Monday, August 20, 2012

Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef's Garden: International man of Mystery, Intrigue, Bow-ties & Squash Blossoms...

Farmer Lee Jones
This story, for me, has been a long time coming. Six years to be exact. It was roughly 2006 when I was first made aware of the special little place out in Ohio producing these special ingredients. A chef's Garden of Eden, if you will. For one reason or another I just could not get out to see this place for myself. I had spoken to Farmer Lee, his team, yet the trip had never materialized until this year. This past July, I was able to finally accept their gracious offer of hospitality and visit during their Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration, as they celebrated its 10th Anniversary. Sometimes things happen for a reason, as Lee will agree, sometimes relationships and opportunities come when they are supposed to. I have learned that sometimes, when things fall into place naturally it's because they were always meant to; not as we would have them happen, but in their own season, picked fresh at their own most opportune time. Sound like a garden metaphor? Well it is...and that, my friends, was my experience this year at  The Chef’s Garden in Ohio. 

From the moment I stepped on the property, I felt different. The welcome I received was genuine and by the end of my weekend I had come to believe, somehow, that these folks had known me and I them, all of our lives. They treated me like family. While I was busy thinking very highly of myself, feeling special indeed, I witnessed them offer this same level of hospitality and pureness of human interaction to everyone, famous or not, chef or student, writer or blogger, or guest. This is just who these folks are and I realized how lucky we all were, in this place at this particular moment, to be invited and sharing this with Lee and his Chef's Garden family.

The specialness of this place goes beyond tilling the ground and working it with love to produce some of the most incredible produce you can imagine. This place seems to also till the souls of those that come in contact with it. It nourishes you, fertilizes your mind and spirit, inspiring you always be at your freshest, most flavorful peak. That is the real secret of this place. Lee explained this to me as we talked in the study, surrounded by his history, sitting in high back chairs high above the kitchens below, chefs bustling about readying their entrees for the competition. "The land is special," he began, "due to the glaciers. This had been a lake bed and it's nutrient rich. That's what makes this place special." In Huron, Ohio, the lake winds bring sweet, moist air; the soil, which was formerly lake bottom, is sandy and fertile. This combination offers the perfect micro-climate for "growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature."

I completely agree that the produce is special and even the land. I disagree, however, with what makes it so. Lake bed aside, someone had to love this land enough to fight for it and lovingly work it to help it produce its bounty. I have come to believe it is the people here at Chef's Garden who make this particular land special. With love, caring and devotion to each other first, with the land in common. And, they do it with people too. I think if you picked up this team and moved them anywhere, they would have the same result. It was my pleasure to sit and discuss with Lee, on this occasion of the celebration's 10 year anniversary, how it, this farm and this unique family came to be what it is today. He brought me back in time.

The Jones Boys: Bob Sr., Lee & Bob Jr.
"When this story began. some 40 years ago, not far from the shores of Lake Erie, my dad was working with our old John Deere tractor, designing modifications that would increase the efficiency of field production on the farm. Every week, Dad, Bobby and I harvested and packed produce, then took it to the Cleveland farmers' markets. We also had a daily stand in the front yard of the house." In 1980, a hailstorm devastated the family farm leaving them but 6 acres and the life Lee and his family family had worked incredibly hard for their whole lives, his mother's car, their acres of well-toiled land and their cozy family home, was gone in a day.

"My parents were nondrinkers, nonsmokers, and didn't miss a day of church in 25 years," Farmer explains proudly, "When they made money, they reinvested back in the farm. When interest rates hit 23 percent and the storm devastated our crops, we started over from almost nothing. I saw my dad very broken spirited," Lee remembers, "I left college, worked 10 years with no paycheck and helped put my brother and sister through college. I can't imagine doing anything else. Working with my dad is amazing."

