Beets & Deets from Mory Thomas of Square 1 Jersey City

January 10, 2018

 

 

If you’ve ever been to Jersey City, you’ve witnessed the diversity in the people, the food, and the city itself. This is especially apparent in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City, which is home to India Square, one of the largest communities of Indians in the United States. As a restaurant owner, coming into such a tight knit community is a challenge. But for Square One, all that meant was listening to what the community wanted (in the form of a 26-question survey). We sat down with Mory Thomas, the chef/co-owner of Square 1 to get the low-down on his deep roots in the community, the secret to his vegan sandwich (we promise it’s delicious) and his childhood love of mountain oysters.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Where did the name Square 1 come from?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

Well it came after a long process of trying to come up with a name. We came up with over 80 different names. We came up with really quirky names and we came up names that meant something to us personally. But after all was said and done, it was our branding agency, some dear friends of mine who designed our logo for us, who said what about Square One? It resonated because of me going back into the restaurant business after being in publishing and media for so many years. It was me going back to square one.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What was your vision for Square 1?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

My vision started with thinking about what a restaurant means to me and what I fell in love with about the restaurant business early on in my life. I wanted it to be something comfortable-something that celebrates food, people, and serving food to people. Over the years I've been getting away from actually cooking food to hand off to someone to eat. Seeing the appreciation and the enjoyment was something that I really missed.

 

Part of what I love about my life is that I have a good knowledge of food and I also do a lot of community volunteer work in Jersey City with the Washington Park Association and the Jersey City Parks Coalition. So at the end of the day I wanted to combine my two passions which are food and community.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Why did you choose Journal Square as the location for Square 1 Community Eatery?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

The short answer is because my partners own the building. But I would drive over and watch the traffic foot traffic on the really busy St. Paul's Avenue, right outside the windows in the corner spot. I think every chef dreams of a corner spot or even homeowners. I fell in love with the facade - it has a nice cast iron column. We mimicked that by adding more steel on the front for that industrial feel. And I liked that it was on the fringe. We weren't right in the middle of Journal Square - we weren't trying to be that “it” restaurant. We just wanted to be part of the community and become a hub for this area of Journal Square.

 

 

Bvster:

 

I heard recently on a social media push that this spot kind of waited here for you and it hadn't been occupied since the 1970s?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

Yes that is true. We had always heard that there used to be an old Polish luncheonette here in this location. After we opened the doors, even as we were building out the space, neighbors would walk by that have lived here all their lives and we would get little snippets of the story about this luncheonette.

 

This used to be a very blue collar neighborhood. You had Brunswick tower and the Brunswick laundry factory which is right down the street. You had the American Can Company which is now Canco Lofts. Right across the street on Liberty we found out the building used to be an old box factory but now there's a row of homes. During lunchtime I can imagine the lunch whistle horn blowing, everybody pouring out of the factories and a lot of them would come here. It was called Helen and Joe’s.

 

Just recently during the Jersey City Art and Studio Tour, we were open a little later and the daughter of the owners of Helen and Joe's came to a screeching halt on the street. She lives near Secaucus and she hadn't been by since we opened.  She got out of her car, ran in and her eyes were as wide as saucers. She told me who she was so I finally got the real story. It closed in 1979. So it's been boarded up a long time. It was nice to find that missing piece of the puzzle.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What role do you see Square 1 playing in the community?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

We asked the community that. I think one of the major flaws of new restaurants coming to an up and coming neighborhood is that they just go in with the idea of opening a hip and trendy place, assuming everybody's going to love it. We wanted to ask the community if that's what they wanted.

 

I have friends who live in Brooklyn and they were telling me of a story similar to that. They went into a neighborhood in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, opened up a new place and took photos of holes in the walls and tried to monopolize on this grungy history. They created an uber hipster expensive type of place and spent a lot of money designing it. But at the end of the day the community basically refused to go in the place because they did not appreciate what they were trying take advantage of from the community and the story they created.

