak, is already mixed into the crabmeat. Pascal and Schott’s co-owner, Lou Riveiro, is in the house, a broad smile on his face.
This was the kickoff celebration of Stage Left’s 25th anniversary. Starting the party, which will continue through the month, with easygoing foods and wines seems appropriate for the hands-on duo, who revere their basics as much as they take pride in their myriad innovations. They are also proud of their communications skills, which have served to educate and enlighten thousands of regular diners and impress the national culinary cognoscenti. From their ground-breaking cocktail program, dating back to late 1992-early 1993, to their ability to spot the most talented of up-and-coming winemakers, chefs and front-of-the-house personnel, the two guys from Rutgers never stepped back from the challenges of leadership.
No one can tell their story better than them. So I asked asked questions—and then let Mark Pascal and Francis Schott go at the answers. Sometimes they combined for an answer, sometimes one of them took the floor. That’s the way it often is in a real-deal partnership.
Q: Stage Left has inspired and ignited the careers of many a chef. Who are three summa cum laude graduates of Stage Left and where are they now?
A: (FS) Anthony Bucco; Crystal Springs. Marc Farro; Uproot and INC. Ryan DePersio never worked for us, but he is a peer and a friend. He told me a story once about how Stage Left influenced his career and helped him decide to become a chef. He had come in to dinner with his parents and Francis was on the floor. We have always thought Ryan a great guy and an EXCELLENT chef, but didn’t know of this story until he told me one night when Francis was sitting in his restaurant Battello. We love that guy.
How about a wine graduate—Jon Ross? Was sommelier at 11 Madison Park (No. 1 restaurant in the world); just recently left to go to Australia and make wine. He has passed all but the last section of the Master Sommelier exam.
Q: You two are the “benevolent dons” of what I call the “New Brunswick Culinary Mafia,” that is—the people who believed in New Brunswick, invested in New Brunswick, educated and led the Rutgers/New Brunswick fledgling food community, and sustained that community during lean times. Much like Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch did in Berkeley in the 1970s. What motivated you to choose New Brunswick—and to feed the community in literal and figurative ways?
A: (MP) We came to Rutgers here and both worked in the town. Francis started bartending at the 3-year-old Frog and The Peach and really got to know people in the town—and became part of the community. The Crossroads Theater was still in the King Block building and patrons sat on folding chairs; they were producing some of the most exciting theater in the country. George Street Playhouse was also doing great work. There was a real independent music scene around The Melody and The Court Tavern. There were long-standing residents and a lot of artists and musicians in town. The train station to New York was a great [asset] as well. There were and are a lot of interesting people in the town and a real sense of community.
There were a lot of people fighting for the community and investing in it. Francis was originally from Orange, and his family had moved out to flee the increasing crime and urban malaise. The community Francis grew up in had crumbled. Folks in New Brunswick were fighting to keep the same from happening here. We had to join the fight. It’s our town!
Q: In the beginning, what was your greatest challenge at Stage Left?
A: Being young and stupid! Eager? Yes. Hard-working? Yes. Idealistic? Yes. Ignorant about what this business entails? Very. Fortunately, a lot of people were very kind to us. We did make great food, [and serve] wine and cocktails. We did offer a great and fun level of hospitality. We were a vibrant part of this community. How to make that sustainable from a monetary perspective took a bit longer.
Q: And today, 25 years later, what is your greatest challenge?
A: See answer to question 3. [LOL] Actually, we’ve gotten much better at making business decisions, but the margins in this business are about half what they were in 1992. By this business, I don’t mean our business, I mean The restaurant business. It’s tougher than ever, especially stand-alone, independent and mom-and-pop restaurants. We are always looking to offer the best in quality and authenticity, it just isn’t what we want to do to offer second-best, the difference in cost between best and second best is pretty significant, and, to be honest, some people don’t know the difference. We could serve food that looks like our food and is almost as good, for a lot less. But that would not get us out of bed every day—just not interested in doing that.
Q: You’ve kept pace with changing times and evolving tastes. In fact, you’ve often led the way. What do you see as the most important mark you’ve made on the industry in the last 25 years?
A: I don’t know that we can take sole credit for any specific thing. We were first in a LOT of things over the years, but if we hadn’t done these things, would others eventually have? Probably. (By) May of 1992, Betsy Alger at The Frog had done some great work and I learned a lot from her. She was sourcing interesting ingredients and was paying attention to seasonality. This was all new. She made us aware of Alice Waters in California and Ann Rozenzweig (Arcadia and The Lobster Club) in NYC.
I think we took it a step further. The Greenmarket system was not as robust then as it has become. We used to drive in to the Greenmarket at Union Square twice a week to source produce. Some of the farms we were buying from were closer to us than Union Square, but Union Square put them all in one place. Union Square Cafe was there and Gramercy Tavern had not even opened yet. I met Peter Hoffman (who became a friend), who had just opened Savoy Restaurant a few years before. He was an influence on us. I think he was on the board of the Greenmarket and he had this bicycle tricked out with large baskets on the front and side. He would ride it up to the market and back to the restaurant. It had a sign that read “Eat this food TONIGHT at Savoy Restaurant.” We saw that, and though New Brunswick was too far to get to by bicycle, we thought, “That is exactly the mission we’re on. That is exactly the message we wish to convey.” We have walked the walk, and talked the talk ever since. You can’t swing a dead cat today without hitting a restaurant that is seasonal and local and works with local farmers. It was not so common back then.
