Chef Spotlight: Craig Polignano of The Ryland Inn

Chef Craig PolignanoCraig Polignano, executive chef at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, gave Veronique Deblois an inside look at his career and perspectives on being a chef.

JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
Chef Polignano: My earliest food memory was at my grandmother’s house in Maplewood. I remember watching her make cavatelli on her kitchen table, with the old red and white checkerboard print, so common in so many Italian restaurants. I specifically remember that day, because my grandfather and I picked tomatoes and basil from their garden.

When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
I realized I wanted to cook for a career after spending a year at the University of Connecticut. While going to school, I was working at a local pizzeria, and I enjoyed the environment. After leaving Connecticut, I came back to New Jersey and started working in restaurants to save money to go the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
I started cooking professionally at the Ryland Inn in 2002. My first few weeks were very difficult, as I had never cooked in a fine dining restaurant. One of the nights I will never forget was a busy evening a few months into my time here at the Ryland. The Garde Manger station had run out of an herb called salad burnet. I was asked to put the headband flashlight on my head and run to the garden to retrieve more. The night before, there had been a snowstorm, so the ground was covered. I ran to the garden in my kitchen clogs—losing one along the way—and dug through the snow to get the herb.

What is your cooking style?
My cooking style is seasonally and locally based. I love going to the local farms and farm stands before work and picking out the produce that will be used for that night. As far as regional cooking, I like to explore many types of the worldly cuisine, ranging from Japanese flavors to French flavors to American.

What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
The greatest opportunity through cooking was while I was working with Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn. Craig had been invited to cook for two nights in Anguilla (British West Indies) at a resort named Cap Juluca. Craig brought me along to assist and execute the dinner. It was an amazing cooking experience and an amazing location.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had? What did you eat and where was it?
The most memorable meal I have ever had was at the Ryland Inn. After my externship, I sat in the dining room for a 15-course meal. Because I was so young and unfamiliar with fine dining, this was my first experience eating at such an establishment. The most memorable course was a venison dish paired with a 1991 Côte-Rôtie. The pairing will stay with me forever. I have had many great meals since, however, the first great meal I had will always be a special memory.

Imagine it’s your last day on earth. What would your final meal be?
My final meal would be my mother’s bread. Her bread isn’t a loaf bread, but more like a rolled stromboli. She uses whole-wheat flour, which adds a complexity to her dough. The breads are usually stuffed with vegetables and mozzarella cheese.

Ryland Macerated StrawberriesWhat is the best advice you have to share with young people interested in becoming chefs?
The best advice I have is to commit to the industry and cooking. To be successful in the culinary world, one must have dedication and passion for cooking.

If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
Tough question! If I had to choose, I would be a tomato. Tomatoes are very versatile, however, in my opinion are best when picked off the vine and eaten at room temperature.

What is the one food you always have in your cupboard at home?
The food that I always have in my cupboard is dried pasta. I don’t cook much at home—like the cobbler’s children having no shoes. It is difficult to come home after a long day and have the energy to cook, so the ease of pasta makes it a staple.

What is your beverage of choice?
My beverage of choice depends on the situation. I do enjoy a nice cold Stella Artois on a hot day, or a nice glass of white French Burgundy with fish and a big California cabernet with steak.

What is your favorite comfort food?
Pizza is my comfort food. Growing up, Fridays were always pizza night in my household.

What New Jersey restaurant do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
It is hard for me to pick out a single restaurant that I enjoy in New Jersey. There are so many different styles and cuisines. I would say one of the best meals I have had in New Jersey was at Elements in Princeton. Scott Anderson and Michael Ryan, both of whom I have worked with in the past, do an amazing job producing unique and delicious food.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
The three people I would have dinner with would all be restaurant related.
Anthony Bourdain: I appreciate his honesty when it comes to food. He is opinionated, intelligent and a great writer.
Chef Eric Ripert: I have always looked up to Chef Ripert in my culinary career. I love working with seafood and I feel his restaurant Le Bernardin is one of the best in the world.
Marie-Antoine Carême: He was one of the first chefs to recognize “fine dining” in France. One of his quotes that really influenced me states, “Finally, the last straw; for about half an hour, all windows are closed so that the air does not cool the dishes that are being served. This is the way we spend the best years of our lives.” This quote is very relatable to me and my career.

So what’s the latest at the Ryland Inn?
Here at the Ryland Inn, we have recently launched our Duck Bar Menu and our Backyard Bites. These menus are written on chalkboards that hang at both of our bars. The food is fun and friendly and it best enjoyed with a tasty beverage from one of our bartenders. The Ryland is becoming more diverse in its style and guests can either enjoy a seasonal tasting menu or a quick bite at the bar.

The Ryland Inn
115 Old Highway 28
Whitehouse Station


Veronique DebloisFood & Wine Chickie: Veronique is a food and wine writer based in Morris County. As the author of the popular blog, Food & Wine Chickie Insider, Veronique shares recipes, wine and restaurant reviews and insight into the travel industry of which she’s a 15-year veteran. Follow Veronique on Twitter or like her Facebook page.