New Jersey Food Journal

Saturday, July 4, 2015

NJ Oysters Climb to the Top

Photo Credits: Milford, NJ Oyster House

By Meenal Upadhyay

The New Jersey clam culture has been built on a long history, valuable aquaculture and much healthy competition. Today, Jersey clams are compared to the best of the best from Massachusetts and the West Coast. The shellfish itself is a popular menu item, as are chowders, dips and fried clam strips.

“Our long-range goal is to make New Jersey producers the shining star in the seafood industry,” says Neil Berger, the manager at Cold Spring Fish in Cape May.

“That’s what is really special about New Jersey seafood – the atmosphere and the memories that come with it.”
At Milford Oyster House, which was named by Zagat as New Jersey’s best seafood spot in 2015, the favorite item on the menu for years has been the Oyster House shellfish stew. Chef Edwin Coss says it’s not easy to reach the top spot. It’s all about providing something unique yet also comfortable and familiar, he says.

“Our ever-changing roster of oysters offers four to six selections each evening and we make sure each oyster is carefully hand scrubbed, delicately prepared, and served to ou
r guests with their choice of a cocktail sauce.”

To remain a top-rated oyster bar, says Coss, the restaurant also must serve a variety of seafood, to satisfy everyone.

At the Jersey Shore, clam chowder is popular; many restaurants call their versions “world famous” and “award-winning.” The Jersey clam chowder features tomatoes, bacon and potatoes. It was – and remains -- a staple at the Shore and is the kind of recipe that keepspeople coming back. It doesn’t just taste good, it reminds them of salty waters and ocean airs.

That’s what is really special about New Jersey seafood – the atmosphere and the memories that come with it.

Joseph Stallor, a Rutgers student, says he loves seafood, because it reminds him of “sunny weather, good vibes and happy times.”

Meenal Upadhyay is a senior at Rutgers University, studying Economics and Journalism. She hopes to some day become a financial analyst and when she's not busy, you can always find her eating some delicious food since every food is her favorite food!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Jersey Oyster Farm Keeps it Fresh

Photo credits: Forty North Oysters
By Serena Han

Sunsets and shoreline photos on Instagram are a dime a dozen. A close-up shot of a fresh oyster from New Jersey is not.

Forty North Oyster Farm’s Instagram feed is updated regularly with photos showing off the glistening sheen of wild oysters and their distinctly textured shells. Matt Gregg, founder of Forty North Oyster Farm, promotes his oyster farm the modern way, using social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the video hosting site Vimeo.
“It’s become my quest to grow the perfect oyster”

Gregg’s social media presence exudes a youthful vibe that most would not typically associate with oyster farming. Its online content reflects a millennial and current perspective on the fishing industry and this refreshing and unique angle separates Forty North from other oyster farming competitors.

Companies use social media for marketing, promotional, or customer service-related purposes, including Forth North Oyster Farm. However, Gregg’s social media efforts give off a contemporary and distinctly savvy feel. The image editing, quality, and overall aesthetics on its Instagram feed is impressive.

So much so, that Modern Farmer magazine recruited Gregg to take over its Instagram account for two weeks as a guest contributor. Gregg posted pictures of oysters, the farming process, and even photos of himself on the job, giving followers a first-hand look into Forty North Oyster Farm’s operations. Captions are educational and fun – how to fry mud crabs, for example, or tidbits about New Jersey marine culture.

Gregg cultivates the company’s image in ways that are appealing to other millennials. Forty North Oyster Farm’s merchandise has the same lightheartedness. A gray hooded sweatshirt, available for purchase on the company’s website, says, “I’m Not a Playa’ I Just Shuck A Lot,” a witty play on rapper Big Pun’s 1998 single “Still Not a Player.” According to Gregg’s caption on an Instagram post for Modern Farmer, the sweatshirt is a hot item for 26-35-year-olds who recognize the hip-hop song.

Photo Credits: ModFarm
Gregg is also featured in documentary-style trailer titled “Oyster Renaissance” that showcases him farming oysters. His voiceover plays dramatically over stunning footage of New Jersey oyster farming landscapes.  

“It’s become my quest to grow the perfect oyster,” says Gregg in the video clip. “I don’t think I’ll ever achieve that feat because, in this case, the definition of perfect is open to interpretation.”

The video, hosted on Vimeo and linked on Forty North’s website, is another dynamic way multimedia is incorporated to further curate the brand’s persona.

Gregg grew up in Monmouth County and graduated from University of Rhode Island in 2007. The marine and coastal policy major founded Forty North Oyster Farm out of a passion for aquaculture.

Today, Gregg continues to build Forty North Oyster Farm’s image and name through social media. According its latest Instagram update on May 5, Forty North farmers are harvesting oysters for spring 2016.

