When Francis Schott transferred to Rutgers during his sophomore year in 1986, he was still holding down a full-time job as a night manager of the ShopRite in Hillsborough, New Jersey. At the end of his shift, as the clock struck midnight, he would head out to his car with baguettes and fine cheeses, procured for close to nothing, and drive to his dorm room in the South Tower on the Livingston Campus in Piscataway. On one of his first nights at Rutgers, Schott met another student on the third floor, Mark Pascal, a big, popular guy in the dorm. Schott asked Pascal, who was clearly impressed with the bounty, to join him for a bite. He happily consented. “After meeting over bread, cheese, and beer,” says Schott, “we were friends immediately.”
Today, more than two decades later, they are still convening in friendship over food and drink. The two men are the owners of, and the artisans behind, Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi, two New Brunswick restaurants at the apex of fine dining in New Jersey, with reputations reaching far beyond the state’s borders. On the cusp of celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first restaurant, Stage Left, Pascal RC’88 and Schott RC’88 were recently anointed the “New Jersey Restaurateurs of the Year” by the New Jersey Restaurant Association, a designation that in essence acknowledges a career of work. For those who have known these guys all along, Pascal and Schott have been culinary trailblazers from the beginning.
Yet, a career in food wasn’t part of the original plan—far from it. Soon after graduating from Rutgers, Pascal took a job as a statistician for Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Schott was heading off to Seton Hall Law School. Within days, they dumped their career plans, preferring to work side by side as bartenders at the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick, chatting up the patrons. Smitten with restaurant life, they soon came up with the brilliant idea of opening their own place. It would be a wine bar with a limited menu that would accentuate their knowledge of spirits and wine. Underwritten by Lou Riveiro, who remains a business partner, they signed a lease to occupy a shoe box-sized space in a modest two-story storefront at the corner of George Street and Livingston Avenue. In May of 1992, Pascal and Schott opened the doors to Stage Left Restaurant (named for its proximity to the State Theatre, Crossroads Theatre, and George Street Playhouse) in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly inviting back then. “This area of town was still on the frontier,” says Pascal. “Across the street was a welfare hotel, that kind of thing. But we liked the edginess of it. We were 26 years old. Edginess was OK.”
Soon enough, so was business. The two men quickly developed a reputation within elite restaurant circles for the quality of their wine, food, and service. Initially, the pre- and post-theater crowds were their mainstay, providing them with a crash course in the necessity of prompt service. Within 10 years, as their reputation grew, Pascal and Schott had bought the building and began annexing spaces within it to expand Stage Left, dining room by dining room. They continued embellishing its appointments to complement the revered quality of its contemporary American cuisine. Six years ago, they opened their second restaurant, located above Stage Left, the lush Catherine Lombardi, named after Pascal’s grandmother whose own home cooking inspires the Italian-American fare served there. These days, with a 120-seat dining capacity in each restaurant, Pascal and Schott have the elbow room to do what they do best. And it is considerable.
Partners in the Sublime
To understand the secret to the restaurants’ success, before you even sit down to the food and wine to be carried away to another world, you need to go no further than to appreciate Pascal’s and Schott’s personalities, their personal and professional relationship with each other, and with others, and the philosophy that governs their approach to fine dining. These things inform every last detail of Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi, from the preparation of the butter-poached gulf shrimp to the proper folding of the last cloth napkin.
For starts, their differences, they say, are their strengths. Pascal is a pack rat; Schott loathes clutter. One is married with four children; the other has a girlfriend in Manhattan. Pascal is full of big ideas; Schott fusses over the details of them. One is a numbers guy, a logistics savant; the other is a marketing wiz, with a bent for the written word. When they are in each other’s company, their repartee is infectious, engulfing everybody in the room. Each knows what the other is thinking before he thinks it, and they tease each other with little mercy. A day isn’t right if they haven’t had a bunch of laughs between them. And Pascal and Schott might be the only executives who have rare, unopened bottles of wine and spirits arrayed on their office desks.
