A RESTAURANT INDUSTRY VETERAN GROWS HER BRAND WITH A LINE OF FAMILY INSPIRED ORGANIC FOODS
BY ERIK SCHONING PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
For chef Meg LaManna, food is all about making connections. A veteran of high-end kitchens from New York to Miami, LaManna has made a career out of cooking from the heart. In recent years she has pivoted from restaurateur to private chef and founder of Mugsy’s, a line of premium pre-made pantry goods. And now, with the opening of her first Mugsy’s storefront in Point Pleasant Beach, she aims to bring her vision to a larger audience than ever before.
Like many lifelong chefs, LaManna started cooking at a young age four years old, by her count. Her Italian grandparents, visiting from Florida every summer, would include her in the kitchen. “I would literally be up on the countertop with my grandmother peeling carrots,” LaManna said. “She let me stir the sauce and taste the macaroni. Eventually I graduated to rolling out meatballs. When I cook now, I still apply the same philosophies of love and care that she put into the food.”
LaManna tried going the college route, but found herself drawn back time and again to the magic of the kitchen. She enrolled at the CEC, the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, learning to marry her rootsy home cooking with high-end techniques and ingredient pairings. After cutting her teeth at restaurants up and down the Jersey Shore, and at Manhattan mainstays Tao and LAVO, LaManna left the Northeast behind for the vibrant cooking scene of Miami. She opened Quality Meats’ first Florida outpost, learned the intricacies of Peruvian cooking at La Mar in the triple five-star Mandarin Oriental, and, most crucially, worked directly under superstar chef Michelle Bernstein.
“Michelle was the first chef that I worked under that taught me you don’t have to be in one box and do one type of food,” LaManna said. “You can make a dish that has all these different components, French, Italian, Middle Eastern, all on one plate and marry them together harmoniously. That was a really pivotal point in my career. I knew that was the type of chef I wanted to be.”
Today, LaManna’s career is all about marrying things harmoniously. Since leaving the restaurant world, she has found ways to pair the traditional with the exciting. Mugsy’s, from its initial launch as a farmers market product line, has always been about comfort food: fra diavolo sauce, white clam sauce, marinara, blueberry and lemon jam, spicy honey. Yet in her menus, in the private events with which LaManna fills her weekends, she has been able to continue pushing the envelope creatively. It’s the culmination of an unexpected journey that nobody, least of all LaManna herself, could have predicted.
“Honestly, when I first started doing the product line, I thought it was just going to be something I did in-between executive roles,” LaManna said. “I thought I’d be back in a restaurant in no time. Then people started asking me, ‘Would you come to my house and cook?’ Then someone else asked me, and someone else asked me. I thought wow, this could actually be a thing. And it just kind of evolved into something that I’m able to do every day now and work for myself.”
Working directly with clients has allowed LaManna to directly appeal to any palate. She currently offers three wine pairing dinners: French, Italian, and California wines, each paired with their respective cuisines. (The California menu is a lineup of New American cooking.) Beyond her pre-set menus, she finds time to craft custom spreads for clients seeking particular experiences: a meat-and-game menu, for example, or a seafood tasting menu. Unlike in the restaurant world, where menus tend to be consistent and scalable, private cheffing has given LaManna the opportunity to find the intersections of her interests and her clients’ tastes. On these menus, ceviche rubs elbows with beef teriyaki and prosciutto-wrapped scallops. In food, there are no borders.
Mugsy’s Point Pleasant Beach location launched in early October, the culmination of a journey that started at farmers markets and pop-ups across New Jersey. The storefront specializes in artisanal, organic products from salad dressings and soups to bison, chicken, and beef bone broths on tap. (Yes, broth on tap.) The storefront is intended for the grab-and-go crowd, a quick stop for weeknight dinners and special occasions alike. There you’ll also find the famed jarred sauces that garnered success from the beginning. LaManna has spent time in the finest restaurants on the East Coast, has experience with molecular gastronomy and tasting menus of the highest caliber, but at the end of the day, all that talent means nothing without a little heart.
“On the jars themselves, there are all family pictures,” LaManna said. “The rustic plum tomato is my father’s christening with my two grandmothers from Italy on either side of him. The white clam sauce is me as a kid in a life jacket with my mom holding me. It’s all about family and memories and the nostalgia that food brings. People love a story. There’s really great community found in that.”
Chef Meg LaManna, Mugsy’s
629 Arnold Avenue, Point Pleasant Beach