Full disclosure from the author: I’ve actually been working at Black Eyed Susans (BES) since late May, helping a few days a week with reservations. This has afforded me an inside look at the restaurant’s activities, although not “during service” when guests are present. I have also been lucky enough to eat at BES three times this 2016 season, so have enjoyed BES from the perspective of a patron.
A number of things come up as I consider my time—both working and dining—at the restaurant: 1) the focus on freshness is very special; 2) the eatery takes food and hospitality extremely seriously; 3) if you want to eat with five or more friends or family members, it’s smart to call thirty days in advance of your planned dinner; and 4) I could quite possibly live on their incredible strip steak and house-baked sourdough bread alone.
Just this week I walked into the kitchen and noticed a giant bin full of fresh peapods. These were being shelled one at a time by a gloved prep cook. There are no short cuts at BES. They are not buying peas that someone else or a factory has already shelled—their commitment to freshness takes precedence over convenience. (Recently, the proprietors’ son attacked the peas at the mise en place, just one example of how a child of two chefs may engage his palate differently than most five-year-olds.)
Chef Christopher Sanchez cleans giant whole tuna himself, skillfully portioning the gleaming ruby-red fish a few hours before it will sit, perfectly cooked to order, on a diner’s plate. (One of Chris’s favorite cooking techniques that home cooks can practice? Using a cast iron pan to get a good sear on fish and achieve a different caramelization than you can with a stainless pan.) Gnocchi is rolled and cut daily into lovely pillows for a sumptuous appetizer with hand-pulled chunks of lobster, sautéed broccoli rabe, garlic, and a dusting of Calabrian chili. Caramel is cooked by the pastry chef, not poured from a jug or can.
Although when I first arrive to take messages, return calls, and work the reservation system there is a good amount of playfulness (boisterousness) and laughter (hilarity) in the kitchen, as the hours pass, an intense vibe of focused preparation steals over the whole restaurant. By the end of my time there, not only is the kitchen humming to prepare for dozens of scheduled and walk-in patrons, but the front-of-house staff is taking care of tasks within a hushed atmosphere of anticipation. Clean linens are unfurled. Fresh flowers are placed. Glasses are polished. Special guests and guests with special occasions are noted for both kitchen and front-of-house staff.
It’s this focused energy, clarity of vision, and attention to detail that makes eating at Black-Eyed Susans so special. There’s also a certain humility in the restaurant’s approach to hospitality: a deep sense of what customers want from a high-end dining experience balanced with a bent for allowing simple goodness to shine through. The dining room reflects this with its rustic chic decor.
In early May, before I started working as a reservationist, I sat down with Chef and Co-Owner Christopher, House Manager and Co-Owner, Ashley Pellagrino, and Sous-Chef, Mike Sheel, to interview them for this article. Everything they told me has been born out in reality, personally witnessed by yours truly.
A little history: Christopher and Ashley both grew up visiting LBI. They got interested in cooking via summer jobs in high school. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park within a few years of each other, they each ended up on LBI. They actually met while cooking at Surf City’s Yellow Fin in the late 1990s. In addition to restaurant gigs, they both ran catering businesses and worked as private chefs for clients on the North End. When the 100-year-old building in Harvey Cedars became available, they decided to go for it” and opened Black-Eyed Susans for summer 2010. Mike, meanwhile, has lived on LBI since 1976. He chose to become a chef when he realized he “didn’t want to be a plumber like the rest of the men in his family.” Mike’s knowledge and skilled hands serve as critical underpinnings to the business’s success.
Christopher classifies BES’s cuisine as New American; his inspiration comes from modern techniques and food trends, and especially from local, seasonal ingredients. In a past article on the restaurant in NJ Monthly, Chris explained: “I like taking ingredients for what they are—from the garden, the ocean, pastures—and not messing with them too much before they get to the table…” As the restaurant’s web site states, “We create menus based on seasonally available ingredients… sourced from local farms, distributors, and fishermen. We believe that the best food is grown locally and with respect for the environment, so we’ve spent the past four years building relationships with farmers and fishermen who fit the bill! We use many organic ingredients, sustainably caught fish and seafood, and pasture raised meats.” The page goes on to list 18 NJ and PA sources for produce. As they seem to do frequently, here the couple has chosen to deflect attention from themselves to the ingredients and providers that make BES’s food
Ashley describes how they personally prepare everything, from duck egg pasta to ginger beer to olives. Chris hand-selects fish at the docks, and Ashley emphasizes, “We won’t put tuna on the menu unless it’s coming in here [at Viking Village]. You’ll never find in-season produce at the restaurant that’s not local.”
