Despite buzz from bloggers like Ulterior Epicure and restaurant obsessives out to find the next big thing, elements restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey remains a bit of a sleeper. That doesn't seem to bother its chef, Scott Anderson, who has cooked in the same state for much of his life and continues to work toward turning his business into one of "the premiere restaurants of the northeast, if not the country."
In the following interview, Anderson explains his approach to cooking, how he prefers to be an underdog functioning away from the spotlight, and how his kitchen team collaborates in ways not unlike Phish, his favorite band.
You've been cooking in Jersey all your life, basically.
Yeah, I cooked at very regular places at the beginning. I've been in the Princeton area now for about thirteen years. I worked at the Ryland Inn with Craig Shelton for a couple of years, though.
Was that a crucial experience?
I would say so. I started there ten years ago, and he had what I wanted: he had a three-acre garden, handcrafted food, all high-end. It was a good fit.
Was there a community of chefs or anything distinct about the food there at the time?
No, not at all. What I adored about the area was the small farmers. There was a lot of places to go forage and get local produce, but there wasn't a tight-knit community. I liked that it wasn't the city life. It had the peacefulness that I wanted.
How is it now?
Honestly, it's quite the same, but the chefs are a little tighter, which has happened only in the last three or four years. But I still get what I want: 90 percent of my produce is local.
What are the highlights of what you can get?
It's not so much what we get, and never mind the freshness, which is impeccable: I don't think I could get any better produce delivered to my front door. What I really like is that I get the ability to talk directly to the farmers and have them grow exactly what we want, when we want it. Having that ability is maybe a little more than what you would be able to do in New York. You get to go to the farmers market, which is great, but you can't go to a farmer and tell them, "Hey, can you plant or grow me this, so it'll be ready for my fall menu?"
Wednesday we're sitting down with a local farmer to plan all the things he is going to plant for the restaurant. You just don't get that exclusivity everywhere.
How did elements come to be?
I love the area, like I said, and I've always wanted to open here. If you know anything about this area, it's clear that it's never truly had a great restaurant. What I wanted to do was open a high-end spot with local stuff, and luckily, one of the wine shops in the area put me in touch with a local businessman, and it was that simple. That's how it started.
Did you know exactly what you wanted or did you figure it out as you went along?
I had a pretty crystal clear vision of what I wanted to do. Luckily — and I stress this — my business partner let me go along with that vision. It often happens that visions clash between chef and partner. He's allowed me to set goals and reach them and try different things. Like I said, a restaurant with local product, a constantly changing menu, and the ability to — for lack of a better word — play with food.
It sounds like it continues to be that way.
What are the goals?
I would like to become one of the premiere restaurants of the northeast, if not the country. We're doing it in stages. We're not setting the bar too high or excluding the Princeton or New Jersey locals and regulars in the process. Hopefully, we'll take the community with us as we step things up.
Yeah, I imagine much of your traffic is from the area.
Of course. Only one third of my brain is business-minded, but I like to think that the Princeton community is coming with us.
Let's talk about the challenges: how do you become one of the best restaurants in the northeast when you're not in a major city, and how do you do it when many of the places in that league are special occasion restaurants that don't need to cater to regulars or even locals?
We're doing it two-fold: for certain people, we're only a special occasion place. But for others, they might say, "Let's not go to New York City tonight. We have elements. Let's just go there. What I have found with the special occasion people, is that they come here and realize that it isn't as challenging as it may look. We do have a lot of ingredients that people haven't seen before, but we like to inform and educate on the service end. It's a comfortable effort to show people we aren't that pretentious or far-out.
But don't get me wrong, we have crazy wagyu and Grand Cru Bordeaux and Burgundy available, too. You can choose your own adventure, though.
But does it bother you that you might not be on the radar for as many people as you would if you worked in a big city?
It doesn't bother me one bit. We're here and we're going to be here, and I actually kind of like that.
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
I like to be off by myself doing what I like to do. I don't have as much pressure as others in the city might feel if they are in the spotlight. I like being the guy who is undiscovered and then, when people come in and try it, they are surprised and happy. I enjoy that. It allows me to work on what I need to work on to make this a better restaurant.
And at some point, it might explode.
It might or it might not. I feel much more comfortable being able to work on the craft than being in the spotlight and having everybody scrutinizing me all the time.
So you just work toward that goal but don't really care if it happens or not?
Exactly. My ultimate goal, really, is to make people happy and make good food. That's truly my job. If something great happens, it happens. I just see lots of smiles when people leave, and that's what it's about.
About that food: what do you mean by "interpretive American cuisine."
What I mean by that is that I'm a deeply classically trained chef. We take dishes that may be familiar to people — whether it's Indian or Thai or anything else — which are part of American culture and reinterpret that with our own vision and palate and artistically plate it as we do.
A lot of progressive chefs describe their style that way. It might be impossible to put it into words, but what do you think distinguishes your approach?
Yeah, it's like taking a beef wellington, tearing the whole thing apart, and serving it to the guests in a way that isn't as recognizable as the classic. It may taste the same, but it won't look the same. Answering your question, though, that is hard to say. I will say that a lot of bloggers like ChuckEats or Ulterior Epicure have come in here and told me that I have a distinct style, but it's difficult to say. I just do what I do and I enjoy it, and that's maybe what shows.
I always put it into musical terms, since it's a team-oriented menu. I'm an older school hippie who listens to Phish, and that shows in the way we put together a menu.
Yeah, I'm one of those unfortunate Phish fans, too. What are the similarities you see, besides the fact that setting up a menu or tasting is a lot like a set list?
One cook may be working at one station, thinking of doing a different kind of dish, and we'll follow along with that; it's communicative.
The kitchen is divided up like a classic French kitchen. So when we do our nine-course tastings, one of the guests might say that the meat dishes stood out and their companion might like the seafood more. Much like at a concert, when during one song, Trey [Anastasio's] guitar may not be great, but [Jon] Fishman could be doing something remarkable. It could turn out that the person you're at the show with thinks the exact opposite.
What chefs working today do you look up to or find to be like-minded?
David Kinch has to be the guy. He is the man. He's deeply rooted in the classics, his food is solid, he gets to surf every morning, and he has his own farm producing exactly what he wants, which is very important. He's ultra bright.
He's a giant, but some people wouldn't consider him an avant-gardist.
I don't think that the stuff that we do here is necessarily super avant-garde, because everything comes full circle. Now one of the big things is to hang and age meat, which isn't new by any concept. Even the avant-garde chefs, the number one thing for them is whether it tastes good. The ones that understand that are the ones that survive. They put out good, solid-tasting product. And I guess I strive for that.
You know, it may look a little flashier than when Alain Chapel was doing it. I have a bunch of those books and when I look at the pictures, I go, "Jesus. What would happen if I served that?"