AN ICONIC RED BANK INN APPOINTS A NEW EXECUTIVE CHEF, AND SHE HAS BIG PLANS IN STORE FOR ITS STORIED CULINARY PROGRAM
BY ERIK SCHONING•PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
The Molly Pitcher Inn has been a Red Bank staple for nearly a century. Originally built in 1928 and named after the famed Revolutionary War figure who carried pitchers of water to soldiers on the battlefield, the riverfront boutique is more than a hotel – it’s a local institution. For newly minted executive chef Melissa Araujo, who oversees every one of the inn’s many dining operations, from the riverside dining room to the International Bar, and room service to weddings, banquets, and parties, each day brings a new adventure. But for the seasoned chef, she wouldn’t dream it any other way.
Araujo took over as executive chef earlier this year, but she’s no newcomer to the Molly Pitcher ecosystem. Fifteen years ago, fresh out of culinary school in New Hampshire, Araujo returned to a New Jersey restaurant scene that had been hit hard by the recession. “I couldn’t get a job for three months,” Araujo said. “Molly Pitcher kept posting ads that they needed a line cook. I kept applying, and they kept rejecting me. So every single day they posted the ad, I would apply. And then I started going to the hotel in person until one day the chef got so annoyed with me he gave me the interview [laughs]. I said, ‘Listen, you need someone, and I need a job. Just let me prove myself.’”
Line cook was merely the beginning. Araujo soon graduated to working in the banquet department. She was the hotel’s pastry chef for eight years. When the executive chef moved on to teach, Araujo became executive sous chef. Now at the helm of the ship, Araujo is in a unique position: she has first-hand experience in all aspects of the hotel’s culinary program.
In an industry where there are no set job responsibilities, where the all-hands-on-deck mantra reigns supreme, Araujo spends her days doing anything that needs to get done to ensure Molly Pitcher lives up to its high standards. “There’s no part of this hotel that I haven’t worked in for at least a year, if not more,” Araujo said. “Some days I’m ripping out shelves or scrubbing the floors with the dishwashers, or I’m grabbing power tools and building something if we need it. I might have to get on the line and put out a hamburger and french fries. You never know what each day is going to bring.”
All of Araujo’s tireless work is in service to her ultimate goal: continue raising the standards of the Molly Pitcher Inn. Afterall, this is a hotel that has stood over the banks of the Navesink for nearly 100 years. Regulars who once dined here with their parents now bring their grandchildren. As executive chef, Araujo has to walk a delicate tightrope between honoring the legacy of the hotel while keeping her kitchen on the cutting edge of fine dining. At the present, Molly Pitcher has a kitchen team of 33. (“It takes two hours just to do the schedule!” Araujo quipped.)
One of Araujo’s priorities is cross-training her team, challenging people to work different stations and grow their skillset. As someone who has directly benefited from working multiple departments, she sees a well-trained, diversely capable kitchen team as the hallmark of a well-functioning restaurant. It’s not uncommon for the Molly Pitcher to see six lunch parties and two weddings on a busy Saturday. When you add the marina and pool services, the bar, and room service for hotel guests, it can feel like running six establishments in one. But any restaurant, no matter how well-oiled or seasoned its chef, depends on its menu.
The Molly Pitcher Inn has made a name over the past 20 years for its roster of classic American dishes one might expect from a riverside inn named after a Revolutionary War figure: Atlantic chowder, seafood pot pie, chicken pot pie, skirt steak, and the famous Mr. Barry Salad, a mix of greens, Cambozola blue cheese, candied pecans, and a Bartlett pear champagne vinaigrette. It’s classic hotel cuisine, but for Araujo, who draws extensively on her background in fine dining, leaning on the classics isn’t enough.
Though she is just settling into her new role as the lead chef, she has big plans for the menu over the next year. “I want everything to be grown locally,” she said. “Everything to be seasonal and fresh. I want to get it in and I want to use it as fast as possible. I don’t like seeing a menu offering Jersey sweetcorn in the winter. It’s not Jersey sweetcorn then! There’s no way you can grow it, unless it’s frozen. And then there’s no point in using it.” Araujo put her culinary philosophy into practice the minute she took over, introducing a revamped springtime menu with a focus on fresh. Think pan-seared diver scallops with spring risotto, leeks, ramps, and spring peas. There’s jumbo lump crab with pickled mango, avocado, frisee, sesame oil, and sweet Thai chili sauce.
Araujo is partnering with The Block in Long Branch to build out a steakhouse section on the menu. The Molly Pitcher has seen countless changes over its time as a hotel. As Araujo pointed out, the kitchen today isn’t the original, as the interior space of the hotel has been remapped over the years. But longstanding restaurants are able to survive because they can adapt, and the Molly Pitcher’s continued success is a testament to that. Araujo’s goal is to keep up with a constantly shifting culinary landscape, pushing the envelope while retaining what has made this hotel so special over its many years. “I knew this hotel as a little girl,” Araujo said. “I want to raise the standard. I want people to be excited to come out. I want to make it the best. We’re really excited to show people what we can do.
The Molly Pitcher Inn 88 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank 732.747.2500 / themollypitcher.com