Oyster farming may be an unusual segment of social media but Gregg operates platforms like Instagram and Vimeo in ways that relate to younger audiences. The farmer possesses a keen sense of contemporary Internet culture and showcases Forty North Oyster Farm with that lens. Witty captions and high-resolution photos on Instagram are just a few of the components that keep Gregg’s business afloat.

Serena Han recently graduated from Rutgers University as a journalism & media studies major with a double minor in digital communication, information, and media and Korean. She hopes to work in entertainment media.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Oyster Farming: A New Start

Market-ready Oysters (Photo credits: Forty North Oyster Farm)
By Kimberly Dublin & Allyson Ricarte

He scooped the granola-like oyster seeds (baby oysters), cradling them with the hopes they’ll be ready in 2018. The seeds are about to begin a three-year journey in the tides of Barnegat Bay. But there is no bigger boss than nature, especially for oyster farmer Matt Gregg. “An entrepreneur never clocks out,” he said.

He may never be able to clock out, thanks to the swelling popularity of oysters and the resurgence of oysters at the Jersey Shore. For four years, Gregg has owned Forty North Oyster Farms. His business never runs on a routine but rather at the mercy of the ocean as his farm grows larger. In the spring, he eyes for crusty barnacle-covered oyster shells like the tips of grass popping for springtime.

“It all depends on natural variables,” Gregg said. “Right now I am making sure barnacles don’t cover oysters as we just had a set of new barnacle eggs. It’s a site specific endeavor that is rarely the same day to day.”

Gregg works on his boat when the tide is low, but even on shore, his hands are always tied. “It is difficult because I have to balance relationships with chefs that are used to working on a set schedule,” he said. “Other times I have to answer emails, build gear, go to meetings, take care of the paperwork side of things.”
But nature’s bad days are the busiest, crunching as much time as possible, he said. “When the weather is bad and we get behind in work we have to harvest, sort, maintain and deliver all in one day,” he said. “These are the sun-up to sun-down days and they’d be longer if possible.”

As his thumb-sized oysters bobbed in the murky ocean, Gregg also commits his time to preparing market-sized oysters for local chefs. “Two things (to indicate a good oyster): length and cup,” he said “If it has a nice deep cup and is over 2.5”, then it’s ready to go. We sell smaller oysters than most. It seems to be what the market is demanding.”

Gregg’s relationship with those chefs in Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey is just as important as his relationship with the environment. “I would like to set an example as someone who improves our environment while creating commerce,” he said. “It's always one or the other, but why can't it be both? Well, it can.”

To Gregg, the oyster provides an economic service. “Every cent I spend to grow an oyster goes into the local economy,” he said. But the oyster also provides its service environmentally.  “They create habitat and remove excess nutrients from our natural waterways,” he explained.

Gregg’s intense knowledge of oysters grew from working in an oyster farm in Rhode Island, a work that he loved. Educated in the University of Rhode Island, he earned a major in Marine and Coastal Policy with a minor in Aquaculture and Fisheries Science. He then decided to start something similar in New Jersey, after enduring the excruciating permitting process in New Jersey. “It takes way too long to access the permits, licenses, land to grow and sell oysters,” he said. But once he had access to those permits, Gregg has been going strong for the past four years.

The oyster industry’s decline in the New Jersey resulted from the destructive combination of “oyster disease, degradation of environment and over harvesting,” Gregg explained. In this case, much of the oyster population was decimated by “a protozoan parasite called MSX,” according to Wendy Plump in The Pearl of New Jersey for Rutgers Magazine. This caused New Jersey to no longer be called “the oyster capital of the world,” which various websites such as Cumberland County’s official homepage reported that the state used to be home to such a title. Gregg, along with many oyster farms in New Jersey, is slowly trying to gain back that title.

The revival of the oysters is important to the Jersey coast, their presence offering more than just environmental and economic services.  Oysters have been making a huge impact in the experience of eating. “When people come to the Jersey Shore, they want to eat food from here. It's a romantic notion that is nearly forgotten, but the chefs and restaurants we work with, they get it. So do their customers,” he explained.

 “Oysters are a social food, which is why they're so popular in metropolitan areas,” he observed. “Happy hour oysters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Jersey City, Philadelphia are a huge social experience and a great opportunity to taste something so simple, but so delicious. Oysters, beer, friends.”

Kimberly Dublin is a senior journalism student at Rutgers University. She is a contributor to and is an editorial intern at

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She hopes to work in Broadway production.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Catherine Lombardi's Pioneers

Jamon Iberico de Bellota (Photo credits: H.C.)
By Allyson Ricarte

As the glistening jamon iberico de bellota melted on the ordinary wooden cutting board, restaurateur Francis Schott resisted from dangling a thin slice into his mouth. Instead, he reeled through the oak forests of northern Spain and their tarrying pata negra pigs feasting on acorns. Catherine Lombardi’s is nothing without its stories.

“The difference between good and great is authenticity and also its complexity,” Schott said. “You’re going to taste this for a long time,” restaurateur Mark Pascal said.

