AT THEIR MONROE STEAKHOUSE, CHEFS KENNY VARGAS AND JOE VOLLER REINVENT CLASSIC ITALIAN FARE
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
Upon hearing the description “Italian steakhouse,” chances are dishes like hamachi sashimi, yuca fries, and ceviche don’t naturally come to mind. But at Jasper Stone in Monroe, global plates such as these are the art of chef de cuisine Kenny Vargas and head chef Joe Voller, a duo devoted to pushing the boundaries of a high-end steakhouse – while still serving up a mean porterhouse, of course. It’s a menu built on nailing the classics while leaving room for adventure.
When owners Kim and Victoria Aiello began their search for a chef to launch Jasper Stone in the fall of 2022, a cousin recommended Voller as New Jersey’s go-to guy in Italian cooking. Voller brought along Vargas, with whom he had previously worked alongside. Vargas had five years’ experience working with chef Andrew Lattanzio at Pluckemin Inn, where he honed his skills in French cooking.
“French technique, to me, is the best,” Vargas said. “I do try to bring some French techniques to our menu. I’m Peruvian, so I also like to throw a lot of my Peruvian techniques into our crudo and our ceviche specials.”
The Jasper Stone menu blends the two chefs’ kitchen backgrounds with the old-school, Don Peppe-style Italian steakhouse. Patrons will find a pinch of everything: swordfish Milanese rubs elbows with eggplant polpette. A lineup of steaks is tiered like a wine list, spanning skirt steak to a juicy tomahawk rib-eye, all sourced from nearly a dozen farms and purveyors. The crown jewel steak is a Wagyu spinalis, also known as the rib-eye cap, the outer muscle of the prime rib. Served with crispy potatoes and salsa verde, it is truly a rare cut of meat; Voller only has a single purveyor who is able to get the spinalis for him. It’s a coveted cut among steak aficionados, and it’s become Jasper Stone’s calling card.
Beyond steak, the menu takes plenty of detours, allowing the chefs’ taste and personality to really shine: himachi sashimi, grilled Duroc pork belly, black spaghetti. Sometimes a new menu item can start with something as simple as a single ingredient. Vargas uses the example of a ceviche to lay out his creative process.
“One ingredient will excite me, and I’ll work around that one ingredient,” Vargas said. “It doesn’t even have to be the star of the dish. For instance, for my last ceviche, I had been to this Peruvian restaurant in Brooklyn that uses a lot of black mint. So I wanted to incorporate black mint into my dish. I made an oil from it. The oil tasted nice and intense. Then I added some creaminess, some acid, some crunch. You get a garden on a plate with fish and some spice.”
The creative partnership between Vargas and Voller is driving the Jasper Stone menu. Vargas, for example, is a top-notch fish cook, thus Voller is looking to soup up his menu’s fish offerings in order to take advantage of his chef ’s skillset. Between the two, new and compelling combinations are constantly popping up on the menu or the specials board: a celery caesar, featuring slivers of celery served with brown butter and anchovy breadcrumbs and pecorino; a filleted whole branzino stuffed with a frisée salad; a pork collar seasoned to imitate the smoky, rich flavor of porchetta. Vargas has been experimenting with new pasta shapes and doughs; he’s especially proud of a spinach and culantro green dough he’s been tweaking. This kitchen is a collaborative environment, a workplace built on highlighting everyone’s talents.
“Kenny basically goes to war for me every day,” Voller said. “He does a lot of the cooking, a lot of menu development. I do the hard shopping, which is purveyor after purveyor, farm after farm. What’s important to me is the quality of ingredients and how do I get the freshest and best possible for my restaurant. And then I work with Kenny to execute dishes to the next level.”
Between Vargas and Voller, not a day goes by where some new idea isn’t being tested out. This isn’t closed-door menu development: they’ve made a habit of sending out their latest projects to diners, compliments of the chef, in a genuine attempt to get honest feedback from the restaurant’s regulars. More often than not, an interesting or unusual menu item ends up being the first thing a customer asks for when they walk in the door.
“Anything that goes on the menu, we’ve probably eaten in house a dozen times,” Voller said. “We all agree that it’s good. Nothing should be subjective. I like to feed it to ten people and have nine out of ten people tell me it’s good before it goes on the menu.”
As Jasper Stone continues to grow and develop a name for itself in Monroe and beyond, Vargas and Voller still look to push the envelope for what an Italian steakhouse could (and should) be. There will always be a place on the menu for the classics: high-end steaks, chicken scarpariello, meatballs made with Wagyu and Berkshire pork. But if there’s one thing these chefs have learned in their accomplished careers in kitchen after kitchen, it’s that you can’t go wrong when the foundations of your cooking are good, fresh ingredients and solid technique. When you have both, the possibilities are endless.