But, running through their relationship is a deep tributary of mutual respect formed through years of working together, an admiration of the other’s talents, and a fealty to their code of conduct. “I’d say we share a sense of fairness, honesty, and loyalty,” says Schott. “Our trust in each other is complete. And we want an atmosphere of mutual respect, of clear communication, in all our relationships. We strive to create that every day among our 65 employees. That’s the environment we want, from the dishwasher to the last purveyor whom we do business with.”
Dinner Will Be Served
It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and the staff for the two restaurants have convened upstairs in Catherine Lombardi to have the daily staff dinner, “the family meal,” according to Schott. All the tables in the large dining room have been set. It is quiet, except for the sound of buckets of ice cascading into the bar sink nearby and the faint hum of a vacuum running downstairs. With only a half hour to go before service commences, members of the staff look up attentively in the direction of Pascal and Schott, who are standing amid the tables. Schott calls this part of the evening “getting ready for takeoff,” and no two evenings are ever the same. There are already a lot of reservations on the books, and it’s going to be a busy night. The team is short a few servers, so compensatory logistics are outlined. There are a few other things to keep in mind, too. A party of 10—state legislators up from Trenton—will be dining upstairs tonight. The wine library in Stage Left, a cozy room lined with bookshelves and racks of wine, needs another table set for the private party coming in at 7:30. We’re going to need to pay attention, the men remind them. After answering a few questions, they make one last sweep of the restaurants, bars, and kitchens before adjourning to their shared basement office. At some point, usually around 6:30, they will split up, with each going to one of the restaurants to begin the evening of greeting guests at their tables, making introductions to the food and wine, and ensuring that everything goes well. “We have never had so many moving parts,” says Schott. “There is a lot to keep track of.”
Because of its unforgiving pace and the myriad demands of serving food to the public (not to mention fine cuisine), restaurant life is notorious for burning out its players, from owners right on down the line. For Pascal and Schott, stress or fatigue has never been an issue. “I love this business,” says Pascal. “It’s not a source of angst. It’s a pleasure.” Even when the restaurants are very busy, which is frequently, and an urgent call for help rings their office phones, they react to the urgency with aplomb, pulling on their suit jackets as they head off to douse “the hot spots” in the dining rooms. These are small considerations in the scheme of things, given how much satisfaction and inspiration the two derive from pleasing people.
And that’s the first point that Pascal, who is primarily responsible for hiring staff, makes to job seekers. Many of them are current or former students at Rutgers who will go through a rigorous training program before they are allowed to so much as look at a table of guests. “I tell them, ‘One, you have to be very personable and enjoy making people happy,’” he says. “‘Two, you have to be reasonably intelligent. Three, you have to be hardworking because it is a hard, physical job. And, four, you have to have the desire to be the best at this. If your only reward is money, it won’t be good enough—and you won’t be good enough. You have to take intrinsic satisfaction from making people happy and being really good at your job.’”
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.”
Late in 2004, a producer approached the restaurateurs with the idea of parlaying their knowledge and experience into a radio show. First, could they come up with 31 ideas for 31 shows? In no time, they dreamed up 90. The two men insisted, however, on a format that would allow them to develop meaningful content. For seven years now, they have been the hosts of The Restaurant Guys: Food, Wine, and the Finer Things in Life, a weekly half-hour show now broadcast nationally on Wednesdays through the Heritage Radio Network (an archive of podcasts is available through restaurantguysradio.com). After an opening segment of banter between themselves, the two men interview an authority in the culinary and wine and spirits world, be it Ruth Reichl, formerly of Gourmet magazine and the New York Times, or John Mariani, of Esquire magazine. “In the early years, it was always amusing,” says Pascal, who says the Restaurant Guys reaches 100,000 listeners a month. “At the beginning of the program, a guest who hadn’t heard of the show would come on the air, believing it was just another interview. By the time of the break, we had made a friend. The guest really had a fun time with us.”
And that’s what Pascal and Schott have always strived for: having fun while presenting seriously good food, wine, and service. It has worked for 20 years, with no signs of abating as they continue to expand the frontier of fine food. “My favorite part of the job is greeting people,” says Pascal. “I like being on the floor when the engine is running smoothly: everybody is getting what they need; you are making 120 people in each restaurant happy; your staff is making good money; and people are spending money because they want to. It’s just a nice way to make a living. It really is.” •