During one of the more pressure-packed nights in his New Jersey restaurant Amuse’s two-year history, Chef C.J. Reycraft, Jr. let his ideology speak for itself. Given that a chef isn’t always briefed on his audience, whether it’s a guest’s 85th or 21st birthday, first or 50th anniversary, Reycraft believes the stakes are just as high on a sleepy Tuesday as they are during a bustling weekend shift.
“It’s all because we want to make sure these people mark their celebration with us and remember it fondly and talk about us in a good light,” he says. “That’s very important to us.”
More than a year ago, Chef Reycraft, who is also a managing partner of the modern French brassiere in Westfield, was printing out menus for around 40 members representing the International Academy of Gastronomy. If all went well, Reycraft would have a chance to become the first New Jersey chef to be honored as a “Prix au Chef de L’Avenir,” or Leading Chefs of the Future, by the organization, which was founded in 1983 and includes members of national or regional Academies of Gastronomy. He would also mark only the third continental U.S. chef to garner the honor since 1996 and the first since Chef Todd Gray, of the Washington, D.C. restaurant Equinox, in 2014. So, yes, just your average night in the Garden State.
“We treated it the same as we treat any dinner,” Reycraft explains. “We tried to make sure we executed it and did our part to make sure everything went off well.”
The menu was hand-picked by the academy’s representative, who stopped by for lunch and was enamored with the venue. He hailed Reycraft to his table and told him he would like to return with the academy and, if all went well, put the 33-year-old chef up for the award. A month before the dinner, he came back and the pair discussed a possible menu. The group rented out the entire restaurant and Reycraft and his staff got to work.
It took nearly a year before results were announced. “Just to be thought of in that light was very rewarding and humbling at the same time,” Reycraft says. “I wasn’t expecting to win. It’s a worldwide organization and they have a lot of different great chefs that they put up for it. I was excited when I took the phone call.”
Reycraft joins chefs from France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Brazil, Belgium, Poland, and Switzerland, in the honor. The 2004 graduate of the French Culinary Institute, who spent seven years as the chef at a nearby upscale French restaurant named Chez Catherine before opening Amuse, was happy to represent his city, so often shaded by the Big Apple’s colossal culinary shadow.
“It’s definitely humbling to see all these other names, from Spain and everywhere, to just have New Jersey on that map is great. I’m hoping it brings a lot of statewide pride. It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of,” he says. “And we sort of live in this little shadow of New York City, which is about 30 minutes away from us on the train. We always hear about Mario Batali and all these famous guys who are all in the city. We have a pretty cool culinary scene over here, and it’s nice to get a little recognition into New Jersey.”
As far as what Reycraft served at the meal, it began with a Smoked Portobello Soup with crème fraîche and croutons.
There were two appetizers to choose from: Handmade Ravioli—English peas, morels, garlic parsley butter, and Salmon Tartare—hand-cut salmon, pommes gaufrettes, capers, shallots, garlic, and spicy mayonnaise.
The entrée portion was offered in three selections: Tomahawk Pork Chop—celeriac purée, lollipop kale, spring garlic aioli; Duck Confit—beet purée, roasted spring onions, green garbanzo beans, chive oil; and Black Bass—white quinoa, Thai basil emulsion, fava beans.
For dessert, guests could order the Pomegranate Parfait with crème diplomat, pomegranate curd, shortbread, almond praline; Profiteroles with pate a choux, salted caramel ice cream, candied hazelnuts, Valrhona chocolate ganache; and the Passion Fruit Tart with passion fruit curd, pate sable tart, pineapple sorbet, and raspberry coulis.
Reycraft says he hopes the award can propel the restaurant, which carries around a $50 check average with tip.
“For now, we’re doing everything on our part to publicize and get the word out about this. We’re trying to translate it to more business and to grow,” he says.
The academy will hold a private dinner ceremony at the restaurant this spring to present Reycraft with the award.