Asbury Park, NJ
Pan-seared sustainable halibut with heirloom tomatoes
Where did you learn to cook?
My brother and his partner had a French Japanese restaurant during the early eighties, it was called Ocean. My mother was very ill with cancer. They opened this restaurant to heal her with food. My brother was macrobiotic at the time when Michio Kushi had his foundation --it was the beginning of that healing with food concept.
He opened this restaurant with Michael to give her a way to heal. I was eighteen at the time and living with Tommy Tang and his wife in California, My father had just died. they called me back to help. I waited tables but I was young, I just wanted to go out and party and surf, hang out at the beach.
One weekend, it was the fourth of July, our chef quit. My brother was in New York opening another restaurant for some friends and was like "You're going to have to cook tonight" I was like "What!" I never cooked. I ate junk as a child. I wasn't really into the culinary word at all. I had a talent and just did it --it was crazy. I was on one of those big portable phones and it was like "When do I flip this tuna? What is it supposed to look like?" I had no idea.
I did it for the rest of the summer, then I opened a restaurant the next year by myself, Rosa Lee's Kitchen. It was in the garage behind this restaurant. The guy who had this restaurant was kind of a famous person around here but he just up and left in the middle of the summer. I saw the building and thought it was so cute so I asked and he gave it to me for $2000 for the summer. We called it the Love Lounge outside we had another separate room for dining. We would surf and play and cook at night.
It was fun and I look back and say what did I do all this for? I made more money back then, I had more time off, all my friends worked for me. The whole restaurant wasn't as big as this patio including the kitchen.
What kind of food did you serve?
Very similar to the menu we are doing here. we had an edible garden that the previous chef left for us, so that was my inspiration. I was 21 at the time and had my own restaurant…I cooked out of cookbooks for the first summer. I had no idea how to make stuff up. I figured " I'm good at this…I should do it. I need a job." I took winters off and traveled.
It was great. I don't know that in this world it can be done anymore. we did that for a few years and then opened the first Labrador Lounge which was my first reviewable, big restaurant.
How old were you when you opened that?
23 or 24.
I had a lot of bad partnerships and got involved with a lot of guys who shouldn't have been involved in my business, and I made a lot of mistakes. Then I met my husband, he was a dishwasher at one of my restaurants. He's been a stable force, keeping everything grounded.
My brothers both came to work for me in the last couple years. It's much easier having family around. We have a lot of restaurants but were in them, we're bouncing around all the time.We've been asked to go to New York City, inland even. My thing is, I need to be able to ride my bike to the beach, even though I never go there, I need to know it's there. I wear a bathing suit every day. Every Tuesday I teach my kids surfing.
We have two non-profits. Food for Thought By the Sea, a culinary life program. We do surfing, yoga, community gardens and then we have APFI (Asbury Park Film Initiative), movies on the beach movies at the paramount. We came to the realization that for us to do all the non-profit work we want to do we have to be our own non-profit.
Getting the notoriety it makes it a lot easier for us to get stuff done if people know who we are.
For all the talk about being natural and green there is the flipside of "I've got gluten allergies" and "I'm lactose intolerant" and everything gets me sick. People are so fearful of food now. You don't know why your having a certain reaction. You may have been in the sun, or your tired. --or you had a shot of tequila…that might make you a little ill in the morning. People want to have a reason for everything. They watch all this stuff and go on the internet.
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
There's a series of cookbooks which are travel cooking related which I love because of the visual aspect and the introduction to local produce. When I am going to a go-to for a real recipe that is going to work it's either the Joy of Cooking or Ruth Reichl's The Gourmet Cookbook.
I probably have like 4000 cookbooks, I collect them like jewelry. So every restaurant office has them, my office has them. I just think they're beautiful. Tommy Tang's got great cookbooks. His cookbooks are a little tough to read. He understands the food, knows it, so he doesn't think that you might not know what he is talking about. It's a lot of travel inspired stuff. I love travel cookbooks.