Bob Jones, Sr.
In the farming business for more than 50 years, Bob Jones, Sr. has led The Chef's Garden to innovate how vegetables are grown, harvested, packaged and delivered to the kitchen door of top chefs around the world. It was Mr. Bob, as he's fondly referred to on the farm, who recognized the value in meeting the needs of chefs who were driving a return to sustainable agriculture, a reconnection with food producers and a focus on quality and flavor. Lee explains further, "Well the real story on how we came to be a chef's garden is a bit different than most think. All our literature says it was a family decision," winking he added, "but let me tell ya how it really happened. When that hail storm hit, we lost everything except for 6 acres. Out of 600. We were devastated," he recalled. "I had a met a French chef who had asked me about growing some vegetables, particularly, squash blossoms. The chef was looking for the same quality product available in France, so we took care of this chef and others as well. At this time we had a big decision to make, being down in acreage. Do we stick with the farmers markets or do we specialize in chefs and their needs? My dad put it to a vote. 5 hands around the table, including mine, all voted for the farmers markets. My dad looked around the table, slammed his hand on the table and shouted. "Then it's final...we're doing chefs!" That is the real story of how the 'family' decided to cater to chefs," he laughed.

To many chefs, Farmer Lee embodies The Chef's Garden. Perpetually clad in his trademark overalls and a red bow-tie, it is not uncommon to see Farmer Jones at the culinary industry's top shows and events. We spoke about his choice of attire just hours before the festival. "I've been everywhere in my overalls, Iron chef to The James Beard Awards, where everyone was in a tux and I had on my overalls," he paused, "a new pair of course but, they were still overalls." Lee has been featured in numerous national publications, including Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine and The Washington Post. The farm has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show, Food Network's Roker on the Road, CNN Business Unusual, and ABC World News. He was also the first farmer ever
Lee, Michelle Obama, Robert Irvine
to judge the popular Food Network TV program Iron Chef America. "It has become a trademark," he says with a gleam in his eye, "and I'm very protective of the image and how it affects the farm. I love it though and am happy to be the face of The Chef's Garden."

The Famous Red Bow-Ties
On this topic I could not help but to inquire about a rumor I had heard throughout our years knowing each other. I asked Lee if it were true that in his closet, he had nothing but white shirts, overalls and that he had all his ties lined up. He laughed and replied, "Yes that is actually true," and immediately invited me up to the house, a large spacious log cabin that serves as his and Mary's home and is located in the the back corner of the property that houses
It's True! Just overalls & white shirts.
the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Indeed, as you can see from these exclusive pictures, seen here first, Lee indeed has a closet full of overalls, white shirt and clearly his ties are all neatly lined up.

It is here, basically in Farmer Lee's front yard that the tents and trappings of the festival take place. It seems fitting, almost like it's just a big ol' barbecue with a few hundred of your closest friends and some world famous chefs and culinary personalities thrown in. This year's headliners were Restaurant Impossible's, Robert Irvine, Top Chef Just Desserts', Johnny Iuzzini, BBC America's Clair Robinson, Madison Cowen from No Kitchen Required and Amanda Freitag from Chopped to lend it some sizzle.

Johnny Iuzzini, me, Lee, Clair Robinson
From celebrities to chefs, to volunteers, to sous chefs and students, whomever you are, here, the hospitality of this team of people is palpable. I was fortunate on this their 10th Anniversary to be invited into their home and really get a behind the scenes look at the back bone that supports this farm: The Jones Family. On that topic, I must digress and tell a story which summed up my day with this family and team.

We have all heard the phrases, 'out of the mouths of babes' and 'everything has its start at the head and trickles down." Well, as I prepared for the day, Lee offered his home as my base of operations covering the festival, and as it was a hot day, with my physical limitations, a place to rest and take a break from the festivities. As I got myself situated, behind the island in the kitchen was a cherub faced little girl, about 8 yrs old, with red curly hair, wearing a chef's coat that said "Chef's Garden.' She introduced herself as Mary Grace, Lee's granddaughter. I introduced myself as well and she asked if I would care for something to drink. I replied, "That would be nice, yes please." She then turned her back to me, took something out of her pocket and stood hunched for a few seconds. Then she whirled around and handed me a hand written list, on a small message sized paper on which she had written five or six items to choose from, such as Water, Juice, Coke, etc. I placed my order, which she wrote down on a separate piece of paper and then she proceeded to get my drink and serve it to me, asking, "Would you like anything else?" I said no, thanked her and handed her a dollar, eliciting a big grin, and polite thank you. I later heard that she was telling everyone who would listen about the experience. I guess it was a special to her as it was to me. This, my friends, embodies the spirit of every person I met over the course of this celebration. Warm, engaging, real and well, downright hospitable.

