AMUSE, Westfield, NJ
The story of Amuse’s proprietors, CJ Reycraft and Julianne Hodges, is one about love: love of good food, of all things French, and of one another. Both found their passion for food early in life. For Ms. Hodges it was a global affair, from spending time with her family’s roots in Southern France, to kitchen work in Israel while on a kibbutz. Chef Reycraft knew from his first restaurant job as a line cook that he was most at home in the kitchen. Chef Reycraft and Ms. Hodges received classical training at The French Culinary institute in New York City, which boasts countless influential alumni, including Momofuku’s David Chang, wd~50’s Wylie Dufresne, to Food Network personality Bobby Flay. Hodges and Reycraft met while working at Westfield’s Chez Catherine in 2011, and have been inseparable ever since. In his time at Chez Catherine, Chef Reycraft created seasonally inspired classic French dishes from tasting menus to dessert, that The Newark Star Ledger called, “well-focused dishes that consistently hit a high mark, each presenting a visual that matches the taste” in addition to awarding him their “Best French” award for six consecutive years. When frequent patrons Jim and Missy Ford approached Reycraft about opening a restaurant together he knew it was fate. Proud of their Westfield roots, they were delighted to settle into a beautiful space downtown in a building that was a post office at the turn of the 20th century. The team behind Amuse are inspired by the beautiful simplicity of fresh local ingredients, French food culture, seasonality, and the Westfield community.
Talk about your experience at Chez Catherine and how your stint there has helped you with the launch of Amuse?
My experience at Chez Catherine taught me many lessons about running a restaurant. The number one thing it taught me is that consistency is everything. It is hard enough to get through the first year of business and Chez Catherine has been around in some form since 1979! Didier Jouvenet, the current owner, has been at the helm for 13 years now. I am fortunate enough to have a good relationship with him even though I am now a competitor.
The continued excellence at Chez Catherine is an amazing accomplishment. What Didier taught me is that there has to be one driving voice and a singular vision for the direction of a restaurant. He and I may not have agreed on everything when I worked there, but it was his place and his influence could be seen on even the finest details.
How did Amuse come together from vision to completion?
When my business partner (one of Chez Catherine’s best customers at the time), Jim Ford, decided to retire, he approached me about opening a restaurant. He and I had become close over the years and he knew I was looking to make a change and possibly open a new place. We did a lot of research and visited many locations, from Montclair to Fords, to Perryville, NJ.
I approached a local restaurant owner/friend that owned three restaurants on the same block in Westfield and inquired about purchasing one of the businesses from him. We were able to work out a deal and Amuse was born!
Walk us through a typical day at work. What are some of the challenges you face each day being first time restaurant owners?
Since we are open 6 days a week, my “work” week starts on Tuesday. I usually get in around 9am to start going over paper work and bills for the week. Once I get the office work out of the way, I get into the kitchen and get my team organized and ready. My sous chef has been with me for almost 8 years now so that makes that part of my life very easy. From there it is receiving product or making a run to Restaurant Depot for some supplies. Cooking during lunch service and prepping up stations for dinner service, going over specials, meeting with my manager and FOH staff, and setting up for diner service. During service, I am either working on the line with my crew or expediting or sometimes I am on the pastry station. Once dinner service is complete, we break everything down and clean the kitchen, go over the food orders for the next day, and call it a day for the kitchen staff. I usually chat with my manager after dinner service to go over any issues we might have had during the evening and discuss any upcoming events/private parties. It is about 11-11:30pm by the time I go home.
Let’s talk real estate. What were you looking of in terms of location and space? Did you ever think about New York City to open Amuse?
We scouted many locations. Price, location, and being a turnkey restaurant were the three main factors we focused on in determining the location for Amuse. We did talk about New York City, but decided that for our first place, being close to home was important. It also was a place where I had a following whereas in New York I would be virtually unknown in the culinary landscape.
What culinary trends are you noticing nowadays and which of them are you utilizing at Amuse?
Local ingredients. Our customers love that we do our best to use local farms whenever possible. People like to know that the salad they are eating came from right here in NJ, The Garden State!
A great menu and location is so important, but in your opinion, how important is your kitchen and wait staff to the success of a restaurant?
Menu, location, service, atmosphere, and consistency are all equally important. Our service staff is the front line of communication between the kitchen and the customer. We are blessed with a bunch of really nice, outgoing people that love to serve our guests. Many of our wait staff and kitchen staff have been with us since we opened. We stress consistency and making sure our customers every need is met. Any issue that may arise, we try our best to turn a negative situation into a positive one.
What’s your opinion on local sustainability? And do you look for loyalty from your suppliers or do you go to bid each week?
Local sustainability is very important. It is definitely the way we are supposed to eat. There is a reason you will not find tomatoes on my menu in January, THEY ARE NOT IN SEASON!
As far as bidding/loyalty to my suppliers, it takes a blend of both to make sure we are getting the best quality and price for our products.
What role does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play?
Vendors in this area are definitely aggressive on pricing and on informing us what is new and exciting in the market place. There is plenty of competition in the area and most vendors are looking to work with you on prices in order to get your business. There are also three Restaurant Depots nearby and the deals available there are excellent. Paper goods and many other items are available at far below other vendor’s pricing. The only extra cost is your time spent in going to get the items.
There’s always talk of healthier eating, are your customers looking for that, and if so, how do you cater to the growing demand?
Being that we are a French inspired bistro, people are expecting a dose of cream and butter when they dine with us. People that are health conscious do come in and ask for changes to our menu and we do our best to comply. The biggest trend right now is people being gluten free. We even added an asterisk next to menu items that are gluten free to make it easy for our patrons with dietary restrictions to choose their dishes.
What advice would you offer to a newcomer looking to become a successful chef and restaurateur in this industry?
There are two things I have learned since we have opened. Number one, when scouting your location, do your best to buy the real estate. Number two; make sure you get a liquor license. Trying to make a living on selling food alone is extremely difficult. Having the extra revenue stream from selling alcohol would make my life much easier. The only problem is the ridiculous cost/structure of the liquor laws in NJ. Oh and number three, it is a 24/7 job and you get paid last! Good Luck!