In identifying highlights from their years as restaurateurs, Chris and Ashley talk about how they love working with their teams and doing work that changes daily. They also mention how meaningful it is to them that people drive to Harvey Cedars once a week from Toms River and Holgate (an hour’s drive in summer) to enjoy their food, and how they love it when the farmers, fishermen, and others from whom they source materials come in to eat.
Just recently, I got an email message from Ashley requesting I make a reservation for their friend from Rival Brothers in Philadelphia. In scanning the message, a line from this specialty batch coffee provider stood out from the discussion of a pending meal reservation: “I’ll get your coffee roasted and you’ll have it on Tuesday.” This type of relationship is emblematic of how BES does business—Christopher and Ashley find the best product, get it fresh, and develop a friendship with its purveyors.
In the future, Christopher explains, they hope to become purveyors as well: of BES products such as soups, sauces, olives, salt, and their insanely delicious and toothsome sourdough bread. Ideally, they’ll find a way to add more venues alongside their weekly appearance at the Surf City Farmer’s Market on Mondays in summer. They also hope to expand their “bread program” through more production and additional outlets. It’s not that they’re looking to get onto shelves at ShopRite—they enjoy knowing that people are acquiring and most likely eating their products the same day they’re prepared.
Speaking of same-day eats, Mike usually prepares what’s known as the daily “staff meal.” When interviewed, all three explain that a good four o’clock meal nourishes everyone through a long shift that can often extend past midnight. (Many restaurants have relinquished the practice of a group meal for staff, instead allowing staff to eat at a discount off the regular menu.) Chris says it’s particularly fun when there’s a surplus of something special and he can offer “staff appreciation day” with everyone eating, for example, BES’s famous crab cakes for staff meal. And staff members don’t just wait for special days to sample the eatery’s finest menu items. The BES kitchen and front-of-house staff proudly dines at their workplace with friends and family members. As anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant can tell you, it’s an incredibly good sign when a restaurant’s staff members choose to eat at their workplace. Not only does it indicate that they value and trust what’s coming out of the kitchen, but that they want to return to their workplace in their off-time says it all.
Black-Eyed Susan’s Staff Meal Jambalaya Serves 16
Mike Sheel is especially known among staff for his “garlic bread famous in eight states and two countries.” However, he won’t share his secret garlic bread recipe here in bay magazine (or anywhere else, for that matter), so instead offers a recipe that speaks to one of his main philosophies of cooking: use everything edible with no waste whatsoever. As the main staff meal creator, Mike turns all the odds and ends trimmed from restaurant dinners into stocks and the other bases for staff meals, with his dishes usually enjoyed by kitchen and front-of-house workers alongside salad and bread. In Mike’s version of this jambalaya, proffered in late May 2016, the dish featured lamb and lamb belly as the meat. Here, for the home cook, the recipe suggests meat of your preference or a standard jambalaya player, smoked sausage.
½ cup olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and diced
2 poblano peppers, trimmed and diced
3 red bell peppers, trimmed and diced
15 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
5 ribs celery, diced
3 carrots, peeled, trimmed, and diced
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken, diced
1 lb. meat (such as lamb or beef) or smoked sausage, in chunks
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 ½ quarts fish stock, chicken stock, or water
6 cups Basmati rice
2 bay leaves
1 lb. firm-fleshed fish, in chunks (or shrimp, if you like)
Salt and pepper
In a very large stewpot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, both types of peppers, garlic, celery, and carrot into the pot and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes or until vegetables take a little color. Add chicken, meat or sausage, tomatoes, broth, Basmati rice, and bay leaves, and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, then turn heat to medium-low. Cover and cook 10 minutes. Stir in fish or shrimp. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes or until rice is toothsome. Season with salt and pepper to taste.