HOW THIS VETERAN CHEF AND SUCCESSFUL RESTAURATEUR HELPED FOREVER SHAPE NJ’S UPSCALE SEAFOOD SCENE
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
Second homes might be par for the course in Monmouth County, but for restaurants, opening a second location can often be a risky venture. Can a new locale in a different town capture the same magic as the original? Cuzin’s Seafood and Clam Bar, which debuted to ample fanfare in Marlboro in 2016, proved yes with the 2022 launch of its New Brunswick location. Running the kitchen of two high-end seafood restaurants is no cakewalk, but for executive chef Jimmy Vastardis, it’s just another day at the office.
Vastardis has been with Cuzin’s since owner Charlie Mayo launched the restau- rant in 2016 (the duo had worked together in Red Bank a few years back). The goal was high-end seafood, and plenty of it, aiming to pair the freshness and simplicity of a first-class raw bar with the complexity of a true upscale menu. The restaurant became an immediate Marlboro staple. Their secret sauce? Quality and experience.
“Throughout my career I’ve owned seven restaurants,” Vastardis said. “I went to school for hotel restaurant management. I was hired as a general manager when I was 21 at very busy restaurants in Monmouth County. When you’re in the restaurant business the way I was, you have to be able to do everything, including run the kitchen, cook, create recipes, and do all the buying. I opened my first restaurant when I was 27, and for the past 22 years I’ve been specializing in seafood.”
Vastardis’ foundation is in management, and that has given him a strong sense for the (often grueling) business of running a busy restaurant. But it takes more than professionalism and kitchen wizardry alone to craft a culinary concept that stands out in an ever-swelling sea of restaurants. Vastardis’ “ah-ha” moment struck 20 years ago, when he took a look at seafood restaurants in New Jersey and found them lacking.
“Twenty years ago, seafood was not what we know today,” Vastardis said. “It was basically broiled or fried or baked. It was cut and dry.
Around 2001, I wanted to bring seafood to a different level so I started cooking and handling it like other gourmet foods, such as meat or pasta. I was one of the first in the area to start serving, cooking, and prepping seafood completely differently from what we used to know.”
He began by pairing fish with upscale greens: a bed of arugula here, a bouquet of radicchio there. Vastardis and his chefs started experimenting with wild sauce pairings, searing fish with different flavored wines, mushrooms, vegetables, and all types of stocks. At the time, it was a risky move, but it paid off, and when Vastardis joined Cuzin’s, his reputation as a go-to name in seafood was well established.
“I was one of the first in the area to start serving, cooking, and prepping seafood differently from what we used to know.”
Cuzin’s Marlboro was such a resounding success that the team began looking to expand, eventually settling on a second location in New Brunswick. The construction process was underway when COVID hit, posing a massive setback for the restaurant at a highly uncertain juncture. But Vastardis used the delay as an opportunity to prepare for the second opening: he and Mayo trained the new restaurant’s staff at the original Marlboro location, putting new hires through a sweeping six-month training period that puts the standard two-week trial shift to shame. By the time Cuzin’s New Brunswick opened its doors, Vastardis and his staff were ready to hit the ground running.
“The transition was actually extremely smooth, which is unlikely when you open up a new restaurant,” Vastardis said. “You usually have glitches. We did not. The fact that we were in Marlboro six years prior to the New Brunswick location gave us a chance to tweak everything the way we wanted.”
Today Vastardis is the executive chef at both restaurants, traveling back and forth multiple times a week. He is constantly on the phone with his chefs, planning specials, brainstorming new recipes, handling the myriad surprises that are inevitable in the restaurant space. On top of these many duties, he is still responsible for all the buying and sourcing, a critical responsibility that allows him to make sure he’s only getting the freshest and best fish and shellfish for both restaurants. “We pick our own fish,” he said. “We pick our own meat and our own produce. I’m constantly on the hunt and on the phone with my purveyors. We have vendors that we do business with that I have personally known for 22 years. Everything is extremely fresh.”
Whether he’s sourcing fish from the Caribbean, flying lobsters in from Maine, or arranging an order of Arborio rice from Italy, Vastardis sees himself as the conductor of a complex symphony. His menu is the result of years of painstaking work, recipe building, and dedicated, careful sourcing. But in the end, his mission hasn’t changed: serve fresh, delicious seafood, plain and simple. Today, at two locations, he’s able to bring honest food to as many people as possible, drawing smiles one sea scallop at a time.