Chefs of Main Street: Taking a Bite Out of Lawrenceville’s Food Scene
Ever since my II Form year, I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked past Acacia, but not once have I stepped beyond the string-lights that decorate the gravel pathway into the restaurant.
Ever since my II Form year, I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked past Acacia, but not once have I stepped beyond the string-lights that decorate the gravel pathway into the restaurant. Like many Lawrentians, the only establishments within my realm of “places to eat” are TJ’s Pizzeria, Starbucks, Feadora Cafe, The Gingered Peach, and Purple Cow.
Occasionally, I treat myself to a healthy quiche at Wildflour Cafe, but that’s the extent of the Main Street cuisines I’ve tried. Yet, beyond the pizzas, chicken tenders, and chocolate chip ice-creams that the town offers, there are many restaurants in our vicinity that offer exquisite menus crafted by experienced chefs—we just don’t know about them. So, when I spoke to the owners of Acacia and Vidalia for the first time, I was excited to witness another side of the Lawrenceville food scene.
Despite coming from a humble beginning in a town neighboring Lawrenceville, executive chef and co-owner of Acacia Chris Voigtsberger began his culinary career cooking in high-end, five star restaurants in New York City, where eminent chefs have catered to the most posh customers and served the most expensive meals. While his cooking may seem like a natural talent, Voigstberger actually only discovered his love for the art later in his life. He studied business management in college and worked as a marketing employee for his first job. It was only when he got laid off from this position that he began to “re-evaluate what [he] wanted to do in life because [he] wasn’t happy.” He then decided to give cooking a try, enrolling in the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in Manhattan. For him, cooking became his “creative outlet” where he could “express [himself] in different ways that sitting behind a desk or computer” didn’t allow him to do.
After graduating from ICE, Voigtsberger earned an internship at Eleven Madison Park—an upscale restaurant in the Flatiron District of New York City—and cooked under the prominent Swiss chef Daniel Humm. The fast-paced nature of the job quickly became a burden on Voigstberger, and he felt that he was “stepping into this machine” that gave no leeway for slip-ups. Voitsberger realized that he would prefer a more “laid back” experience as a chef where he could “be [himself] and not be afraid of making mistakes,” prompting him to pick up a job at 90 Acres, an upscale restaurant in Peapack, New Jersey. Nonetheless, his prior experience wasn’t all useless; he would not have developed his attention to detail and work ethic had he not worked in New York City. At 90 Acres, a smaller suburban restaurant, everything moved at a much “slower pace” than that of Manhattan; thus, his experience working in a hectic environment allowed him to stand out at his new job.
At Eleven Madison Park, Voigtsberger still remembers one dish that has influenced his own attention to detail as a chef. The aesthetic appeal and exquisite taste of the avocado roulade—a rolled dish savored with crab salad and garnished with flowers—has inspired him to elevate the visual presentation of items on Acacia’s own menu. Voigtsberger also works to incorporate a balance of tastefulness and simplicity. “I want the dishes to look like something people can make at home, but when they eat it, they know it’s unique and complex,” Voigtsberger said. Thus, “simple cooking” has always been Voigtsberger’s style in culinary arts. The inspiration for his menu is always seasonally inspired, “because the season dictates the types of dishes.” Most times, the “menu writes itself as [his] inspiration always comes from the ingredients” and how he can “showcase and source goods from local farms.” To him, the best type of cooking is “healthy cooking,” which he achieves by directly picking his ingredients from farms.
“In my cooking, I definitely want the customer to taste every flavor; I don’t like to mask stuff or bury things in sauce,” Voigtsberger said. Despite this, he still hopes to achieve a level of depth and richness to his menu by “balancing the sweet, salty, acidic, [and] fatty” and building the dish around the central ingredients. “Every day there’s a challenge, and I feel accomplished once I’ve done it,” Voigstberger said. His motivation as a chef is to master this level of perfection because “it’s satisfying when you get it right.” His favorite dish to cook is gnocchi, a soft-dough pasta, because he can not only incorporate “a wide variety of seasonal herbs” into the dish, but also simply making the dough serves as a rewarding challenge.
Just down the road from Acacia, head chef and owner of Vidalia, Salvatore Scarlata, plates fresh Italian food for his customers. As a young child born in Sicily and raised in Northern Italy, Scarlata grew up in a multicultural community where he was exposed to both Southern and Northern styles of cooking. In the North, the Italian food he grew up tasting had “a bit of French flare to it.” During his childhood, both his mother and father loved to cook, and after immigrating to the United States when he was 11 years old, Scarlata’s family decided to open a pizzeria—a business that has lasted for over 35 years. His background has certainly influenced his love for the culinary arts and has shaped his cooking style.
Prior to starting his own line of work, Scarlata “washed dishes, bussed tables, and cooked” at multiple five-star restaurants during his early career. His past experiences have taught him “every aspect of the restaurant business”—skills that have served him well as an owner himself now. Despite working 60 to 70 hours a week, Scarlata still finds joy in pursuing his career because he considers it his “duty to keep the restaurant afloat so that [he] can have a happy staff and family.”
Every year, Scarlata returns to his roots in Italy and manages to bring back “new trends and cooking styles” from his home country; for example, he often purchases extra Italian dried mushrooms, truffle oil, and in-season cured oils to showcase at Vidalia. Similar to Voigtsberger, he believes cooking with simplicity is key because adding less toppings and sauces allows customers to truly “taste the food the way it’s supposed to be.” Although serving well-prepared food is certainly a key element of a successful restaurant, Scarlata also emphasizes that having the perfect trio of “food, service, and atmosphere, is the number one secret to success.” His restaurant’s motto, “Cucina con Passione”—Cooking with Passion—ultimately conveys the message that cooking is not just about taste or aesthetic appeal, but rather that “Italian food culture is about family, staying together, and passion.” During his free time, Scarlata also dines at many other restaurants in order to taste a variety of cuisines, which in turn inspire the dishes on his own menu. As a chef, his greatest challenge has always been trying to master the “perfect steak” because “you can always undercook a steak, but if you overcook it, you have to make a new one.”
At Lawrenceville, it is sometimes hard to remind ourselves that food does not only need to come from the standard one or two restaurants most of us are familiar with. There are many restaurants along Main Street that serve quality meals prepared by the most knowledgeable and skillful chefs. Lawrentians can enjoy a greater variety of food by simply making a reservation at Acacia or Vidalia on a Saturday night; perhaps, when we do so, we can finally add another restaurant to our list of “places to eat.”