Pascal and Schott see their main roles as being curators of fine food, wine, and spirits, and they are passionate about sharing with patrons the things that they are discovering all the time. Not unlike a museum curator revealing the significance of a painting that would otherwise not be fully appreciated, each man goes table to table to “contextualize,” as they put it. They revel in explaining the significance of what they are eating: where it came from, how it was grown and prepared, why it is unique, the ingredients used. To celebrate the history of tomatoes, they once had a seven-course dinner of them.
And most nights, it seems, they are handed a new script to work from. Because of New Brunswick’s growing popularity as an evening destination, and because of the proximity of companies such as Johnson & Johnson, the luxury Heldrich hotel (occupying the site of that former welfare hotel), and the three theaters, Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi have an ever-changing mix of customers. “If the Chieftains are playing at the State Theatre, there might be a big Irish contingent in the house,” says Schott, “or a bunch of international business executives staying at the Heldrich will drop in on another night. There is always a different feel in the room, and different perceptions about food and wine. So, I want to have these conversations with people. I want to give you something that will make you say, ‘Oh, my god. Amazing!’”
Constantly on the prowl for information and inspiration, the two men are big readers of books about cooking and food. They frequently speak before members of the restaurant industry and the public, produce a weekly enewsletter for their subscribers, and attend tastings to sample and document assiduously, along with sommelier Alexandra Sauter, between 3,500 to 5,000 wines each year in order to keep their constant inventory of 900 wines invigorated. They host special wine and Champagne dinners, private parties, and a designated night, called the Spirits Project, when guests can sample a valuable, rare spirit unavailable to the public and sold at cost. An acknowledgement of the renaissance in the popularity of cocktails, the night allows Pascal and Schott to share the findings of their sophisticated palates and their knowledge of all manner of spirits. You could call it the Antiques Roadshow of Spirits.
When time permits, they dine at the best restaurants. And, these two former McDonald’s and Burger King aficionados (fussy about their food even in high school, they always special ordered their cheeseburgers to get them just right) will drop in on low- and medium-brow eateries, too, just to see what’s going on out there. “When I go to a fine restaurant, I am looking for inspiration,” says Pascal. “It might be the lighting or a cool ingredient in a dish or the way something is presented. I want to bring these ideas to our chef, J.R. Belt. I want to get him excited, too, and it doesn’t take much.”
Acquainted with the network of suppliers, restaurateurs, and other players in the high-end restaurant industry, they call on their contacts, and vice versa, to find out what’s new. They got a chuckle recently when the New York Times proclaimed that the top Spanish ham, made from the black-footed Ibérico pig, had just arrived in the United States. Pascal and Schott have been serving it for three years, having tracked down the right Spanish supplier—a testament to their sleuth work, restless curiosity, and smart buying. “A guiding principle for us is that it has to be interesting every day,” says Schott. “So, we are constantly changing things in the restaurant: new cheeses, new entrées, great cocktails we have discovered. Having cutting-edge food is so important to us.”