The Chef' Garden

Chef's Garden Herbs
As the direct connection to the chef, Lee leads the passionate team members at The Chef's Garden to continually excel beyond their own high standards in quality and service, in order to deliver the finest quality vegetables direct from Earth to Table® to the world's greatest culinarians. The Chef's Garden grows and innovates as a partnership between chefs and farmers. They grow what chefs want, often what is otherwise impossible to find. And they host hundreds of chefs at their farm each year, where those chefs‚ "can do R & D or get R & R," Jones explained, " at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a retreat with culinary library, private kitchen, and Jacuzzi." He continued, "This is a really special place. I have seen and been part of many special moments here at CVI. My dad envisioned it as a place where chefs and culinarians could come and reconnect with the land, the
Clair Robinson, Johnny Iuzzini, Madison Cowen
ingredients, with their passion for cooking and food again. So we built these kitchens and a chefs suite along with a suite downstairs for the chef's sous chefs and team and it's become almost like a retreat house for chefs. One experience I remember in particular," he smiled before continuing,"because it was so special to my Dad, was when we first opened. We were seeking help getting the word out, Charlie Trotter, who is a dear friend and has supported us from the beginning by telling other chefs about us, arranged a dinner with all of us here and Ferran Adria. My dad was just thrilled. We have had a lot of well known chefs come through here. For instance Grant Achatz came and spent quite a few days here, working on new menus and dishes with his team."

The Culinary Vegetable Institute
Sitting on approximately 100 acres, the Institute includes a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art two story Kitchen designed by Mark Stech-Novak with full audio-visual capabilities for demonstrations; a 1426 square foot Dining Room with 22 foot ceilings (capable of seating 90); an Executive Chef Suite with luxury amenities; accommodations for visiting chefs’ teams; a Culinary Library; Root Cellar, Wine Cellar and it also includes an experimental vegetable, forest and herb gardens.

Chefs’ Haven:
Visiting chefs can utilize the CVI’s facilities and gardens for educational, team building and retreat purposes. With the farm nearby, chefs can experience The Chef’s Garden planting and harvesting methods, pick vegetables themselves and return to the CVI for relaxation or to experiment in the kitchen. Today, the CVI continues its commitment to its chefs, but they have also opened their doors to the community by sharing their facility with corporations, organizations and people who seek a unique venue for the finest in agri-culinary experiences. For more information, visit CVI's website here.

Veggie U
The sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes in our nation is nothing short of alarming. It's clear the majority of children today have little or no connection to the food they eat, where it comes from and how it impacts their health. This reality prompted Bob Jones and his wife Barb – along with chefs, nutritionists, doctors, educators and volunteers -- to create and launch the Veggie U program. Since 2003, Veggie U has been committed to changing these trends by reaching out to teachers and children across the country. Located in Milan, Ohio, Veggie U is a national not-for-profit organization that offers an Earth to Table™ science curriculum to fourth grade and special needs classrooms. Their goal is to place this exciting hands-on curriculum in all 93,000 fourth grade classrooms nationwide in an effort to decrease childhood disease and increase youth awareness of healthy food options and the importance of sustainable agriculture. Healthy kids also learn better and become more active contributing members to their families and communities.

Veggie U's Earth to Table™ curriculum recognizes that children would greatly benefit from understanding the connection between what they consume and how that food is grown. Educating children in an engaging, experiential way helps them to learn. Veggie U's science-based program offers a hands-on seed-to-planting-to-harvest experience. A complete grow kit is provided along with a comprehensive teacher's manual written to cover state and national 4th grade science standards. The benchmarks for these standards are included at the beginning of each lesson so that teachers can integrate them into existing curriculum.

Robert Irvine cooks with Veggie U kids
In addition to a hands-on, scientific approach to learning about plants and their components, the Veggie U curriculum incorporates extensive journal activities, mathematics, language arts and fine arts, providing an interactive and enjoyable way for students to study these core concepts. The classroom lessons include studies of soil, composting, planting, nutrition and plant anatomy. The students also care for a worm farm, raise a mini "crop", and celebrate the end of the program with a vegetable Feast Day. Veggie U has delivered more than 1800 classroom kits across 26 states. To learn more about Veggie U, visit the Veggie U website.

