Photo courtesy of Ira L. Black, with styling by Affan Graber Malik
We’ve all been thinking about the restaurant industry lately with leaded hearts. We’re worried to lose our neighborhood spot, a second home. Or that place serving food from the mother country. Talk to one of the chefs or owners behind these places though, and you’ll feel a little better. There’s still passion burning brightly in their craft and love for what they do. This interview with Leia Gaccione is proof.
Chef Gaccione, of Morristown’s South+Pine, agreed to catch us up on how the restaurant has fared since the whiplash of COVID and what’s been inspiring her in the kitchen lately. She admits to craving and cooking comfort food, like the rest of us, “during the ‘Tiger King’ phase” of the pandemic and discusses a docu-series she hosted about the careers of six imitable female chefs.
Before opening South+Pine, she worked with Bobby Flay for years at five of his restaurants and joined him on three episodes of “Iron Chef America” as a sous chef. She’s also a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and has received multiple awards for South+Pine’s food program, including “Critics Choice Best American Restaurant” by “NJ Monthly.”
Tell us, how have things been going at South+Pine since the spring?
Well, it has definitely been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Shutting down in March was personally and professionally one of the hardest moments of my life. Luckily after some back and forth with my partners, we got some money together to reopen. After seeing an Instagram post from @morristown.nj asking the community what they needed from local businesses, I had an idea to convert South+Pine into a grocery service three times a week, which probably saved our business. We also implemented a Sunday supper series each week, Sammie Saturday and Fried Chicken Fry-yay, which were specials and family-style meals that could be picked up and enjoyed at home.
The people who work with me at the restaurant were and continue to be an inspiration to keep pushing forward. They are such hustlers and have so much heart for this place; it is the fire that keeps us going. We also got very lucky with outdoor seating. The MPAC was gracious enough to let us use some of their space to seat guests, and then the restaurant next door unfortunately closed, but we were able to use that space.
Has the pandemic—the stress of it, the uncertainty, changed your taste buds? Are you cooking or wanting to cook different kinds of food than usual?
We are still keeping it super seasonal and playing with food, as we always have. The “Tiger King” phase of quarantine had us craving all things comfort—an eggplant parm/lasagna hybrid was a big hit for our Sunday supper series. In the beginning of the shutdown, I felt like people might be looking for something a little lighter and healthier, so we added a grain bowl section to the menu. My personal fave was the P(ea) P(ea) P(ea), which was a quinoa bowl topped with English peas, pea tendrils, toasted pistachios, local feta, and tahini vin. We are always trying to create new dishes to entice our guest’s taste buds and get the juices flowing. I think our new fall menu is pretty solid and inspired. A few people have said it is some of the tastiest stuff we have ever put out of the kitchen here.
What’s inspiring you in the kitchen right now?
The seasons and the harvest that they bring will always and forever be my muse. That’s usually where I start the creative process. Then I read cookbooks to learn different pairings and techniques that I haven’t thought of or used before. A couple of my favorite “go to’s” are “Gather and Graze” by Stephanie Izard, “Vegetables Unleashed” by José Andrés, and anything by Tieghan Gerard, of Half Baked Harvest.
I watched the trailer of “Her Name is Chef,” the docu-series you hosted about six incredible women chefs. Where is that available? Or when will it be available to the public?
That was such an incredible experience with a bunch of bad ass babes! We are currently in talks with a few networks to see if it will land anywhere. Stay tuned for more details. We should have a definite answer by early 2021.
How come you decided to join the docu-series project, and what were its lasting impacts on your perspective about being a chef?
When an opportunity like that comes your way, you say YES! It was my first time hosting anything, and I definitely learned a lot about the process and became more comfortable with filming since the crew and chefs were all absolutely wonderful to work with. The lasting impacts have been connecting with strong female chefs, realizing we are all dealing with the same things, and being inspired by their strength and tenacity despite all of the obstacles they came across along the way. It was such a blessing to get to know each and everyone one of them, eat their food, and talk shop.
Are you concerned about people choosing not to enter culinary school given the state of the restaurant industry and the consequences that could have?
It is a little concerning for sure, but I think if you create an environment where you inspire people and teach them, you will manifest the people who want to be a part of your team. It’s pretty amazing how when we get into a bind with staffing someone always shows up, and most of the time it works out for the best. I believe in energy and the vibes you put out are what you attract. Not every restaurant will make it out of the pandemic, but this is not the end of restaurants.
What’s one thing you wish people knew (but probably don’t) about the work of a restaurant owner?
I have a very active role in the day to day of the restaurant, working alongside my staff and helping to maintain the quality of food, service, and the morale among our team members. During the pandemic, I once did 24,000 steps just at the restaurant, running food to help out, packing to-go orders, answering phones, etc. It’s a hard job but we have so much fun, even on the hardest days. When we first opened I worked 100 days straight, every day, all day. That is not sustainable forever, but I think it was necessary.
If you had to choose the best thing you ate this week, what would it be?
The best thing I ate this week was butternut squash soup at South+Pine. It is so velvety and is topped with a black pepper+maple mascarpone and apple+bacon jam. It is sweet and salty and creamy and luscious, and I just love a good bowl of soup on a chilly fall day.
What’s one of your favorite carry out orders in NJ right now?
Binh Duong in Bloomfield—amazing pho and banh xeo. I could eat it every day forever and ever.
South+Pine is currently a part of a seasonal series of events established to support local Morristown businesses. It’s called Fall for Small. There are curated partnerships of experiential offerings and restaurants. Get the details here. To follow South+Pine go to Facebook or Instagram.
Let us know in the comments what you enjoyed about this interview with Leia Gaccione!