Jersey 'Restaurant Guys' gather fans from all over the world
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
It's 10:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in April at WCTC 1450 AM in New Brunswick, and Francis Schott and Mark Pascal — better known as "The Restaurant Guys" — are in the studio. They love Wednesdays: "It's the easiest day of the week to find things to talk about," says Pascal, fanning out the food sections of several newspapers in front of him.
Schott is on the other side of the control panel, also on the hunt for hot topics. They'll have nine minutes to chat live before their guest of the day comes on for an in-depth interview that will fill up most of the hour-long show that airs from 11 a.m. to noon, Monday to Friday.
It has caught the imagination of listeners all over the world — from celebrity chefs to street shoppers and farmers to food writers.
Schott has spent the previous day in Manhattan tasting vodka and vittles courtesy of Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park.
Pascal talks about this year's shad festivals and the fact that at most of them — with the exception of Lambertville — the part of the shad is being played by salmon because water pollution has caused such drastic depletion of shad. "Let's talk about shad first thing," he suggests, "this being a Jersey thing."
They make a list, agree on subjects, and nine minutes later, listeners have learned how shad propagate, a little something about turkey breeding, the truth about fainting goats (there's actually an International Fainting Goat Association), northern flying squirrels (supposedly they make good stew) and a few other items that left everyone in the studio — and hopefully at home — laughing out loud.
It's time to go to the phones for the day's guest. Only the scheduled guest has an unavoidable family issue, so Tom Ortuso, station engineer, seamlessly switches to a previously recorded show and it's back to their day jobs for Schott and Pascal.
The first show aired on Jan. 31, 2005, and every show has one guest, generally covering one topic. There are no question and answer opportunities for listeners, and the discussions are so in-depth, that rarely seems to be an issue, judging from the posted comments.
The guys are so involved in eating well, buying locally and responsibly and in sustainability in all aspects of the food industry that sometimes, guests lean toward subjects like the effects of red tide on seafood, mercury in fish and the controversy surrounding foie gras.
That said, for the most part, you'll find wine experts, cheese makers, pastry chefs, chocolatiers, cookbook authors, food reviewers, lively chat on tipping practices, the wonders of barbecue and trends in cocktails.
They also have agreement with Bravo TV to interview Top Chefs and TV's Iron Chefs, and you'll often find established celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, Tom Colicchio, Jacques Torres, Eric Ripert, Charlie Palmer and Anthony Bourdain talking turkey or terrines.
Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton and Gael Greene stop by for long chats, and if you want to know what else you've missed in the past three-and-one-half years, you can log on to www.restaurantguysradio.com and download every single show in the archives section.
So who are these guys?
Well, they own Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi, two award-winning restaurants in the heart of New Brunswick's theater district. Stage Left's seasonal, contemporary American menu and 1,000-bottle wine list has garnered about every accolade a New Jersey eatery can earn in its 16 years. Catherine Lombardi, named after Pascal's grandmother, opened in 2005 and is Neapolitan-based, Brooklyn Italian through and through, with homemade filled pasta and gravy that simmers for days.
Pascal's grandparents were from France and Italy; they met in Brooklyn. When they moved to Nutley, they retained their Sunday tradition of eating from four to eight hours, finishing up with a penny and artichoke card game. While he loved the food coming out of the kitchen, he was much more interested in studying statistics than cooking at Rutgers. But he really enjoyed tending bar to help with tuition, and eventually worked his way up to manager at The Frog and The Peach.
In the meantime, Schott had grown up in Orange, where his dad was the fire chief. "Irish kids went to their Italian friends' homes for dinner," he laughs. He had no culinary background but read a lot about wine and food as a kid in Hemingway's adventures. He met Pascal at Rutgers, also tended bar, took a wine class with Kevin Zraly, who originated the Windows on the World wine program, and who became a mentor and friend.
While Pascal became immersed in food, Schott learned wines and spirits. They graduated in 1988 and decided to open a wine bar that would become a linchpin of the community. With $20,000, a liquor license on a handshake and a friend who believed in them named Luis Riveiro, they found a site and opened Stage Left in 1992.
"I believe I've been to their restaurants at least six times since I started listening," says Kelvin Roth of Chicago. "I even got a group of eight friends together from Chicago — some weren't even foodies until I got them to start listening to the show — to come out to Stage Left for their New Year's Eve event. And yes, the only reason I've even heard of New Brunswick was to visit their restaurants. In fact, whenever my wife and I have reason to go to New York City, we stay at The Heldrich hotel, eat at Stage Left (or Catherine Lombardi), and catch the train into New York."