As we got ready for the start of the day's festivities, heading out of our cozy space high atop the CVI kitchens into the throngs waiting to greet Lee, he turned to me with an after thought, "Ya know," he smiled putting his arm around my shoulders as we walked, "it's a great place. We have a wonderful team that's dedicated and who keep me going. I can't let them and all the kids down. And, based upon the outpouring from chefs and the culinary establishment, we're blessed to have so many folks who understand our vision. The Farm and these Veggie U Celebrations, as well as our little piece of the earth out here has become world reknown. Pretty cool." I would have to agree, Lee, pretty cool indeed. This place and these people have a new fan and new member of the family and I am blessed and glad to be a part of it. I hope you enjoyed a look at this enigmatic man and his Chef's Garden family. It was my pleasure and I look forward to next year's event and bringing you more of the adventures of Farmer Lee man of mystery, intrigue, bow-ties...and squash blossoms.

As always, bon appetit,


Sources;  The Chef’s Garden, Farmer Lee Jones, The Jones Family, ulterior epicure

Monday, August 06, 2012

Mushrooms...Glorious Mushrooms...

Did you ever wonder how and why certain foods became classified as edible? For instance, who was it that first decided they would try milking a cow after watching a newborn calf suckle, reaching under, squeezing out a bit of milk from an udder and then deciding to taste it? Now that's a 'foodie!' We have many brave pioneers to thank for paving the way for the plethora of culinary excursions and delights we now enjoy.

Well, I've always wondered the same about mushrooms. After all, it is a fungus, usually found growing on or under tree roots. And, only certain ones are edible, with some psilocybic types, or 'Shrooms,' sending anyone who eats them on a psychedelic trip into mind numbing hallucinations. It has long been held that Alice's trip through the looking glass started with a mushroom. "Go ask Alice....when she's ten feet tall."

Yet others are so toxic and deadly, they can kill you with just one nibble. How did they find the edible ones? For instance, back in Egypt, who drew the short straw when, upon finding this little darling growing on a tree stump, they all looked at each other and said, "Who, me? No way! Pharaoh schmaroh, I'm not putting that in my mouth!" Did they try them on 'subjects?' Was there a checklist, so that when Harry, the tester, dropped dead after eating this new variety brought in from the forest, we documented it? Talk about a position with no job security.

Whatever the reason for trying them, thank God someone had the courage to eat these little beauties, transforming them into the well loved staple of stews, soups, and the now many and diverse applications, from liqueurs to dusts, that we all enjoy today.

What I found amazing in my research was that, most people think of a mushroom as the fungi, when it actuality it is the 'fruit' of the fungi. The mycelium , the main body, is subterranean, or lives on dead trees and living tree roots and it can vary in size from a few inches to several miles wide! When they absorb a large amount of water, they can grow amazingly fast and their fruits sprout out of the ground overnight. Have you ever woken up, gone to get the paper and gazed out at your front lawn after a good soaking rain only to be confronted with an invasion of mushrooms that have miraculously appeared overnight? Well, they were there all along! You can put that mystery to bed...I know it's been bugging you....Now you know.

These little fruits, mushrooms, are the delicacies that we humans enjoy. There are over two thousand types of mushrooms, but only 2 ½ - 5 % are edible. The rest are highly poisonous and can masquerade as the edible ones, which is why if you are going to try your hand at foraging for wild mushrooms, make sure you do it with someone who is qualified in distinguishing the real deal from the pretenders. It's a risky and sometimes fatal
business. Who would of thought of mushroom foraging as a "Deadliest Job?"

Some 'shrooms' contain enough toxins to immediately kill the person who eats them, like the Amanitas strain. Historical records reveal that Claudius II and Pope Clement VII were both killed by enemies who poisoned them with this deadly variety. Buddha died, according to legend, from a mushroom that grew underground. Buddha was given the mushroom by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy.

