Starving Artist Café: Feeding the Body and the Soul

by Sue Fajgier
starving artist cafe

After spending time with Todd Ellis, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him doing anything other than exactly what he is working on now, based on his background and life experiences. Forty years in the kitchen and forty years plus performing on stage for live audiences was the perfect preparation for opening Starving Artist Café in Stockton, New Jersey.  The restaurant is the culmination of Ellis’ culinary experiences and passion for the local music scene.

All in the Family

Born and raised in Bordentown, it’s not surprising that Todd is the younger brother of another local music legend, DJ Randy Now. Older brother Randy Ellis is the current owner of Randy Now’s Man Cave and former booking agent for the legendary Trenton Club – City Gardens. While Randy was booking up-and-coming bands like REM to come play at his venue, he was also (sometimes) allowing his kid brother to open for these bands and get to play before some top-name entertainment of the day.

Culinary Training

Ellis’ culinary experience goes back to his teens as well. He has always been employed in the food service industry. His culinary education came through real-life experience at the Bond Street Club in Trenton, an old-school, private social club back in the day. The Chef taught Ellis the basics of restaurant management through hard work and discipline. Those are the kitchen recipes that stuck with Ellis throughout his life.

Ellis is an eager student and every job he took along the way added to his skill set and increased his resume. In addition to his knowledge of rustic Italian cooking and classical dishes, he has also branched out into the wholesale area. Ellis is a skilled butcher and can prepare anything from homemade stuffed sausages to a full vegan meal. Since he has been in the kitchen from age 16, it’s not surprising he can switch from short order cooking to fine dining when the occasion demands it.

Power Pop & Punk

Ellis has always been involved in the music scene too. Performing as, “Tod the Mod ” from his gigs at City Gardens to going on to open for the Ramones, The Replacements and Joan Jett in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In 2017, “Smart Remarks,” Ellis’ power pop band released an EP in the US, UK and Japan. Ellis has never stopped playing music and there is always a guitar nearby in whatever kitchen you find him. This singer/songwriter keeps it moving and there’s always music in the background.

More Than a Restaurant

In 2014 Ellis, along with partner Ron, was able to combine his culinary talents with his musical abilities and contacts and More Than Q was born in Lambertville, New Jersey.  This restaurant offered smoked meats, briskets, sausages and ribs along with some sensational, seasonal sides. Baked beans, collard greens and cheesy grits are just a few of the temptations Ellis prepared as Pitmaster and Executive Chef for eight years at More Than Q.

Once the menu was set, the next step became obvious, at least to Ellis. On the weekends, “BBQ guys smoking meat all day decided to open up a stage for local artists to perform – just like something you’d find in Austin,” said Ellis. And just like that, More Than Q became a “thing.” It didn’t take long for this Lambertville location to become the hub for the local artist community. The success of this location led them to expand into Princeton and Easton, PA markets as well.

Real food done right from Todd’s kitchen by Sue Fajgier

Logical Evolution

So, why open Starving Artist Café now? It’s kind of like the planets aligning – the previous restaurant could only have music on weekends, Ellis is turning 60; and the perfect location opened up in Stockton – where he worked 11 years ago. Proximity to all his “peeps” in Lambertville/New Hope is also a huge plus. Two things Ellis seems to love are chaos and risk. He took his 401K and put it into his dream – which will open before Valentine’s Day 2024 – absolutely a labor of love. “This is my chance. I think I have something to offer everyone” says Ellis.

The restaurant will feature farm-to-table cuisine. It will serve everything from breakfast to rustic Italian and American bistro fare. There will be plenty of vegetarian and vegan options too. Inside seating can accommodate 50-60 diners. There’s a nice area outside that will be used for the summer music series and another 50-60 can easily enjoy the food and music in the open air. The dining room is being renovated and when finished will have space to showcase local painters as well. Plans for catering, family events, weddings and showers events are all in the works. The larger venue both inside and out may even lead to some future collaborations with Randy Ellis on booking bands and having special events.

Corner of Main & Bridge, Starving Artist Cafe by Sue Fajgier

Come To the Table

Ellis has a vision for his new place. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s a community gathering spot – a place that feels like home. He says, “I’m not looking for a trophy here, I just want to see people happy. I want to have a little place people really like. I only want one restaurant. I feel like maybe I figured it out now.”

He must be on to something, because Ellis is opening his restaurant with his “crew” of at least seven years – which in the restaurant business is shocking. He has his steadies; Macho is his sous chef and Bella who is front/back of house – and a mean bass player. There are also the college kids who return to work with him during summers and breaks. Ellis, who has spent his life in the kitchen, believes in paying his crew for their hard work and dedication.

Come On In! Starving Artist Cafe by Sue Fajgier

Building Community

Ellis’ heroes range from Anthony Bourdain to Wolfgang Puck and Iggy Pop to Paul Westerberg. He likes it real and he keeps it honest. Ellis has always been a “community” kind of guy. He is a local sponsor of WDVR Radio, a non-commercial station with locally based programs. He even hosts occasionally. He also is planning to help revive the Stockton Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in December, bringing more joy and light to the town.

It’s Going To Be Grand

Work began January 1 on the Starving Artist Café. They’ll do a soft opening prior to Valentine’s Day, just to be sure they get it right. Mark your calendars – a Singer/Songwriter Showcase is already booked for March 3. The test kitchen is currently perfecting the recipe for the artisan thin crust pizza.  “I want you to feel like I invited you into my house. Hey man, let me cook you something,” beckons Ellis. I’m sure it will be amazing Todd!  I can’t wait to sit back and close my eyes and eat some of the best food – and hear some of the best music “somewhere North of Nashville.”

About the Author/s

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Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.

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