The secret is out — the Peacock Inn has hired a chef for its restaurant, which is scheduled to open in early May. Manuel Perez brings with him a stellar background, including three years at Le Bernadin in New York, and it is this feather in his cap that attracted him to the Sussmans, the owners of the Peacock Inn. “As a line cook (at Le Bernardin), I worked every station, including pastries. Then I became a tournant — which is a position in the kitchen where once a person knows all of the stations, he can jump in any place, and that person becomes an integral part of the kitchen,” says Perez, who earned an associate degree in culinary arts in 1993 from Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, where the majority of the instructors trained at the Culinary Institute of America and based the curriculum on CIA standards. He was chef de cuisine at Cafe Nicholas in Red Bank from 2004 to 2007, then traveled for a time, working at the Cove Eleuthera, a resort on the island of Eleuthera, before returning to Cafe Nicholas for a period of eight months. His resume then fell into the Sussman’s hands.
A self-proclaimed Jersey boy, Perez was born in Newark and grew up in Harrison, the youngest of six children. His father was a factory worker. “My love of food goes back to the womb. Out of six children, she gained the most weight with me. My mother was an amazing cook, and she was extremely nurturing. She only ate after everyone else was fed, not only our immediate family but everyone else who was welcomed at our table. My mother always emphasized quality — everything had to be the freshest. You don’t really recall these things until later in life, but then you notice it in the way you inspect things, and the way your standards are a little high; it stems from that upbringing.”
When Perez was five, his family spent a year in Puerto Rico, where Perez remembers his grandmother taking him to the open market. “Her first purchase was raw tobacco — she would smoke half a cigar every night. From there she moved on and knew everybody by name — the meat guy, the chicken guy. She would buy a live chicken and kill it in our kitchen. (What I remember is) very simple, rustic food but prepared well and most importantly, with love.”
His vision for the new restaurant reflects his background. “I’m hoping to deliver a great dining experience. Our emphasis here will be on local, as much as possible, and seasonal — and very simple and straightforward food. There are a lot of trends and progression (in the restaurant business), but the way I look at it, it’s all been done in relation to food. I want to establish a brand here. I want the food to be familiar with a focus on fresh and delicious. No bells and whistles, it’s going to be food, and that’s how we want to do it. Just let the ingredients speak for themselves. I’m not a chemist or a magician; I am a cook. That’s where my soul and passion lie.”
Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane. 609-924-1707. www.peacockinn.com