Mushroom Facts
  • Mycophagy is the act of consuming mushrooms and dates to ancient times.
  • Mushrooms have been an essential in Chinese medicine for centuries, containing vitamins B, C and D. They are known to lower both blood pressure and serum cholesterol.
  • City of Hope, a cancer research facility, has suggested that mushrooms may help prevent cancer.
  • The living body of the fungus is a mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source.
  • A mycelium may be small enough to fill a single ant or large enough to cover many acres.
  • The branching hyphae can add over a half mile (1 kilometer) of total length to the mycelium each day!
  • These webs live unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, “bird’s nests,” “corals” or other fruiting bodies.
  • Mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds, and a single mature mushroom will drop as many as 16 billion spores!
  • Some of the oldest living mushroom colonies are fairy rings ---> growing around the famous Stonehenge ruins in England. The rings are so large that the best view of them is from a plane. 
Mushrooms through the ages....
Dancing Shaman.
Man's use of mushrooms extends back to Paleolithic times and for the most part it seems that the first uses for this fungi was medicinal and spiritual. They played pivotal roles in ancient Greece, India and Mesoamerica. The oldest archaeological of mushroom use discovered so far is probably a Tassili image from a cave which dates back 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. The artist's intent is clear. Mushrooms with electrified auras are depicted outlining a dancing shaman.

In the winter of 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps came across the well preserved remains of a man who died over 5,300 years ago, approximately 200 years later than the Tassili cave artist. Dubbed the "Iceman" by the news media, he was well equipped with a knapsack, flint axe, a string of dried Birch Polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and another yet unidentified mushroom. The polypores can be used as tinder for starting fires and as medicine for treating wounds. Further, a rich tea with immuno-enhancing properties can be prepared by boiling these mushrooms. Equipped for traversing the wilderness, this intrepid adventurer had discovered the value of the noble polypores. Even today, this knowledge can be life-saving for anyone astray in the wilderness.

Mushrooms, the plant of immortality? That’s what ancient Egyptians believed according to the Hieroglyphics of 4600 years ago. The delicious flavor of mushrooms intrigued the pharaohs of Egypt so much that they decreed that mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them. This assured themselves the entire supply of mushrooms. In various other civilizations throughout the world including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, mushroom rituals were practiced. Many believed that mushrooms had properties that could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects and lead the soul to the realm of the gods.

Mushroom Varieties

Black Trumpet
Color can vary from purply-gray to death-like black. Lily shaped, thin flesh, delicate taste. Available fresh fall through spring.


Bland taste compared to other mushrooms. Available fresh year round.

Also called Polish, Porcini or King Bolete. Bulbous stem with brown, rounded cap. Rich, musty flavor and very perishable. Available fresh in fall, dried and frozen year round.

Curved trumpet or vase shape, color varies from bright orange to apricot gold. Some say it imparts the smell of apricots. Available fresh during fall and winter, dried year round.

Cremini, Button and Portabellas are related. Cremini looks like a button, but is a bit larger with a brown cap. When growth is unchecked, it becomes a Portabella with more complex flavor and texture.

Dainty, Q-Tip shaped. Cultivated and available fresh year round.

Squash colored and slightly bitter tasting. Substitute for Chanterelles. Trim stems. Hedgehogs have small “teeth” on gills and break off in other foods, leaving gold flecks.

Also called Pine mushroom. Spicy, woody flavor. Available fresh in fall.

Spongy looking but hollow. Color is tan to dark brown. Intense, earthy flavor. Available fresh in spring, dried year round.

Cultivated, fan-shaped. Color varies from light tan to gray. Mild flavor. Available fresh year round.

Also called Chinese, Black Forest or Oak mushrooms. Chocolate brown, fibrous, woody stems. Available fresh and dried year round.

Rubbery texture, flat, woodsy aroma. Imported from China. Available dried year round.


Fragrant member of Chanterelle family. Gray-brown color with muted gold stem. High water content.

Earth's Largest living Organism...The Honey Mushroom
People have known about the "honey mushroom" for some time, but were not aware of how large and invasive this species of fungus could be. The fungus was investigated more closely by researchers when they realized that it was responsible for killing large groves of evergreen trees. When foresters cut into an infected tree they would find spreading white filaments, mycelia, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus.