Why do you think it is important to use seasonal or local ingredients?
I think from a health standpoint it is good for your body. Your body really wants what it wants and knows what it needs for the seasons. You definitely want to eat root vegetables if you live in a cold area in the Winter --your body doesn't even want an orange really. If you're in Florida on vacation, all of a sudden you feel like having an orange. So there is that medicinal part of it and then there is the business community part of it. Supporting people in your area who are making a living. The energy from what you do transfers to your plate and your customer. The Buddhist in me knows that's real and feels that when I cook.
My Dad was born in 1898 so he came from a totally different world then we live in. I grew up with that concept of healing yourself through nature --not through drugs, not through television. When he was a kid there were no phones, no televisions, no cars. Some of my kids think tomatoes come from the supermarket in plastic containers. They've never seen a tomato on a vine.
Favorite music to listen to while cooking?
Depends on my mood. When the kitchen is crazy I like music I never listen to like opera or jazz because it calms the kitchen down. The boys will put on hardcore or really heavy rap and it makes me agitated. In the Summer, I have a different energy and I throw some Reggae on, or put on the iPod and start dancing to Madonna while your cooking --depends on the mood and the volume of what we're doing. I don't cook at home anymore so I don't even know what that would be.
Favorite microbrew or wine?
I'm seasonal with my alcohol as well. I drink a lot of Rose and crisp whites in the Summer then in Fall I'll start craving red wine. I had a glass of red wine last night for the first time since April. It was chilly last night…I didn't think about it being chilly and drinking the wine I thought about having a glass of red wine so --tequila in the Summer, bourbon in the Winter.
I love Singha beer. We bring in a lot of US microbrews. Stone Brewery out of California, Six Point out of Brooklyn. We have Abita in our Cajun restaurant which is from New Orleans.
What makes Asbury Park special?
We have a local theater company in town ReVision that is doing Tommy at the Carousel, amazing. Asbury is so cool like that. When we were younger every summer we would take a week and go to Martha's Vineyard, or Maine, or the Berkshires --somewhere that had a little more culture by the beach. We've never had that here until Asbury Park, where you can go to galleries and theater and movies on the beach.
Who was your most memorable dinner guest?
When I opened Rosa Lee's kitchen I dated a guy Mark and Rosa Lee was his housekeeper maid. She was an old woman from North Carolina near Chapel Hill. She was 89-90 years old.They were very wealthy, not in my world at all. I was the other side of the track girl that went out with the wealthy guy.
Rosa Lee was awesome, she was that rare person that you meet who inspires you. When I was going to open Rosa Lee's Kitchen, Mark and I split up. I went over to his house and I said "Rosa Lee I'm going to open my first restaurant and I'm going to name it after you" and she was like "Marilyn! I can't believe you!"
A year later they brought her to the restaurant. Right before she died actually. She came with her Rosa Lee shirt on over her dress. I knew that before she died I made her world.
She worked for these wealthy people forever, would eat in the kitchen when they ate in the dining room --you know and I never got that separation so I always tried to make her feel a part of us. Cooking for her in Rosa Lee's kitchen was one of the most touching things in my life.
What makes independent food better?
I don't know of any chain restaurants that feel independent. My next meeting is with an architect to do a Pop's which is our Mexican concept. It will be our first in-the-box test to see if we can create that version of Pop's that never feels like a chain. That always feels like the owner is present. I don't know if it can be done. We're going into a mall, the owner of the mall has an organic garden. It's not a typical situation.
I don't like the generic feeling. Being a chef, knowing to get the prices to that level they're not using what they should be or what they are saying they use. You cannot create food pure and from local ingredients --just like clothing. If I see something which is three dollars, that is not possible unless someone is getting hurt in the process. Either the laborer is getting hurt or the customer is getting hurt.
When you go to a chain and they're giving you a steak for $9 or all you can eat shrimp for $12 --it's impossible. Somebody is suffering. We can't go to that level. Chains scare me that way.