I recently had the opportunity to chat with Chef James Laird, owner of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham.
We spoke about his journey to becoming one of New Jersey’s most acclaimed chefs, from sweeping the parking lot at a New Jersey casual eatery to receiving the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence. Read on to learn about James’ hobbies for stress relief, his most memorable meals, and of course, Modernist Cuisine.
MK: Talk about you’re journey to becoming such a respected, acclaimed chef. What inspired and influenced you along the way?
JL: It started when my sister worked at a restaurant in Middlesex called the Round-Up, and since I was little I always wanted to make money. I asked the owner if I could work there, but he told me I was too young to do anything, so he let me clean the parking lot. And that was my job: to sweep the stones into the potholes and clean up the cigarette butts. But by 16 I had the key to the restaurant.
I wanted to do more, so then I went to a fancy restaurant in town, called the Boca, a local Italian Restaurant and worked there as a bus boy. I saw the cooks working in the kitchen and they let me come in on my free time.
One of the chefs there was a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduate who taught me after school and introduced me to all the chefs. The chef would take me to the city to all the finest restaurants; I was 15 or 16 and so impressionable. He wore nice clothes, had nice cars, people respected him. I wasn’t very rich, so I saw this as a way to grow and I liked it. Anything you learn when you’re 16 or 17 is so much easier than when you’re 30 or 40; basic skills like being organized and time management were things I learned early in life that help me to this day.
At 18 I went to school at CIA and the rest is history. I graduated school and worked in the city for five years. I worked in restaurants all around the world. But it was always my goal to own my own restaurant.
MK: Of all the restaurants you’ve worked in, which has been the most influential?
JL: Aureole, Charlie Palmer was the chef. It’s not really what we are, but it was a small chef owned, restaurant, this was back in 1991 before he had 25 restaurants. There was a lot of camaraderie between the front of the house and the back of the house. The food was great food, but not super crazy. The portions were nice and it was well flavored. He used local ingredients from local upstate farmers. I really learned a lot from him.
MK: What do you consider to be the greatest honor you’ve received thus far?
JL: In 2000 I received the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence. It was given to five chefs across the country and I was the first from New Jersey to receive it. Robert Mondavi came to the restaurant with his wife, and we did a big dinner - it was a highlight. They gave me a portrait of myself and it’s at the bar.
MK: Serenade is operated by you and your wife, Nancy. How difficult is it not to bring your work home with you?
JL: It was definitely harder in the beginning years. We’re almost in our fifteenth year. We’ve learned that we each have our own jobs, and we talk about to how to improve upon our jobs. But pretty much we all respect each other’s different abilities, and we compliment each other. It’s really no issue, and I couldn’t see it any other way. I’ve grown my managerial style to be more human, and not so crazy, which is what she taught me.
MK: What are your passions and hobbies outside the kitchen?
JL: The key to success in the restaurant business is to do something other then just work. Early on I played squash, and then about halfway through I began practicing yoga as a way to help with stress, and the wear and tear on my body. It’s really helped me to grow spiritually and mentally. When I have time I love to play golf and fly fish.
MK: If you could open another restaurant anywhere in the world, where would it be located?
JL: Telluride, Colorado. My wife and I go there on vacation – we love it. The rolling mountains, the streams, the people. Colorado has a short growing season, but great produce. It’s God’s country; it’s so beautiful.
MK: How do you feel about Nathan Myhrvold's six volume examination of the science of cooking, Modernist Cuisine?
JL: Believe it or not, my wife’s best friend vacations with Nathan.
MK: Wow! I wonder what that’s like?
JL: They fly to Barcelona, and get on his 250-foot yacht and travel for two weeks through the Mediterranean.
MK: Do you own a copy of it [the book] yet?
JL: We don’t have the first printing, but we’ll get the second printing. I think it’s great. I don’t practice that much of it here, but just the science and the technology behind it, you learn so much. I was reading a press release regarding resting meat. What his [Myrhvold’s] research has shown is that the juices get thicker, it’s not just redistribution, the juices become a little more viscous.
MK: What was your most memorable meal?
JL: All of them were on vacation. My wife and I were vacationing in northern Maine and we went on a fishing/hiking day trip. We were with guides, who were also naturalists and know about herbs and trees. They packed a lunch, started a fire, and we ate over a campfire with a glass of wine in the middle of nowhere. It was just so memorable. The food was cooked in foil packages, and it was a little chilly that day; nothing too fancy.
Restaurant Serenade is located at 6 Roosevelt Ave., Chatham, NJ 07928. For reservations, call (973) 701-0303.