Researchers collected samples of the fungus from a widespread area and analyzed the DNA. A large sample of the specimens they collected turned out to be from a single organism. Until August of 2000 it was thought that the largest living organism was a fungus of the same species (Armillaria ostoyae) that covered 1,500 acres (600 hectares) found living in the state of Washington.

Mycology experts surmised that if an Armillaria that large could be found in Washington, then perhaps one just as large could be responsible for the trees dying in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Researchers were astonished at the sheer magnitude of the find. This most recent find was estimated to cover over 2,200 acres (890 hectares) and be at least 2,400 years old, possibly older.

To go into the forest where this giant makes its home you would not look at it and see a huge, looming mushroom. Armillaria grows and spreads primarily underground and the sheer bulk of this organism lies in the earth, out of sight. Occasionally, during the fall season, this specimen will send up golden-colored "honey mushrooms" that are the visible evidence of its hulking mass beneath. Scientists have not yet begun to attempt to estimate the weight of this specimen of Armillaria.

Well there you have it, mushrooms in all their glorious forms. Hope you enjoyed it. After all. what's a little fungus among friends,?

Bon Appetit,

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Chef Michael Colletti: The Whitehouse, Wutang & Grilled Octopus...a recipe for success....

Chef Michael Colletti began his culinary journey at a young age growing up watching his grandparents and father, who migrated from Sicily, preparing the family recipes with home grown ingredients. Delicacies, such as figs, cardoons and persimmons. He remembers, "I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother or my father, or in the garden with my grandfather. You know it's funny, we ate back then the way people are eating now, farm to table. Whatever my grandfather was growing, or whatever was in season, that's what we ate. At Easter, my grandfather would be in the basement butchering a goat to breakdown for Easter dinner. I always had a love for food and culture and of course, eating," he laughs.

Michael's first culinary job was into the family business. His father owned a bagel shop and he studied bagel-making at his father’s side, also doubling as a short order cook. He then learned more about the hospitality business at his cousin's pizzeria, Villa Borghese. The discovery of his natural palate and affinity for cooking led him to attend the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, NJ.

I asked him what led him to the Asbury Park school. He stated, "Well, I applied and was accepted at Johnston & Wales, but just before I started school my dad passed away and I just couldn't leave my mom all alone, "he remembered, "I transferred to the Education Center in Asbury Park so I could stay at home and be there for her. Once I got out in the work force, I realized, after having worked alongside those who attended so called 'more formal' culinary schools, we all learn the same basics, no matter the school. And truly, school only teaches you the basics, we chefs all learn by getting on the line at a busy restaurant and getting our asses kicked."

"My first real restaurant gig outside the pizzeria,' he explained, "was a restaurant called Aqua in Bound Brook. I was basically moving from station to station. I then moved myself up to Sous Chef. Brian Walter was the head chef, he had just come from Le Cirque, and we received 4 stars from the Star Ledger. We did great Italian food with French technique. All homemade pasta, super seasonal, super fresh." I asked him what was the biggest thing he learned from his first true commercial kitchen. He answered immediately, "Speed and organization." I then asked him what surprised him the most going from his cousin's pizzeria kitchen to Aqua. "Doing 200 covers and having to get the food out." he laughed, "You were responsible for your station and you needed to be on your game and get your food out. But, it prepared me for for my next gig, so it was a good first experience."

From Aqua, Colletti then moved on to work with New York restaurant icon Sirio Maccioni of the world renowned Le Cirque. Not bad for a young chef's second gig. He expounded on the experience of working in the high profile restaurant's kitchen. "At Le Cirque, it was a bit more slow paced, but much more exacting with regard to technique and presentation. I learned a lot about the science behind food and it made me more detailed. Sirio is old school, so I learned about the tried and true ways to prepare food. It was there that I met Spike Mendelsohn. We worked side by side and really got along well. Spike decided to move on to a new restaurant being opened by Drew Nieporent and Michael Bao, Mai House, also in NYC."

