Even if it’s ‘the worst time in history to expand,’ owner Marcello de Feo is banking on the skill of chefs Johnnie Reynolds and Joey James to fill seats in an additional dining room he’s creating in the former Perfect Fit tailor shop.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 21, 2021
When Marcello de Feo first opened the doors at Valente’s Italian Specialties in downtown Haddonfield, he was looking to bring to South Jersey the flavors of the Philadelphia Italian neighborhood in which he was raised.
Three years later, de Feo is expanding both his definition of those flavors and the space in which they’re cultivated, having added a veteran pair of top-tier chefs to his kitchen, and made preparations to expand the dining room they’ll serve.
Both are as well seasoned as the dishes they create; Jersey natives returning home with years of fine dining experience and a desire to push the boundaries of their guests’ understanding of what “Italian eclectic” cuisine can be.
Executive Chef Johnnie Reynolds, who hails from Erial, got his formal culinary education at the Atlantic Cape Community College Academy of Culinary Arts, which spring-boarded him into work at a succession of Jersey shore eateries.
Reynolds started at EVO at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City before jumping to The Palm, where he enjoyed a 12-year stint in kitchens from Philadelphia to California. By 23, he was executive chef at The Palm in San Diego’s East Village, and within five years, had been tapped to run its Los Angeles location. Eventually, Reynolds returned to Philadelphia, where he led well-known kitchens at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Double Knot, Sampan, Parc, and Branzino.
“Working at those places, you learn a little bit from each person more than you learn from the place itself,” Reynolds said. “I had the opportunity to work with so many different people, and you pick something up from everybody.”
Executive sous chef Joey James is a Logan Township native who started working in his parents’ sandwich shop at Underwood Memorial Hospital as a high-schooler earning money for a car.
By 20, he’d driven that car down to Florida on a whim, and landed in the kitchen at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
James parlayed his experiences there into a position at The Capital Grille, where he stepped deeper into a role that taught him the administrative demands of being a professional chef.
His career really took off, however, after James joined the crew at Dada in Delray Beach, Florida, where executive chef Bruce Feingold, another Jersey native, took James under his wing.
“He showed me a lot; taught me a lot of techniques,” James said. “He gave me enough rope to hang myself, and I did everything, pretty much running the whole restaurant.”
When James and Renolds found themselves back in Jersey in the summer of 2020, looking for work in a restaurant landscape that had been decimated by the impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, de Feo almost couldn’t believe they were free agents.
“In some ways it seems almost like fate, like this was meant to be,” de Feo said.
“Joey wanted to find a position as quickly as possible so he could hit the ground running and get to work as soon as he got back here,” he said. “I received Johnnie’s resume and said I didn’t want to waste his time because [I thought] there’s no way I could afford him,” de Feo said.
“They both care so much; I was completely enamored by them,” he said.
‘They’ve basically become best friends’
Bringing on Reynolds and James also meant a reduced role in the kitchen for de Feo, who had styled himself the executive chef at Valente’s when he opened its doors as an Italian specialty shop.
Pivoting to a fine dining establishment, de Feo realized quickly that he could best serve the business by supporting the talent he’d acquired.
“It was honestly the easiest decision I’ve had to make in the business,” he said.
“It’s Johnnie’s and Joey’s kitchen and I’m proud of that fact,” de Feo said. “I’m still trying to find my right place in everything. I want to contribute, not control.
“The one thing that I had not anticipated is that they’ve basically become best friends,” de Feo said.
Reynolds and James both describe their relationship as non-hierarchical and collaborative, which lends to the camaraderie and creativity they enjoy in the kitchen.
“As far as the titles go, this is a partnership,” Reynolds said. “We’re all equal.”
“He’s my best friend, and I hate him,” James said of Reynolds, laughing. “All my friends from Jersey moved away.”
That friendship has produced a fruitful culinary partnership as well, with Reynolds and James enjoying the opportunity to showcase their prodigious talents across a variety of menu items rooted—sometimes loosely—in Italian cuisine.
“Is Italian eclectic a thing?” James said. “Does that exist? We’re trying to do things differently; keeping things funky.
“We don’t want to be that penne alla vodka place,” he said.
“What’s going to set us apart? We pull from all the different cuisines and things we’ve learned.”
Reynolds takes his style cues from Danish chef René Redzepi, who has spoken of ingredients as the alphabet that comprises the language in which his dishes tell a story (Redzepi, in turn, cites French chef Michael Bras as the originator of that analogy).
“As long as we have the ingredients to start with, that’s where we go,” Reynolds said.
“Our ingredients are how we try and step it up a notch,” he said.
“The hardest thing to do in cooking is to simplify things and highlight the ingredient itself,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes less is more, but that’s also more difficult. That’s how you show off technique.”
Showing off his technique might mean reserving the stock from a rabbit confit to flavor a pasta dish, or blending dry porcini mushrooms into the dough of his torchio pasta funghi for added depth of flavor. Reynolds’ chitarra con tonno, which would traditionally call for an oil-cured, tinned fish, instead features a slow-cooked, fresh tuna steak. Even a classic dish like airline chicken takes on extra flavor when prepared sous vide in red wine vinegar and shallots.
“How do I keep the integrity of the flavors and also do something that’s Italian?” Reynolds said. “Every time we taste something, we taste it together to see if it hits all those notes, and they all kind of come together.”
“Some of our dishes have four or five things in them, but everything is made here,” James said. “What you see is what you get.”
Other dishes turn on the chefs’ extensive skill sets, honed over years of preparing traditional cuts of meat, like a New York strip steak, with a novel presentation.
At Valente’s, Reynolds and James trim the ends of the beef to make a perfect rectangle, cube it, and flip two sides up and two down when plating.
“It’s easier for the guest to eat, and they can see that it’s prepared how they want,” James said.
“You only get one chance to cut it in half and serve it perfectly.”
At the same time as Reynolds and James are cultivating new audiences for their cuisine in downtown Haddonfield, de Feo is making moves to expand the restaurant itself, pressing into the neighboring King’s Court storefront that once housed A Perfect Fit tailor.
The outgrowth should add as many as 30 to 40 additional seats to his dining room throughout a phased expansion that will be finalized as COVID-19 restrictions lift and the restaurant is able to welcome additional guests.
“If there’s something that I’m passionate about, I’m going to find a way to make it work,” de Feo said, “even if it’s the worst time in the history of man to one, open a restaurant, and two, expand.
“When the business originally opened in its original form, it was about being heavily rooted in the community and having this neighborhood, corner store-ish feel that also provides very nice products,” de Feo said.
“But I think that we have the talent in the kitchen right now to be in the same conversation as some of the best restaurants in the South Jersey area,” he said.
“I want to provide a Philadelphia or even New York dining experience, which is few and far between in South Jersey, and I believe that Johnnie and Joey have the talent to put us in that realm.”
James and Reynolds are hungry to prove their boss correct.
“Ultimately, I just want to make really good food,” James said.
“I love to eat, and we put love into the food,” he said. “I want them to taste that love when they take a bite.”
“Whether we do one person or 100, it needs to be consistent,” Reynolds said. “The most important thing for us is the guest experience. We want people to feel comfortable and like they’re being taken care of.”
Please support NJ Pen with a subscription. Get e-mails, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or try our Direct Dispatch text alerts.