Glancing around the converted 1790s strawberry barn, chef Jamie Knott turned to his business partner David Madison and exclaimed, “This is it!”
As light from sconces danced off the rough-hewn pine walls that have withstood hundreds of years, Knott began to reimagine the iconic Saddle River Inn, owned and operated since 1981 by restaurateurs Imelda and Hans Egg, as the place where his dreams of restaurant ownership could come to fruition.
“I still remember the night. We’d been privately looking for spaces separately, when the Inn came up for sale. David, who grew up in Bergen County, said I had to see the place, so we went to dinner on July 19, 2012,” Knott says. “We were halfway through the meal and I looked around and said, ‘This is it!’ Six months later we signed the paperwork on a place that’s kind of magical.”
Since stepping into some very big shoes left by the beloved previous owners, the pair has remade the historic New Jersey restaurant into a … dining experience that offers the best of both worlds: Favorite dishes have been retained with a bit of updating, and new forward-thinking items have pushed the envelope in a restaurant that was stripped of its heavy tapestries, curtains and awnings to reveal a fresher, more naturally beautiful space.
In this week’s Recipe for Success blog, Knott discusses the challenge of making a mark on a time-tested restaurant.
Q: How did you establish your own mark on an establishment that was run so successfully for 31 years?
We came in a little brazen after making our chops in the city. The stage was big, but I’ve opened 16 restaurants prior to this, but this time I was doing it for myself. I wanted to do something that was near and dear to my heart.
The previous owners built an amazing brand, and I told them that from the beginning. Because of this, I retained 25 to 30 percent of their menu. I kept three appetizers and two entrees, and my thinking on this was simple: They’re well established, so why would I want to chase away clientele? Hans, who’s originally from Switzerland, was kind of funny about it. He said I should make it my own, that the restaurant needed freshening, and not to be shy.
Q: What were your biggest challenges as you undertook this effort?
In the beginning it was about expectations and memories. There were regular guests who had been going there for 30 years. These were the people who would notice that we took the flowers down, and removed the awnings. In a way, it was like we were redoing someone’s house, the place where they spent holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we did want to freshen it up.
Q: How did you freshen the look for Saddle River Inn?
It’s such a beautiful space that we decided to strip it down and bring back its original luster. It has a lot of windows that allow natural light to filter in. We removed awnings that had been covering the windows and tapestries that had been hung upstairs. We pulled everything out and then added new tables and chairs, plates, glassware, rugs, bathrooms, and a front vestibule and flooring. We chose not to hang art upstairs and instead used mirrors to reflect all the beautiful angles of the room.
Q: The menu is the best of the old and the new. Please tell me what you did.
The Maribor (filet mignon) was a dish that Hans did very well, and I updated it a bit. I call it Maribor 2.0. I use all center-cut prime filets because they’re everyone’s perfect shape and size. I use Yukon Gold potatoes for the potato gratin instead of Idaho and imported French chestnuts, which I roast very dark, to give a real savory flavor. The béarnaise is a lot more pungent, with tarragon vinegar, lemon juice, Thai and tobacco sauces.
The sauce is very different. I use a veal stock that takes three days to complete.
Q: How did you attract your first customers?
We just opened the door and started taking reservations. We got a lot of press coverage because it was so famous and people had been waiting for us to reopen.
I’d say we retained 90 percent, maybe more, of the original customers. And after five or six months, I got more comfortable with myself and started to experiment with the dishes. Another dish we kept, the crabmeat salad has the same concept, but I made changes with the greens and type of crabmeat. I also garnish it with the citrus that’s in season.
Q: What was your path to a culinary career?
Restaurants and cooking is in the family. I’m originally from Baltimore, and my mother owned a bar. I was helping her behind the bar, cleaning glasses, since I was 5 years old. I didn’t think of it as work; I thought I was having fun. My grandmother was a cook for a casino in Baltimore, and she had the kind of kitchen where there were always pots simmering on the stove, and there were always people in the house. There was a real sense of community. When I was older I took Home Economics in high school because that’s where all the girls were, and it was fun. When I graduated I went to culinary school in New York, and the rest is history.
Q: What advise do you have for someone who wants to start a restaurant?
I would say you need to surround yourself with the best people possible and never stop learning. There’s something to be taken away from every experience, good or bad. I’ve worked with amazing operators and some poor operators, and with every one, I’ve learned something valuable. Another thing I would tell people is to be open to change and to criticism, even if it’s hard.