Obviously, we were first in craft cocktails by more than a decade. We had the great good fortune of becoming friends with this crazy guy Dale DeGroff in late 1992. Nobody—NOBODY—was doing craft cocktails in New Jersey then. Nobody was using all fresh juices and historical recipes. Dale helped us put together our first cocktail program in late ’92 or early ’93. We did become leaders nationally in the cocktail movement. Not only were we first in NJ (by 10 miles) but we were one of the first in the country. We were among that first generation that followed in Dale’s footsteps.
We were the first in Jersey to do a European-style cheese-board after having Roger Dagorn’s excellent one at Chanterelle. Truly great cheese is available now, but it was hard, hard, hard to get in 1993. We used to buy from a few sources, but would have to get from Dean & Deluca for some. Boy, was that expensive. We didn’t make a dime on cheese for 10 years. Now we can mark it up a little. We still have the best cheese course in the state.
Wine: We offered only estate-bottled wines from small producers. We offered only wines that we believe in. We never put scores on the list and I never told my staff what the scores were. Wine is much more than a number and it is not a game that you win or lose by having a higher score. Wine is a craft, maybe an artform. We source and serve great wines that we believe in. Yes, we are wine, spirits and beer experts. It’s very personal and always has been for us. In this journey we have brought a lot of wines to Jersey for the first time and made some serious friends along the way. Paul Hobbs, Cathy Corison, George Hendry are the first three that pop to mind.
Q: Two questions in one: Who is the culinary professional in New Jersey you most admire? And who is the most underrated culinary pro in the state?
A: (FS) I have to point to Ryan DePersio. I love what he is doing with all of his concepts. He has a great deal of integrity. I don’t know that he is underrated, because he is getting some well-deserved press. Culinary secret: The Second Street Deli (Second Street and Brunswick Avenue in Jersey City). It’s an Italian sandwich take-away joint that looks like a complete dump. It’s been there forever and most days the owner is back there taking your order. She is great. You will often see a UPS truck, a U.S. Postal Service truck, and a fire truck parked outside. The price is unreasonably low and the food is great. A treasure.
Q: No one could ever accuse either of you of resting on your laurels. But what do each of you do to rest? To stop working for a period of time, however brief, and refresh?
A: (FS) I like to go to theater in NYC. Like to cook at home, spend time on my rooftop in Jersey City. I travel to wine destinations a lot to visit existing producers or seek out new ones, but I also like travel to non-wine destinations and chill. I go to Ireland a lot to visit with family, to enjoy the countryside and particularly the city of Belfast.
Q: And, lastly, what’s the question you wish you were asked? Please ask and answer!
A: (FS) At 25 years, what does the future hold? More of the same or new stuff? It holds more of the same great food, wine, cocktails and spirits! It holds more of the same participating in this great city. But it holds some new things as well. Life is an adventure right? We’re going to reorient the menu in some exciting ways on our anniversary weekend (starting Friday, May 26). We’re very excited to be launching our online wine shop: stageleftwineshop.com on the first of June. We have always had a ‘broad C’ license and operated a wine shop called ‘Old Vines’ out of the restaurant for about 5 years from 1999 to 2004. We closed it because we needed the room for dining! We have continued to sell to stock the cellars of private clients and always sell wine after wine-dinners; but we’re looking forward to being a real wine shop available 24-7 online.
It’s not going to be encyclopedic. It will be a well-curated selection of fewer than 100 bottles, the rare stuff, interesting stuff, unusual stuff that we’re famous for discovering. There will be an e-mail each week about a featured wine. If you want to be among the first to taste the next Paul Hobbs before he’s famous, subscribe to the mailing list! We’re super excited about this.
A: (MP) What is the most important role of a restaurant today? For me, this is the same answer I gave 25 years ago. To be a locus of community. This has always been a focus for Francis and me, but it may be more important now than ever. People are turning more and more inward towards the cyber-world. More and more inward toward the superficial relationships in places like Facebook and Twitter. They are often doing so at the cost of their important and real relationships with friends and family. The role of the sit-down restaurant may be more important than ever. Two or three hours with no interruptions, no television or computers and no phones has never been more precious. Real relationships with friends and family are built and maintained during these times together. Restaurants like ours and many others are the last bastion of total focus on each other. Few experiences foster relationships better than sitting around a table and sharing a meal. About 10 years ago Francis and I gave a Ted-X talk in Princeton. My closing remarks there were ‘Embrace the face-to-face.’ It’s never been more relevant.
Stage Left, 5 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. Open daily for dinner. 732-828-4444; stageleft.com.Click here to leave a comment