 

So we really didn’t want to do that. So much so that we created a 26 question survey and put up a table and chairs outside one weekend around the time we opened. We sat there all day and we got quite a few responses. People really had an opinion on what it should be and what it should not be.

Some people were like it should be nothing-there's no parking here; it should just be an office. You know it's funny to get all the different reactions. A lot of people said please give us a café, give us a coffee shop with some bakery and farm to table. What was great is a lot of what I heard and the feedback that we got was exactly what we were hoping to hear but we wanted to hear it from the community first.

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

What skill set did you learn from your years in the food media business that helped you open your restaurant?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

Well when everyone thinks food media they probably think of the shows they saw on Food Network. And I did work on some shows. It's not always the most glamorous part of working in food media but it’s where I started. I was hired to start the Food Network test kitchen so I set up all the systems and procedures for their test kitchen to develop recipe content.

 

Back then it was basically when Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay were just starting. This was pre Rachael Ray, pre Paula Deen. Mario's recipes are fantastic and so are Emeril’s but they were very chefy recipes. So you would have to make three recipes before you can put it all together to get dinner on the table. For a food media brand we really wanted to empower the home cook and teach them how to get food on the table for themselves. So we were tasked with distilling that information from what the chefs were telling you on air into a doable recipe that can help mom and dad get dinner on the table while their kids run around their feet, with homework to do and baths to give and all of that. So what I learned was to take that chef knowledge that I got from culinary school and working in restaurants to pick and choose what are the steps that you really have to have in a recipe and what are the shortcuts. What things can you skip and where can you really pull the most flavor from.

 

There's lots of things you can do that can make food very fussy or make it exquisitely delicious as well. But you just need really good wholesome food that you cook for yourself. So that is what I learned is how to take my knowledge I learned in restaurants, in culinary school and distill it down to make a great recipe for the home cook.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What is the biggest mistake you made and how did you overcome it?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

That's a very loaded question to ask somebody in the restaurant business. I think one of the things I struggle with every day here is that we wanted to be frugal about opening a restaurant. I've seen so many of my friends and other companies go in and spend over a million dollars on a restaurant. They make it exquisitely nice but they fall short once they open the doors. I knew what I wanted to do was build the restaurant big enough to be flexible and grow with the business and the demand.  But I didn't want to make it too big. So I'm kind of in the middle.

 

This is an old building that I'm in and we didn't want to invest that much money into doing a full kitchen build-out. For those who don't understand what that means full kitchens have full ventilation system, an ansul fire retardant system, a dishwasher set up, and a whole nine yards of expenses which can you easily get you up to $100,000 just on that part alone. But to do that in this space would have been prohibitive; it's not big enough. We have the basement but it's not tall enough so we would have had to dig it out and underpin.

 

So that is a challenge that I haven't yet solved. But it's something I keep bumping up against when it comes to catering and tackling food that I would really like to do. I can't sauté and I can't grill anything, which makes me want to cry in the summertime. It forces me to look at food in a different way. In a way I like that challenge as well because it makes me cook more healthful and cleaner. It's easy to throw anything in the fryer and make it taste good but I can't pull that trick here. So it forces me to think how else can I milk some great flavor out of this?

 

 

Bvster:

 

Who is your biggest influence as a chef?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

I would have to say Jean-Georges Vongerichten because that's who I worked for right out of culinary school. I actually was blessed enough to go there for my anniversary one year while I was in culinary school. I just fell head over heels in love with his food-the flavors, the diversity and his blending of Southeast Asian flavors and French.

 

So he would probably be the first. But over the years I've been very fortunate to work with some really amazing people in test kitchens at Martha Stewart, Food and Wine, and Food Network.

