Foy Story

Celebrity chef Dennis Foy says that there’s no need to leave the Garden State for a fabulous meal. But, of course, you will have to pay for it.

Driving back to his restaurant in Point Pleasant Beach after one of his pre-dawn forays to the fish and produce markets of Manhattan, Dennis Foy begins to wind down. When the Parkway reaches the epic arches that span the Raritan River, lifting him Ferris-wheel-like into the sky, he knows he is home.

“Nothing else gives me that breath of fresh air I get when I come over the Raritan bridges,” he says, his face relaxing. “Then, just as you reach Cheesequake State Park, those grasslands open and the smell of the ocean air hits you.

“The next part of the decompression,” he continues, “happens when I come over the Brielle Bridge and I look at the Manasquan River. That’s the second breath. And I know, ‘Wow, okay. I’m cool now.’”

Foy, 54, has cooked on both sides of the Hudson River and been as acclaimed in the Big Apple as in the Big Tomato, his adopted state. For the last 30 years he has owned at least one top-rated restaurant in New Jersey: the Tarragon Tree in Meyersville (later Chatham) from 1975 to 1988; Town Square in Chatham from 1989 to 1990; and Foy’s in Point Pleasant Beach, which he has had for the past year. His two Manhattan restaurants, Mondrian (1988–1990) and EQ (1997–2001), earned high praise from the likes of food critics Ruth Reichl and Gael Greene.

Foy’s fare is bold in its simplicity. As he says, “It takes a big set of huevos to put just two elements on the plate, because they have to be perfect.” More often than not, his are. He has a knack for creating what he calls “perfect marriages on the plate.” At one meal at Foy’s, I sampled these flavor dualities: seared diver scallops with cauliflower purée, sautéed Atlantic fluke with celery-root purée, and sautéed wild salmon with creamed spinach.

Born in Philadelphia, Foy lived in Barrington until he was five, when his family moved back to Philly. After high school, he joined the Army and served with the 23rd Infantry Division in Vietnam and later in the Army Reserve. After Foy started a successful package-delivery service in Philadelphia, he and his brother Jack opened the Tarragon Tree. A front-of-the-house job at the 21 Club in Manhattan (where Jack was briefly a chef) proved invaluable in exposing Dennis to the cream of New York restaurateurs.

As a chef, however, he is self-taught, saying he was influenced by his brother and his mother. “I was fearless,” he recalls. Craig Shelton, who was a young cook at the Tarragon Tree for two years in the early 1980s, says that he looked up to Foy, known for his strict work ethic.

“The real story about Dennis is toughness,” says Shelton, now the executive chef and owner of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse. “I learned how to go months without sleep.” During a snowstorm in 1983, Shelton’s car got stuck in a ditch on his way to the restaurant. He called Foy. There was no compromising. “It took about four hours to walk there,” Shelton says. “It’s not ironic that Dennis is an ex-Vietnam, Green Beret type of guy to do the profession that he does.”

These days Foy gets help from his wife, Estella Quiñones, who works in the front of the Point Pleasant Beach restaurant. The couple divide their time between a small apartment in lower Manhattan and a cottage in Point Pleasant Beach. Foy needs the action and energy of New York no less than he needs the serenity and beauty of New Jersey. “It’s sort of a town-and-country lifestyle,” he admits. “And that feels good to me. I don’t want to be trapped in a situation where I’m in some place because I must be.”

From spring to early fall he spends most of his time in New Jersey, not only cooking but painting. Foy is self-taught at that too. His large-scale, Impressionist-influenced landscapes and seascapes, mostly in oil on wood panel, hang in his restaurant as well as in his studio, two doors down from the restaurant.

He doesn’t have to look far for subject matter. “I have traveled all over the world and been in every state in this country for extended periods,” he says. “Only Montana and northern California have captivated me with their variety and beauty the way New Jersey has.”

Montana, northern California, and…us? “New Jersey is the most maligned state, but the fact of the matter is that those who know New Jersey know it’s gorgeous,” he counters. “You have 127 miles of coastline, about a hundred miles of river line on the Delaware, great state parks, great natural wildlife refuges. Sussex County is gorgeous. Drive through the Pine Barrens, the cranberry bogs, the cornfields of Burlington County. Combine that with the proximity to Manhattan, the gateway to the airports, the great school districts, the highly educated adult population—you can’t find that combination anywhere else.”

Nonetheless, Foy is thinking about opening restaurants in lower Manhattan and Long Branch within a year. What will become of Foy’s Point Pleasant Beach restaurant? “I’ll keep it,” he insists, noting that after Labor Day the restaurant opens only for dinner on Friday and Saturday. And why return to the big-city pressure cooker?

“First,” he replies, “the energy. In New Jersey, the energy is not there Sunday through Thursday. You do 50 percent of your business Friday and Saturday, and it is probably the most stressful 48 hours you’re going to work that week.

“Number two is the level of appreciation. There’s a fallacy that because we’re in New Jersey you should pay 15 percent less for the meal. Any good restaurant here is buying from the same purveyors that the best restaurants in New York buy from. I paid $12 a pound for salmon today. Now why should I charge 15 percent less on it because I’m in New Jersey?” Foy says he has nothing to prove and isn’t “looking to reinvent the wheel. The food I’m cooking here and will cook in New York is the food I like to eat. It isn’t intimidating.”

You do get the idea that he thinks he can kick some pretentious big-city butt. “There’s maybe 50 to 60 consistently excellent restaurants in New York,” he maintains. “The rest are all mediocre. That’s a fact of life.”

Eric Levin is a freelance writer based in Montclair.

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