South Jersey Restaurant Week is here and now! And we are happy to be able to present another interview with one the participating SJ Hot Chefs restaurant. Chefs Jean-Sauver and Vivian Fiorentino bring their worlds of cooking experiences to Nonna’s in Cherry Hill. We appreciate a few moments with them as they talk about their life in cooking and what excites them today.
EiSJ: What was the moment where you realized that cooking was going to be your passion?
Chef Jean: School was not my preferred thing to do, so at age 15, my father knew of a pastry shop in my home town of Cannes, France,that needed an apprentice. After a few weeks there, I was hooked.
Chef Vivian: I really never imagined being a professional chef, but as a self-taught cook, and travel enthusiast, I spent many months traveling Europe in college. Spending time with my aunt in Abruzzo, on her farm, I participated in the olive harvest and oil making, the feeding of, and cheese making from the cows’ and goats’ milk, the canning of the wild mushroom harvest, the cooking of the polenta for the pig each night, the eventual butchering of the pig for Christmas, and all the varieties of sausages, salami, and prosciutto they made. Bread was baked once a week, in a wood-burning oven, and very little of what was eaten year-round, was not produced there on the land. To me, life does not get any more passionate about food, than that.
EiSJ: You’ve had so many cooking experiences in your career. Can you pick one that made the biggest impression on you?
Chef Jean: When I was working in Paris at the Georges V Hotel, I was 20 years old, and could not believe I was working in a palace. 36 chefs in the kitchen, and 8 pastry chefs every day. Everything was top of the line perfection.
Chef Vivian: It was a very small, but significant revelation, when a dear friend and I decided to bake our first ever souffle, from a cook book. We carefully picked wild strawberries in fields in Southern Jersey, and took them back as our main flavoring. We took turns reading the instructions out loud, as one butterred and sugared the souffle mold, and the other tied parchment onto the outside rim. One made the base cream, while the other hand-whipped the whites firm. Folding the mixes together, and adding our berries, we held our breath as we placed it into the oven. We squealed with delight as the filling rose above the brim, and up into the parchment sleeve. When golden and magnificent, we took it out, plunged two spoons into the center, and scooped out airy vanilla and strawberry poofs. It was a miracle, and I have never experienced such a thrill with any souffle since.
EiSJ: Nonna’s is described as French-Italian. Can you give an example of a dish you prepare that blends these two styles together?
Chef Jean: I don’t think I mix French and Italian, and not sure that I could. I am of French-Italian descent, but when I am making Alsatian Onion Tart, my French side shows, and when I am making Cioppino, my olive oil, garlic and seafood side shows up.
Chef Vivian: I love the way the French extract flavors and concentrate them during the cooking process. I take those techniques, and apply them to soups and sauces I make, but without the creaminess and fat content, and just go for the vibrant and robust flavors instead. Perhaps we collaborate on the salad side, where homemade vinegar meets olive oil.
EiSJ: What stereotypes about French and Italian cuisines would you like to see go away?
Chef Jean: I don’t consider the old way of cooking interesting any more.. The times seem to indicate that techniques, pretty plates, technology, and structure are where the innovations are. The French are on the threshold, as may be the Italians, but I believe the French are more forward thinking.
EiSJ: Talk about the importance of being able to use locally grown and produced ingredients for your restaurant.
Chef Jean: I go to the fresh produce market every Friday, and not because I need to go, but because the local produce dictates my menu for the weekend. I love the idea of CSA’S (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes arriving on doorsteps, and love to see people appreciating our wonderful local produce. Every Restaurant Week Menu we do (3x a year) we incorporate as many local and seasonal produce items we can.
Chef Vivian: I will just speak of the upcoming Restaurant Week beginning March 18th, when we will launch the dream of the end of winter, and the beginning of summer in NJ. Spinach-Cheese dumplings, with tomato cream sauce, Sweet Pea Ravioli with Scallion Butter, Mussels in Guinness and Cream Sauce, Whale Soft Shell Crabs topped with Bay Scallops and Corn Spoon Bread, need I say more?
EiSJ: Name one ingredient that people should be cooking with more at home.
Chef Jean: Though I should not say it, as a restaurant owner, cooking at home is the best in every way. Maybe those cooking shows have their place as entertainment, but home cooking is the place where the important values of eating take place. I think beans are great, and I personally love lentils with a little sausage.
Chef Vivian: Coming from peasant beginnings, broccoli rabe with white beans, or other dark green leafy vegetables, are way too under-used. I am also an advocate of homemade bread, with as many varied grains as possible.
EiSJ: Where do you see the South Jersey dining scene right now, and where is it headed?
Chef Vivian: New Jersey is such a wonderful place to spend summers, and reap the harvest of some of the most wonderful produce. I preserve at least 150 lbs. of tomatoes each summer, and the peaches, berries, apples and peppers are unmatched. We are so lucky to have such a resource nearby and available. New Jerseyans have so much to harvest, and I can only wish that more would buy locally, and eat seasonally.
EiSJ: What do you like about Restaurant Week?
Chef Jean: I think Restaurant Week brings in new people, and like everyone else, we hope to make them taste our way of doing things, and hope they like the efforts we make to intrigue them.
Chef Vivian: Restaurant Week allows people who might be afraid of white tablecloth, candle and flower places, to try 4 courses for a fixed price. I love the idea that Jean and I collaborate on menu items from out of our normal box, and pull in sea foods, vegetables, and meats that we might not normally have. Creativity, taste sensations, textures and flavors are our palettes.
EiSJ: What do you want customers who might try you for the first time during Restaurant Week to leave with…what impressions?
Chef Jean: I would love to demystify the idea that French food is not approachable and too expensive, or too rich and creamy. I dislike the idea that for every French restaurant, there are 100 Italian restaurants, vying for the best red sauce. I am not a food snob, and understand, that good food is good across cultural lines.
Chef Vivian: I just love the idea of friends meeting up with friends, and sharing wonderful meals in places that they might not have otherwise tried. BYOB places like ours, where the food reigns supreme, and we don’t make our living selling alcohol, but on the merit of what we serve, is rare.