"I don't remember the exact date I started listening, but when iTunes first offered podcasts, I began searching through the available podcasts for areas of interest. They soon opened my eyes to the social aspects of good food and wine. Their show has been instrumental in fueling my passion for food and the systems that supply me with it," he added.
One of the things listeners comment about is the research Schott and Pascal put into their shows. They read every book before they interview an author. They've done their homework on environmental issues if that's the discussion. If it's a chef, they're familiar with his/her background, techniques and quirks. Wine professionals have to go a long way to keep up with Schott.
Several things have changed since the show first aired. In the beginning, they had to scrounge for guests. Now, their office manager has so many offers for appearances, it's become a cottage industry.
And in addition to managing two successful restaurants, teaching wine classes and consulting on various industry projects, they spend whatever down time they have reading food and wine newsletters and magazines to keep up with issues and trends to stay sharp and focused.
As if they weren't busy enough, Pascal has four children, Schott is getting married in July and according to a couple of podcast ranking sites, an average of 100,000 people are subscribing to the show on iTunes a month so they can automatically be updated with new shows — sort of like TIVO for iPods.
Walt Smith didn't have to go online originally to hear of The Restaurant Guys. He was at a conference in his hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia listening to a speaker telling stories about celebrity chefs. "Where'd you get all those stories," I asked him after his speech. "I listen to a podcast while I'm driving; you should check it out."
"So I did," he laughs and he realized the entire speech was lifted directly — word for word — from The Restaurant Guys. What he calls "a mild obsession with food and wine" turned into listening to every podcast he could download. "They were so passionate about food, craftsmanship and service." It took seven hours for him and his wife Bernadette to reach New Brunswick in May '07. He received a seven-course pairing menu for his efforts.
"I can still taste the lobster with chestnut puree and applewood-grilled hamachi," he sighs.
So just who are these guys?
They're passionate food and wine lovers, accomplished restaurateurs and serious advocates of sustaining a healthy food system.
They're also funny and witty and real Jersey guys talking about things people share at the water cooler and the dinner table all over the world — straight from a new place on the international map named New Brunswick.
Loyal global listeners keep those comments coming
Hi Mark and Francis,
I'm a loyal listener in Paris who discovered your podcasts a few weeks back and can't get enough. I usually load up two or three shows worth of "The Restaurant Guys" to do my shopping: There are two street markets all within a five-minute radius of my apartment door. And then there are the restaurants ...
Wandering through the streets and shops of Paris, chuckling along with two New Jersey guys chewing the fat on talk radio, who'da thunk? But there you go. At any rate, thanks for working so hard and keep up the good work.
Hi Mark & Francis,
My name is Yael & I listen to your show in Tel Aviv, Israel, on my iPod of course. I usually like listening to it while I'm cooking, because it puts me in a culinary-geared mood.
I've been listening to the show for several months now. I download the shows every few weeks.
I find your show enlightening & amusing, and often times dealing with issues which are not yet being adequately discussed over here. We tend to adopt American trends about 10 years later, and unfortunately usually the worst of them, so we do not yet have a huge obesity epidemic, for example. Fruits & vegetables still make up a good part of people's diet here, but junk food is becoming a problem.
I hope this covers more or less the things you might have wanted to know about your listeners.
Hey Francis and Mark:
I tell people I listen to "Restaurant Guys Radio, All Restaurant Guys All the Time." That is because my car has a programmable iPod play list that downloads and plays your podcast. In the commute to work, I sit and learn about food and wine from the two of you and your guests.
I listen to you here in San Francisco. I used to listen to Howard Stern in the morning. Then NPR. Then other talk shows. I am so grateful for the combined creation of the iPod and your radio show. Absolutely fantastic. I shopped around for an interesting podcast for ages and am happy to have found yours. You guys rule.
Thanks again for the show, Kirk
Just a quick note from Australia to let you know that you have a fabulous show. I have been listening to you via podcasting (what an amazing invention!!). I'm a chef and restaurateur in Sydney and have learned a lot from some of your guests. ... I downloaded shows from the middle of 2005 and have listened to them all. ... Great stuff! Shame we don't have anything like this! Keep it up!
Best regards, Leigh