Pascal shares the joys of Italian-American home cooked dinners of his grandmother, after whom the restaurant is named. The effervescent business partners bring to the dining table angelically soft mozzarella oozing after its fresh massage in salt water. They offer the flirtatious spark of orange garnish in their Brooklyn cocktail. Their ice balls seem magical. They’ve captured New Brunswick’s attention day and night.

However, chain restaurants are pushing independent owners out of the spectrum, Pascal said. “Because the thing about being an independent owner is that, (when) the Bennigan’s closed, the stock holders lose value on their stocks,” Schott said. “When some of these independent restaurants close, people’s lives are turned upside down.”

In addition, the decline in reflective food journalism doesn’t help, Schott said. Lists, such as the top 10 restaurants in New Brunswick, place emphasis on competition within restaurant services and demonstrate lazy journalism, Schott said. “I don’t view food as a contest,” Schott said.

Catherine Lombardi’s and co-owned restaurant Stage Left faced a similar conflict during the 2008 economic crisis that shook neighboring restaurants to discount overdrive. For Pascal and Schott, quality experience was without a doubt their best survival technique. “As far as plate went and service went, those weren’t compromises we weren’t willing to make,” Pascal said. “(Customers) didn’t have the money to do it (fine dining) for a while, but they didn’t forget that they enjoyed some of those finer things in life.”

Finer wasn’t the only term that resonated in their elegant dining room, but also simple. Call them pioneers, Pascal and Schott were determined to bring fresh ingredients to the table not because it was fundamentally a cool story, Pascal said. “We knew our guests well enough to say OK, do you trust me?” Schott said. “That was the key; we were the conduit between the producer that makes the cool thing and the people in the community so that’s how we view ourselves.”

Pascal and Schott also love to translate their food interests in their food talk show, The Restaurant Guys on 1450 WCTC. The program first aired in 2005 for nine years before its hiatus. They intend to return in the near future, Pascal said. These brotherly partners couldn’t wish any more from their jobs. “I chose this because I love all of the parts of this,” Pascal said. “I love the people parts of this. I love the food parts of this. I love the hospitality parts of this.”

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She hopes to work in Broadway production.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Honest Investments for Garwood Bakery &Grain

Photo credits: Susanne Davidson
By Allyson Ricarte

His menu spoils customers with pain de mie French toast, polished with light syrup and snowy powdered sugar, and tender, piquant ham and brie baguette sandwiches worthy to be a guilty pleasure. If you’re lucky to visit &Grain, you’ll find no magic tricks behind the kitchen. Owner Jon Ropelski invests in the best quality of essential ingredients and pushes them to their full potential of flavor. His devotion to honest baking resonates in his passionate pursuits for intimacy and character, giving the bread its life, he said.

“If you have bread, you’ll never go hungry,” his French culinary professor said, but for Ropelski, bread fed more than his stomach.

 “I’m so invested in the business emotionally, financially, physically. It’s like this is an extension of me,” he said. He shared his challenges with the threatened state of small businesses, establishing &Grain’s character and the rewards of honest baking in a discussion with a Rutgers University food journalism class. Ropelski has charmed Garwood and its community since August 2012. Big and burly, he’s adamant in channeling his heart through his bread.

Ropelski wants a business with personality; he’s old-fashioned that way. “You go to the city (New York City) and all the buildings have character,” he said. “Their store fronts have a history like they want to tell you a story of how many people have walked in and out through that door.”

He also channels his integrity beyond artisan food. “It’s about taking pride in whatever you do,” he said. “That’s why I give people a lot of freedom here and creativity in the kitchen because I find that that’s missing nowadays.”

Ropelski, who majored in finance, originally planned to invest in a successful lunch business. “I thought good lunch is good sandwich is good bread,” he said with a white chef coat as pure as his breads. He looks up to traditional mom and pop type shops as an ideal model.

There’s a special personal touch shared in small businesses, but chain grocers threaten the growth of this intimacy, he said. “Yes the quality at Whole Foods is phenomenal, but you’re not the guy who’s at the fish market, down at the dock or in the seaport,” he said. “He picked that out with his own hands and knows the story about it.”

Ropelski relates to bread like a parent, challenging his perception of labor. Authentic bread-making taught him patience first and foremost, but it encouraged him particularly to respect deceivingly easy work, he said, his lucid blue eyes glistering. “Originally my father was telling me to buy a business,” he said. “I was concerned about buying a business because when the owner has a real personal touch, that’s the business in itself.”

Ropelski’s gut-driven investment from the start represents a drive for integrity that will stay with the community. “I would’ve made mediocre money, but I wanted something that was a bit more,” Ropelski said. “That’s not who I am. Everything I’ve ever tried to do in my life, I will try to be the best at.”

Allyson Ricarte is a student at Rutgers University, studying journalism and media studies, art history, and digital communication. She's an aspiring producer for performing arts.