That's what I love about the business, which can go for any creative field. That’s also what kept me in the recipe development area for so long because as they say there's too many cooks in the kitchen. That's because everything in the kitchen can be cooked probably 100 different ways and you might end up with the same result. But everybody takes a different path to get there. So that was one of the fun things about cooking somebody else's recipe that they developed.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What inspires you as a chef/restaurateur?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

Seeing people smile and making that human connection, especially now when we're all on social media and looking at our phones all the time. One of the reasons why I took the jump back to open a restaurant is that I missed that connection with people. I'm not necessarily good at it. I'm more on the introverted side than extroverted but I wanted to challenge myself to be friendlier, smile more, be happier and help put a smile on somebody else's face.

 

So that inspires me every day to be a nicer person and to appreciate people for where they're at. People walk in here in many different mindsets.  They could be having a horrible day or they could be having a great day and likewise myself. You have to take a pause and realize this is another human being across for me; let me see if I can make them happier today, let me give them a free cookie. Just make that connection and make it special. That inspires me every day to try to do that as often as possible.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What's your favorite ingredient to work with?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

Well my employees would probably tell you onions because it's often the forgotten vegetable. You see it in almost every recipe -it always says start by sweating your onions or cook until translucent. People often ask why and that used to infuriate me. Oftentimes when I was developing recipes or testing them, recipes would say sweat your onions for three minutes and I'm like that's not sweating your onions. Onions are a magical vegetable with so much natural sweetness to give you. I always tell all my friends when they're cooking if it says three to five minutes go 10 to 15 and really take the time right there because that extra time and energy spent will transform your dish.

 

When I worked for Jean-Georges he always did these braised artichokes with onions, olive oil and white wine. When the chef made it, it was so delicious, sweet, and tender. They were singing when you ate it. When I did it, it was never the same and I didn’t know what is going on. Finally one day I asked the chef to stand next to me and make this dish with me. The only difference was he took that extra 10 minutes. I was sweating onions for 10 minutes, he took 20. Just that one step transformed the end result. So that's always been something that stuck in my head. All of my soups here at Square 1 start with onions that I sweat for a long time.

 

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

What's your favorite childhood memory associated with food?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

This is a non-memory because it's through a photograph. My two older sisters and I went to a state fair in Kansas when I was around five years old. We all had cotton candy on the stick. In the photograph my two sisters had a lot of cotton candy left. My middle sister had about half. But mine is completely gone. I'm standing there wired, smiling, and happy as hell.  

 

I was always fascinated with food but I don't think I realized it until I grew up. There was a corn field in my backyard where I used to pick ears of corn, bring them in and cook them. My parents always used to laugh because I was in love with mountain oysters as a kid. They are basically fried bull testicles which I did not know as a child but I loved them. We would make mountain oyster fries every year and you couldn't get me close enough to the basket when they came out of the fryer.

 

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

What's your process for developing new recipes?

 

Mory Thomas (Square 1 Jersey City):

 

It can be a lot of things. Sometimes I'm inspired by a single ingredient. My friends at the health and human services were getting donations from another company so suddenly a case of mushrooms or parsnips would show up.  I'd be like oh hell what am I going to do with these? So you start thinking about well it could be a soup, it could be roasted vegetables. The challenge of a restaurant is there are lots of great things we could make. But you also have to think about the execution and the pickup as they say, meaning when somebody orders it how quickly is it going to come together. Logistically is that doable, could it cause a bottleneck on the panini press or in the oven? Essentially what's going to break or fall apart if I put this on the menu. So you have to troubleshoot it until you get it to a point that it makes sense for the concept that we have here.

 

One of things I served over the last year was a beet loaf. Not a meat loaf but a beet loaf because I received a giant 50 pound bag of beets from the Health Department. I was like okay how can I use a lot of these? So I roasted them, chopped them up and turned them into a vegetarian beet loaf. The customers fell in love with it. I made a homemade rye flatbread to put it on with some arugula and horseradish ricotta- it was delicious.

 

 

Have you visited Square 1 Community Eatery? Share below or tag us on Instagram @imbvster

 

 

Square One Community Eatery

 

Address: 283 St Paul Avenue, Jersey City

Phone Number: (201) 386-8500

Hours: Tues-Sun 8am-4pm

 

 

 

 

 

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