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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smoke Rise Inn's Chef George Tavolara

Executive Chef George Tavolara, Smoke Rise Inn
From previous posts, you will have learned that Kinnelon's Smoke Rise Inn has seen some changes lately [see Meet Randy Polo, Smoke Rise Inn General Manager]. The Inn is now open for lunch. The menus offer more intriguing options. Events such as the Royal Wedding are generating buzz beyond Smoke Rise. What hasn't changed, though, is the Inn's Executive Chef, George Tavolara.

Chef George is passionate about good food and authentic food. [NB: Emma considers his Mac & Cheese the nec plus ultra ever since first experiencing it at the Smoke Rise Inn in 2004; she refers to it in reverential tones as "Chef George's Special Macaroni".] He's also an accomplished musician and ice hockey player.

I recently caught up with Chef George who, in between a 147 person private event and his regular Smoke Rise Inn duties, graciously offered to answer a few questions...

C.B.: Chef George, tell us about your background.

GT: I was born in Secaucus, New Jersey into a family that owned a restaurant. So from day one I had the restaurant business in my blood.

From an early age I recall setting tables and making hors d'oeuvres. I went to New York University until my mother bought her own restaurant. At that time I began working in the kitchen and attended culinary school. We sold our restaurant and I took a tour of some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan, then to Glen Ridge Country Club and finally here to the Smoke Rise Village Inn.

C.B.: How long have you been Executive Chef of the Smoke Rise Inn? 

GT: August 1 will complete my tenth year.

C.B.: What about ice hockey?

GT: I have played ice hockey since I was ten years old. I still play today and referee about 175 games a year. My daughter Anais also has the passion for hockey. This past April her under 12 girls team won a silver medal at the national level. Her team - the New Jersey Colonials - was the first from New Jersey to win any medal at the national level!

C.B.: Congratulations to Anais and her team! I understand you also play guitar?

GT: I have played guitar for 25 years. I have been lucky enough to play with some friends for most of those years. Personally I have been lucky to have played with members of Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors in the early nineties. These days, it’s more of a hobby, but I still play out a few times a year.

C.B.:  So, who cooks at home? Do you?

GT:  I rarely cook at home. Apparently I have a habit of using too many pots and pans, and I don’t bring anyone to clean up after me (the best part about being the chef is not having to clean the pans).

When I do cook at home it's usually Asian. Anais and I enjoy going to the Asian market buying things we aren’t exactly sure what they are and trying to figure what to make with them. My favorite home cooked meal is gravy, meatballs, and brachiole with pasta. I am lucky enough to have someone in my life who excels at making that.

C.B.: Which are your favorite restaurants?

GT: In my family there is only one restaurant, El Charro - it is in the Village in Manhattan. My mother started eating there when she was in college. It started as half Tex mex and half Spanish; now it’s mostly Spanish and a few old favorites. My family has celebrated everything from birthdays to births to marriages there. The food is outstanding and authentic to Spain. When I was in Madrid I realized how great El Charro is.

Emma & Anais, Smoke Rise Inn
Emma & Anais ~2005?
C.B.: Which are your favorite foods?

GT: My favorite foods are ones that are authentic to their origins. Over the years I have been lucky enough to work with cooks, dishwashers, and even some friends' grandmothers who taught me how to make the cuisine from their homelands, using true ingredients and techniques. I take a lot of pride in making meals true to their origins.

C.B.: What about the changes in the Smoke Rise Inn?

GT: Randy has certainly raised the bar for the kitchen, and it is a welcome challenge. With his backing we are able to deliver an even more refined product, take more risks with menu items. I feel you will really see it in the upcoming special events such as the Summer Social and the Stag’s Leap Wine dinner.

C.B.: You've just released a new menu. What are some of the highlights?

GT: The new menu has brought back some of the old favorites such as the sesame tuna and firecracker shrimp. Most of the changes are based on seasonality. We have two dishes featuring asparagus which are a spring time favorite.

Putting together a new menu is always fun especially the tasting part. The biggest challenge is to make a cost effective menu and still have it be exciting.

C.B.: What sort of food would you like to try going forward?

GT: With the positive response we have gotten to the prime steaks at a higher price, I feel in the future we will be able to use some more interesting and exotic ingredients. Which will allow us to create some more adventurous dishes.

C.B.:  What are some of the most interesting dishes on the menu?

GT: The pappardelle pasta with shrimp is my favorite right now. It is a rich combination of grape tomatoes roasted with truffle oil, fresh asparagus, baby gulf shrimp and a touch of cream tossed with ribbon pasta

C.B.: That sounds scrumptious!  What do you like most about working in Smoke Rise and Kinnelon?

GT: The thing I like most about working at the Smoke Rise Inn over the past ten years is that residents have always been willing to try my ideas and the dishes I have created. Also I feel I have made many friends over the years. It really has been a wonderful ten years.

CB: Thanks, George! Something tells me that the next ten years at the Inn are going to be pretty amazing from a multitude of culinary perspectives.... 

I'm also excited that Chef George will be sharing some of his favorite food recipes with us here on The Smoke Rise & Kinnelon Blog - the first is his Tuscan Grill Marinade to be published soon. [You may also have noticed the first Smoke Rise Inn drink recipe: a special Mojito!]

For those of you who haven't had the opportunity to visit the Smoke Rise Inn lately, you might consider visiting for lunch or dinner and saying hello to the Inn's Chef George Tavolara.
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