Chef Casey’s Seed-to-Plate Journey

October 2019

by Tracy Leonard-Turi

Shopping always seems to work up an appetite, and many of us have already wandered into restaurant d’jeet? at The Grove outdoor shopping mall in Shrewsbury and enjoyed one of the best meals in the area. But d’jeet? has so much more to offer than a mere respite after a day‘s slog around the strip. For Chef Casey Pesce, food is very personal and nostalgic, and deeply spiritual.

Chef Casey has always been very passionate and respectful about their food sources. It is so deeply personal that it is even woven into their mission statement. His dedication to making everything homemade, with seasonal and local ingredients, springs from his childhood and the way he was raised. Even the restaurant’s name was inspired by Casey’s grandfather, who constantly asked him “d’jeet?”, which translates as “did you eat?” Casey grew up gardening with his father, Phil Pesce (also known as Farmer Phil), and cooking with his whole family, including both sets of grandparents. He even helped his grandfather make sausage in his butcher shop. It is hardly a surprise that he eventually pursued a professional career in the culinary arts.

Perhaps these memories are also partially responsible for his goal to turn back the clock to an earlier, simpler time. Whether it’s about family, the community or the climate, there’s something to be said about doing certain things the way they have always been done. This idea certainly resonates in today’s digital age and it also presents an opportunity to engage with the global ecological challenges facing us and create positive change.

Casey’s end goal is to become 100 percent sustainable, waste-free and GMO free. The Pesce family is very fortunate to have gardens at The Grove West, the Fair Haven Community Garden, as well as their own one-acre, organic garden at their second restaurant location, Apple Street Kitchen, in Tinton Falls. Both restaurants grow their own produce and preserve their own food, and everything they grow is pesticide-free and composted on-site. They also utilize every part of the product, for instance, making jams, vinegars, hot sauces, and fermented foods with any surplus harvest.

Their chicken, dairy and eggs are certified humane and sourced from the tri-state area. Two years ago, thanks to Doug Rohmeyer, a childhood friend and Barnegat Bay local, who is a civil engineer by trade but also an avid boater and surfer, Jen and Casey began to help clean up the New Jersey waterways with oysters. They, along with Nick Smith and Jason Hughes and their families, purchased four acres in Swan Point, Barnegat Bay and recently added baby oysters from the Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Bivalve Lab, which has been working hard to promote shellfish culture in New Jersey. Just last month the Swan Point farm was finally able to get their oyster cages in the water. These young oysters should be mature enough to be featured on their menus by late spring of 2020.

Neither d’jeet? nor Apple Street Kitchen use plastic bags. Nor do they sell plastic beverages or anything with a plastic top. And they have been plastic straw-free for over a year. All packaging is biodegradable, all paper goods are unbleached and all menus are printed on recycled paper, which then get turned into scrap paper for coffee orders.

Casey and Jen’s children have learned, through hard work, much of it in the dirt, to be very respectful and appreciative of all cooks and chefs at restaurants. They have grown up gardening with Farmer Phil, their Pepe, who is also the head gardener at Apple Street Kitchen and has numerous menu items named after him. Every summer they harvest a variety of lettuces, herbs, peppers, and even figs. And, of course, Jersey tomatoes! Not only do they pick the fennel, they participate in the long, arduous job of separating out the fennel seeds that end up in many of the dishes prepared at both restaurants. They also help weed and gather whichever herbs are needed for the evening dinner menus.  A chef’s life is a highly creative process and the children appreciate seeing how other chefs approach ingredients and flavors.

Like all American kids, they do enjoy their share of junk food, but working this close to the soil has also helped cultivate their very eclectic palates. They’ve been eating salmon since infancy and are infatuated with sushi and many other global flavors. They devour açaí bowls and smoothies in the morning and then their homemade school lunch bento boxes, which always contain at least one fruit and one vegetable. In fact, school lunches are another passion that Casey is looking forward to tackling in the near future!

Chef Casey sees today’s interest in the world and its ecology reflected in the tastes and sensibilities of his evolving customer base. Right before their first child was born, Jen and Casey found a gigantic maitake (hen of the woods) mushroom while walking in the forest above Atlantic Highlands. Someone contacted their landlord and complained that they were cooking food that might be tainted by animals! Although chefs have been foraging for decades, this was years before gardening and foraging for local, raw ingredients began trending among home cooks. Even a decade ago, Americans still associated real food with processed, packaged foods, sometimes from unknown sources on the other side of the world. 

One thing they love about their customers is the increasing level of awareness about the food on their plates. Their palates have become more sophisticated, as well as their understanding of where their food comes from. They appreciate what it means to prepare purely fresh, local and seasonal dishes using unadulterated ingredients; and transform them into thoughtfully prepared meals that excite the palate.

They want their customers to enjoy meals that are carefully thought out, right down to how the food is plated. The meal they’re eating at any given time is planted from seed and harvested only when perfectly ripe. Cooking is a highly creative process. Quality food comes from LOVE and like every worthwhile enterprise in life, this takes time and careful nurturing.