When you walk into the Tournament Players Club of Jasna Polana, the former estate of John Seward Johnson I (Jasna Polana means “bright meadow” in Polish, so-named by Johnson’s former Polish maid and wife, Barbara Piasecka), now an elegant country club and PGA tour facility, you are struck at once by the ornate architectural detail, sweeping grand staircase, and well-appointed club rooms overlooking immaculate, lush gardens. In fact if someone told you the American Heart Association was holding a fundraiser there to draw attention to important health issues like lowering cholesterol and eating heart-healthy food, you might chuckle and say, “Here? I don’t think so. Pass the chocolate mousse.”

But, in fact, last year the inaugural Chefs with Heart fundraiser at Jasna Polana, hosted by the American Heart Association, drew more than 300 guests. The event, which this year takes place on Thursday, June 1, is designed to raise funds for cardiovascular and stroke research and for the AMA’s initiatives to educate the public on how healthy food habits lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight — the three main risk factors for heart attacks and stroke.

Peter Cary, director of communications for the New Jersey chapter of AHA, says the AHA also seeks to raise awareness about what he calls “little-known heart facts,” for example, almost 40,000 babies are born every year in the United States with heart defects. “People think we’re just about old people. We’re not,” says Cary.

Every year the Chefs with Heart event names a “survivor ambassador,” and this year it’s Brittany Hasili of Yardville. Hasili was born with multiple life-threatening heart defects, one of only eight children in the world with that particular combination of defects. Given only a 15 percent chance of survival, she underwent two open-heart corrective surgeries, among other procedures, and is now a happy, healthy nine-year-old.

Some of New Jersey’s finest restaurants will give tastings at the Chefs with Heart event, including central Jersey landmarks Tre Piani, the Ferry House, Mediterra, the Frog and the Peach, Rat’s, the Lawrenceville Inn, TPC at Jasna Polana, Villa Barone in Robbinsville, and Marsilios in Trenton. Also participating are the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, Le Petit Chateau and the Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, the Grill in Pittstown, the Manor in West Orange, and several others.

Apparently focusing on heart-healthy food is not only a great idea for a fundraiser, it’s also a savory marketing tool. Salt Creek Grille, which is coming to Princeton Forrestal Village in the fall, has chosen the Chefs With Heart event to premiere its menu to Princeton foodies.

According to figures provided by Salt Creek Grille, close to 80,000 cars go down Route 1 every day. “The wood pits are one of the first things people notice, and they will smell them before they see them. People sitting in traffic on Route 1 are going to smell that mesquite burning and they’re going to want to see what’s happening,” says Steve Bidgood, operating partner of the Salt Creek Grille in Rumson, which breaks ground this week on its newest location in Princeton Forrestal Village (there are Salt Creek Grilles in Dana Point and Valencia, California). Set to open in the fall, the company’s fourth restaurant will perch where the Westin flagpoles currently sit, directly facing Route 1.

“Because it’s often the unique Arts and Crafts architecture of the restaurant that pulls people in — that and the smell of mesquite — we did not want to be hidden in the back of Forrestal. If a site doesn’t allow us to stand out, it’s not for us,” says Bidgood.

In addition to the restaurant’s signature Craftsman-style architecture — free-standing wooden buildings and natural settings reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s turn of the century masterpieces — Salt Creek Grille’s patios with open fire pits make for a novel dining concept. According to Bidgood, every three to four months, the company transports mesquite in tractor-trailers (holding 16 cords) from Texas. The wood, which is so pervasive that Texans consider it a “weed,” is stored in a warehouse in Middletown. These days, due to rising costs at the gas pump, it nearly costs more to ship than to purchase the wood. But, Bidgood says, the difference in taste is worth it.

Designed by DAS Architects of Philadelphia, the 11,000 square foot, 275-seat facility will be constructed by Designline Construction Services of Eatontown. All on one level, with a porch around the side, the restaurant will contain both interior and exterior fire pits that will be visible from the highway.

Founded by Tim McCune and Pete Truxaw upon leaving long-time restaurant management positions in 1995, the first Salt Creek Grille opened in Dana Point, California.

Bidgood, who turns 50 in August, is a Jersey boy who joined the company after a 16-year career with Chart House restaurants. He grew up in Middletown and started his restaurant career at the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank when he was just 15. As he tells the story, he was introduced to the restaurant business through his father, Tom, who was national sales manager for Monsanto and who knew the owners of the Molly Pitcher. The Bidgoods often ate dinner there (Bidgood is the second youngest of five siblings), and Tom Bidgood once said to the owner, “If you need help, there’s always my boy,” to which the owner replied, “I need him tomorrow.” His mother, Jane, was at one time the volunteer coordinator for Marlboro Mental Hospital and then headed a New Jersey foster grandparents association.

Upon earning a bachelors degree in restaurant management at the University of Missouri, Bidgood lived all over the country while launching new facilities for Chart House restaurants. Upon joining Salt Creek Grille, Bidgood returned to New Jersey and currently lives with his wife, Lynn, and their two young daughters, Megan and Shauna, in Eatontown.

The Princeton location beat out several other possible venues. “We’ve been looking for four and a half years and considered both Bethesda and Annapolis, Maryland, as well as Bergen county,” says Bidgood. What does Princeton have in its favor? According to Bidgood, the answer is a highly populated corporate corridor, which guarantees lunch traffic, and a high-income, upscale dinner clientele who typically appreciate award-winning cuisine and wine, accompanied by attentive and knowledgeable service. Additionally, the area has year-round traffic.

Bidgood says the Forrestal site fit the bill. “It’s perfect.” Better yet for the restaurant’s partners, another new Princeton Forrestal Village tenant, Can-Do, a high-end, 65,000 square foot spa, which replaces the former Forrestal food court, will drive even more lunch business their way.

When asked if they worry about competing with other area restaurants, especially their highly-successful neighbor, Tre Piani, Bidgood says, “Tre Piani does a great job. But they have a totally different concept than ours. We’ve met with them and agree it’s healthy to have other establishments around because their guests may try us out, and those who are familiar with us from Rumson can now discover Tre Piani. They’ll grow from us and we’ll grow from them. There’s plenty of business for everyone.”

Chefs with Heart, Thursday, June 1, 6 to 9 p.m., American Heart Association, Jasna Polana, 8 Lawrenceville Road, Princeton. Second annual food and wine tasting event. Music and silent auction. $175. 732-348-3044.

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