Raised on a sprawling semi-rural piece of property in Somerset, Jim Hayes remembers his extended family “growing their own” long before cultivating and choosing fresh, locally grown produce became practically chic. Hayes, the chef-owner of Bistro Soleil in Hightstown, says his mother’s parents lived with them, and they were the ones who kept the pantry and fridge stocked with fresh goodies. Natives of Italy, his grandparents enthusiastically planted, raised, harvested, processed, cooked, preserved — and ate — a variety of vegetables and fruit picked on their land.
“My grandfather, who was a farmer in Italy, was especially into his garden and we had tons of different stuff — fresh peppers, corn, squash, tomatoes, four or five different kinds of lettuce,” Hayes says. “I didn’t realize it at first, but once I started to cook seriously, the memories came back of how good fresh food is.” Hayes has transferred this philosophy to his restaurant with his Jersey Fresh Tuesdays — dinners that feature locally grown, fresh-from-the-garden produce and other Garden State treasures — seafood, beef, pork, poultry, and dairy.
The program, which launched quietly in June, kicks into high gear on Tuesday, July 21, when Hayes will present a five-course tasting menu based around what is probably the prince of produce — the Jersey tomato. Throughout the week, Bistro Soleil will also be celebrating its one-year anniversary with food and festivities. Hitting that one-year mark makes Hayes particularly proud, especially after a roller coaster of an economic year.
More Jersey Fresh Tuesdays will follow, with a meal celebrating peaches on August 4, corn on August 18, and a squash-themed menu on September 29 as the fall veggies start to come in.
The idea for Jersey Fresh Tuesdays grew out of Hayes’s involvement in numerous farmer’s markets throughout the region where he purchases food items for the restaurant but also sell his own Nostrano brand of homemade packaged foods — oils and vinegars, soup stocks, sauces, fruit-based spreads, pestos, and purees, as well as cured sausages, meats, and bacon. (“Nostrano” is an Italian word that casually translates to “ours” or “local,” Hayes says.)
“Fridays we do Hightstown, Saturdays it’s the Jamesburg farmer’s market, and Sundays we do Red Bank,” Hayes says. “We’re buying produce and whatnot over the weekend and then on Monday, I sort through what I have and come up with a five-course menu for Tuesday. Once I have the menu, I post it on our website and send an E-mail blast so people can check it out. If they’re interested, they can call for a reservation for Tuesday.”
The tomato menu isn’t completely cooked up yet, but Hayes imagines that a nice, spicy gazpacho will start things off, perhaps with a goat cheese twist on a Capri salad, and chicken cacciatore for the entree. Of course, all the elements are exclusively fresh, local Jersey products. “I get my chickens from Griggstown Farm, the mushrooms from West Windsor, some cheeses from Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, peppers and onions from the Red Bank farmer’s market, and I’ve also found delicious onions at the Tri-County Coop, right up the street from the restaurant in Hightstown,” Hayes says. “It’s a great resource to have.” Hayes is referring to the thrice-weekly country-style produce auction held at the venerable Tri-County Cooperative just south of Hightstown on Route 33.
“The woman who (manages) the co-op is Pegi Ballister Howells, very well known for her expertise in horticulture and agriculture,” Hayes says. “She’s been around for a long time, and has been very supportive of the local food and Jersey Fresh (phenomenon).”
Supporting the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who produce and generate fresh food is as much of a passion for Hayes as is running his restaurant. When there was talk last year of dismantling New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture, Hayes, like legions of serious chefs, foodies, and farmers, was astounded and outraged. “We’re known as the ‘Garden State,’ and to not have a Department of Agriculture seemed ridiculous to me,” Hayes says. “Jersey Fresh Tuesdays are just part of my way to give grassroots support to Jersey Fresh and the Department of Agriculture.
“As a chef, it’s important to give my patrons the freshest food. Here we have produce at the peak of freshness as opposed to using something that has come from California or Mexico, where it’s probably been picked too early and is not the best quality. Just look at all the great things we have growing here in New Jersey. Sure, thanks to refrigeration and shipping you can buy peaches and strawberries at any time, but then it has to travel from South America or elsewhere, which impacts the environment. So, it’s also about educating the customer about sustainability and supporting the local economy — and how really good fresh food is.”
Hayes has been working in the restaurant and food service business for 15 years, but he had originally dreamed of being a musician. He had played and studied guitar since early childhood and earned a degree in music performance from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA, in 1994,and then it was on to Nashville, where life took a different turn.
“I had some good experiences with music, but (to pay the bills) I started working in a restaurant and really took to it, it seemed to come naturally,” Hayes says. “I was working at a steak house and the big thing was that we cut our own steaks, so I learned a lot about cuts of meat, which became valuable to me.”
He returned to New Jersey a few years later, working at upscale brew pubs in the region, then working under Chef Craig Shelton at the prestigious Ryland Inn in Whitehouse for more than two years. In the meantime, Hayes had purchased “The Professional Chef,” the chef’s “bible” created and published by the Culinary Institute of America, and delved into absorbing as much as he could about cooking and food. He also gained experience in corporate and healthcare food service, and, in addition, spent five years at Wegman’s Food Markets.
Hayes and his wife, Vicki, live in East Windsor with their two young children, Dylan and Madison. Vicki helps out in the restaurant but is primarily employed as a health care administrator for Raritan Health and Extended Care in Raritan.
The maternal, Italian side of the family can’t take all the credit for Hayes’s farming and foodie genes. He says his father grew up on a farm in Kingston and talked about his aunts hitching up the horses and going by wagon to New Brunswick to sell their wares at the farmer’s market.
Both of Hayes’ parents worked at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Brunswick, and his father, who cared for the grounds and landscaping there, always had a keen interest in gardening and horticulture. “The way he described my great aunts sounded like something right out of ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Hayes says. “It didn’t occur to me until I really started cooking, but then I began to remember times as a kid, standing over a pot with a simple food mill — a cone-type strainer and rolling pin — pushing tomatoes through it as my Italian grandmother pulled them out of the boiling water to can and preserve. Now, here I am, years later, doing the same thing.”
Jersey Fresh Tuesdays, Bistro Soleil, 173 Mercer Street, Hightstown. Tuesday, July 21. Jersey tomato-inspired menu. (Also, peach-themed menu on August 4; corn-themed menu on August 18; and squash-themed menu on September 29.) Reservations at 609-443-9700 or www.bistrosoleil.com.