He explains, "I did not really know much about Vietnamese cuisine and I thought, you know, always thinking of building up my resume and experience as a chef, that this would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge." During Chef Colletti’s tenure as Chef de Cuisine at Mai House, the restaurant was awarded two stars by Frank Bruni of The New York Times and named among the Top 10 Best Restaurants in New York City by The New York Times. He spent more than two years at Mai House; during which Colletti traveled throughout Vietnam for several months to study the local food and culture and was chosen to guest chef at the 5-Star Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He talked about the experience.

Chef Colletti's Day Boat Scallops
"When you go to any place, to cook like the locals and learn the why of the food, once you come back, you have such a better understanding of the cuisine and the culture, it broadens your base. When you are there, you see them making rice paper, you're going to that stall and you're learning. I was there for three months and it was almost overwhelming. You eat so much," he laughs, "cause you don't want to miss a bite." I asked him what was the most memorable experience being there. He responded, "The freshness! You're at a stand, eating clams that just came out of the water, right there on the beach. It's a total immersion into the everyday lives of these people and it all revolves around the freshest ingredients, the freshest food. And simple, not complicated. The food speaks for itself." 

After five years in New York, he decided to join Mendelsohn in Washington D.C. at the Sunnyside Group. There he would play a vital role in the conceptualization of Chef Mendelsohn's restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, located in Capitol Hill. He explained, "Spike's parents opened up a spot in DC and Spike asked me to join him. I was really into the conceptualization of the place. The decor, the menu building." During this time Spike gained national acclaim with his being on TV. With the national success of Good Stuff Eatery, Chef Colletti was invited to participate in Food Network’s 2009 Food & Wine Festival's “Rachel Ray Burger Bash,” in both Miami and New York, where he earned back-to-back victories for his creation of the “Colletti Smokehouse Burger." Food Network then invited Chef Mendelssohn and Chef Colletti to compete in an episode of Iron Chef America, where they would “Battle Prosciutto” versus Chef Michael Symon. The episode that aired in March 2010.

Chef Colletti was then given responsibility for opening and overseeing operations at the second Spike Mendelsohn venture, We, The Pizza, also in Capitol Hill. It became an instant sensation and within three months of opening was voted one of the “Top 50 Best Pizzerias in America” by USA TODAY.

First Lady Michelle Obama, a frequent visitor and supporter of both restaurants, requested Chef Colletti participate in preparing several White House luncheons serving the President and staff members. Through this affiliation, he became part of the “Lets Move!” campaign created by Mrs. Obama to combat childhood obesity. In addition, while living in Washington, D.C., Chef Colletti was proud to be involved with Horton’s Kids Foundation and D.C. Central Kitchen. As a result of his supportive efforts, Chef Colletti was asked to attend the 2011 Capitol Food Fight, in which he was awarded second place by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio and José Andrés.

After three successful years in Washington, D.C., he decided to move back to his home state of New Jersey to pursue his own restaurant vision with his cousins. The resulting collaboration is VB3 Restaurant and Bar  located in Jersey City in The Monaco, a luxury apartment building on  Jersey City's waterfront. Carrying on the important garden to table tradition of his family, the restaurant features Chef Colletti’s creative, Modern Seasonal Italian cuisine, based on family recipes using locally-sourced ingredients. "From the moment I decided to do this it was a blast," he said excitedly. "My own concepts, my own menu, falling back on my roots and my heritage. Taking the old Italian classics and making them into this modern cuisine, using French techniques." He continued. "I was thrilled to be back in NJ. It's my home. Friends and family are here. My roots."

About the VB3 direction and concept he told me, "We spent a lot of time figuring out the concept," he continued, "what the area  needed. We decided on serious food with serious nightlife. VB3 has 80 seats in the dining room and 30 at the bar. We're open till 3AM Monday through Sunday, so our philosophy is; 'Come for the Food...Stay for the Party.' It's a very relaxed atmosphere, not stuffy at all, but with incredible food coming out of the kitchen. Most patrons are quite surprised, but that's a good thing. The menu is seasonal and focused on local, fresh farm to table ingredients. It (the menu) speaks for my cooking style. At the same time it has to be accessible to the main stream dining public. We're flanked by two hotels, so while I'm doing fresh, exciting interpretations of classic dishes, it's still recognizable to what we all know as comfort food."

Actually friends, take my word for it, it's amazing.

Bon Appetit,