2014 Local Heroes
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Don’t let Aishling Stevens’ slight figure and quiet demeanor fool you. This small and mighty Allentown native may refer to herself as a “little, skinny chef,” but she gains the daily respect of roughly 20 line cooks plus bakers as culinary director of the Americana Diner in East Windsor. She and diner owner Constantine Katsifis (whose American Hospitality Group also includes Skylark on the Hudson and other properties) have collaborated to transform the sacred cows of traditional diner fare into healthy, thoughtful, seasonal and flavorful food for upwards of 13,000 weekly diner guests. People have started to notice. In 2013, The Star-Ledger named Americana the best diner in the state, which perhaps means it’s the best diner anywhere.
After a ten-year personal and professional adventure throughout Australia and England, which included attending culinary school and cooking in a seaside bistro, a farm-to-table country pub and a hotel, Stevens returned to her home state early last summer for what she thought was a pit stop on her journey. Stevens recalls the first phone meeting with Katsifis. “I felt I had known him for a long time; we were really on the same page,” she says. Katsifis remarks that his head chef ’s official title, director of culinary operations, “takes away some of the day-to-day management responsibilities and allows Aishling the freedom to focus on what is actually being put on the plate and what the menu should be.”
Stressing the education taking place throughout the diner, Stevens, 34, encourages the line cooks, “the guys” as she refers to them, to create new dishes with her, and teaches why something as basic as a sharp knife matters. “If you have a gorgeous heirloom tomato and a knife that’s a bit dull, you cannot make the two meet,” philosophizes Stevens. “You have to treat each ingredient with respect.” The youngest daughter of a nutritionist, she learned early on to pay attention to the impact quality and seasonal ingredients have on the body. “I think it is important to be mindful of that when you are cooking,” she says.
Katsifis himself has become a “food hunter,” establishing relationships with local purveyors and farmers. He is constantly bringing Stevens new ingredients to experiment with. Offering freerange chicken as well as grass-fed beef for burgers, steaks and what he calls an “amazing” roast beef, the Americana Diner is clearly paying attention to the movement towards healthier, pastured meats.
The ever-evolving menu includes a light Niçoise salad featuring seared rare tuna with lemon-wasabi vinaigrette, and a prosciutto wrapped pork chop stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and apples. Warm, flaky, baked-from-scratch croissants are presented during breakfast service with house-made orange marmalade. Breakfast classics such as savory farmer’s or Florentine omelets and turkey hash are accompanied with roasted tomatoes and artisan whole-grain bread.
Some early resistance to change by the diner’s patrons has been replaced with excitement about the all-day eatery’s delicious take on the classic diner. “I think most people want to eat this way,” Katsifis says. “We’ve earned the trust of our guests in how we are preparing their food, and that’s probably our biggest accomplishment.” —Chris Cirkus
Chris Cirkus is the manager of the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market.