Chef Fred grew up in West Virginia, before eventually transitioning to New Jersey where he has now lived for 19 years. He has been cooking since way back when. Chef Fred did his understudy at The Greenbrier Culinary Arts Center, one of the oldest and most recognizable cooking schools in the world. He’s a humble guy though, so you won’t hear him bragging about being Julia Child’s cooking assistant, or any of the other global A-list cooking celebrities either. We were fortunate enough to catch Chef Fred over the phone for an interview about Farm to Fork, and his 12 year-old restaurant, Elements Cafe.
HM: Talk to me about Elements Cafe; how did it get started?
CF: Elements started in January of 2003. This was “my” first and only attempt at owning a restaurant. I think it’s still going pretty well. [laughs] I wanted to do a small restaurant in a small town, strip-malls are not really for me, you know? I wanted to plant roots somewhere. When I considered Haddon Heights, it opened up two great opportunities for me. My family lived there and I already knew about the town. I’m originally from Mount Laurel and before moving to Jersey I was living and cooking at Greenbrier, one of the oldest and most established places in the nation. It’s got such a rich history. It used to be a bunker where the senate could meet if there were ever a cold war fallout.
HM: So Julia Child? What’s the story there?
CF: I was her cooking assistant through a program at Greenbrier. I mean, I had the privilege to cook with so many amazing people. Whenever they would guest at our school, I would assist them. It was incredible.
HM: Let’s talk about what farm to fork to means to you?
CF: Farm to fork is the “it” word in the media, but for the most part people have been doing this forever. One of the restaurants I worked for was Krazy Cats at Montchanin Village. We are going back 15 years now, and we would have area farmers that would come right up to the back door, and sell us corn and tomatoes right there. Whatever they had, we would buy and that’s what we cooked with, period.
HM: People think it’s hard to eat local, why?
CF: They think it’s harder, because sometimes they see things on a menu that they may not normally eat. For instance, if you go to a chain restaurant, you will see things you normally do in a grocery story. People are not thinking about weather patterns or what foods are actually in season. If you get food from the farm, you have to get what they give you. That’s all. If you live in New Jersey, strawberries for instance are only available for a month or two. They might come back again when it cools off, but that’s it. But most people just say “I want strawberries but I don’t care where it comes from.” My grandparents had a big garden and they ate what was grown and that’s all we used for cooking. It’s the old adage. Everything old is becoming new again. A few years back I started to experiment with kale and now baby kale is the hottest green. It’s just what I had to cook with at the time. The interaction with the farmer is so important. It leads to talking with the guests and educating them.
HM: So what is “feast in the field”?
CF: You know it’s not unusual with a lot of restaurants. We just thought that it was really important to let everyone know who these farmers are and that they are small business owners. That’s really what started our farm to fork program. You know you come to the restaurant all the time, we thought “how about we take you to the farm?” So we started 6 years ago, doing dinners at 1895 organic farm in Lumberton. The guests think it’s the neatest thing in the world. When they get past that they are out in the dirt and nature,they have an incredible time. We do a formal dinner in the field and it’s just magical. I cook the food right there in front of them. I’ve got a grill I bring out and we cook all the courses with the guests right there. The interaction with the farmer leads to talking with the customers.
HM: Do you see this sticking? A re-education of the public?
CF: I actually do. When it really sticks is when you take it down to the kids, not the grandparents. Jamie Oliver is taking it into the grammar schools. The seven year olds, they start to turn their noses up at this. They will carry this into their adulthood. They will demand it in their adulthood and everybody else will follow suit. Apple had a hard time when they had almost lost their company but they keyed in on the kids. They tapped into the children and that stuck with people.
HM: Do you get frustrated at times with people’s lack of care towards food?
CF: For me I will see people that like it and think the way I do, however, there are always going to be people that want to go to a chain restaurant, etc. My restaurant has been around 12 years so there are people getting the books, going to the farmers market, etc. I’m optimistic that more people are demanding it and it makes me hopeful. It’s also job security. I think I’ll be here a lot longer. [laughs]
HM: How long have you been connected with SJ?
CF: I’ve been part of SJ since the second restaurant week. I got involved in the second one and it’s been a little bit over 10 years. I’m very fortunate to have met everyone. This group of people through SJ has been very helpful to me and I’ve served as the president of the group for half a decade. I believe in what we do which is really supporting small businesses.
HM: What’s coming up on the menu for you next?
CF: My newest venture that I started last year which is “Dine in the Vines.” I take people to Auburn Roads Vineyards. New Jersey is a growing wine area and people are having their eyes opened to all the wine possibilities out here. On September 20th, we are doing a 5-course dinner at the winery in the middle of the wine field. The owners of the winery give them a tour, show them the barrel room, the aging room, the vines, etc. It’s a beautiful experience. People get a hands-on experience that’s truly priceless.
HM: You are a BYOB restaurant correct?
CF: Yes! People can bring their own wine and beer at no charge. I’m also a retail outlet for Auburn Roads. I have about 10 different varieties and it’s been incredible. People are really loving the wine. And it’s local. It’s not expensive at all and it’s super good. Auburn Roads is my personal favorite.
HM: If you could give any advice to a restaurateur what would you say?
CF: I think for anyone young or old it’s to get out there and talk to other business owners. No matter what area you are in; the city, suburbs, east or west coast, the other owners can give you the lay of the land. The nice thing about being a small business owner is that you get to do things your way. The bad thing is that you think you know everything and you don’t.
Chef Fred is a busy man, but he wouldn’t trade what he does for the world. When he’s not cultivating great menus coupled with innovative experiences, you can find him enjoying a glass of Malbec with his wife and son or sourcing local produce.
Stop by his website and sign up for any of his unique dining experiences.
Also, don’t forget to stop by for a great meal!