Somewhere, Theodore Vail had to be smiling.
The late AT&T president never lived in the Morristown palazzo he built during World War I. But it was brimming with life on Thursday.
Hundreds of guests flocked to the Vail Mansion to see what New York restaurateur Chris Cannon has done with the place. The sound of bagpipes and drums reverberated off marble pillars and staircases that teemed with activity for the first time in years.
The grand opening of Cannon’s Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen was a hot ticket–$50 for cocktails, $350 for a five-course meal prepared by top New York chefs. The sold-out event raised an estimated $40,000 for the Community Soup Kitchen & Outreach Center.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
Cannon convinced investors to spend $5 million to renovate the Italian Renaissance-style mansion. And he made sure most of the massive overhaul was finished in time for Thursday’s gala, a feat that appeared impossible just a few weeks ago.
But the real adventure comes in a week or two, when Cannon hopes to swing open Jockey Hollow’s massive iron doors to the general dining public.
“This restaurant is here to support New Jersey as much as possible, and try to change perceptions of New Jersey, not only in New York, but across the country,” said Cannon, who poured drinks at the Vail Bar and basked in congratulations all night, beaming like a kid who’s just brought home a report card with straight A’s.
The Mountain Lakes resident insisted Jockey Hollow is not about vindication, or one-upping former New York restaurant partners who elbowed him out.
“I do what I do, and if people take it that way, they take it that way. I move on,” Cannon said. “I care about having a restaurant full of people having a good time.”
New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie liked what she saw on Thursday. Will she and Gov. Christie be dining there soon?
“Absolutely. That’s a no-brainer. We like to eat out. We’re looking forward to it,” Mary Pat Christie said. It’s great having another world-class restaurant in the Garden State, she said, adding, “I’m thrilled I only live 12 miles away.”
The Vail Mansion makeover also impressed one of Cannon’s friends from Mountain Lakes, Margarethe Laurenzi of the Community Foundation of New Jersey.
“I love the way he blended old and new. It’s got the bones of the old place and a modern sensibility. And his food is fantastic,” Laurenzi said.
After serving as Morristown’s town hall for decades, the mansion sat empty for years as the town and developers searched for a business or organization capable of using 15,000 square feet spanning three floors and a cavernous basement.
“When I took office so many people said there was no way you will ever get a restaurant” for the Vail, said Mayor Tim Dougherty. “Well, we put the Redevelopment Agency back together, and not only did we get a top restaurant, we got a destination. Chris Cannon, job well done.”
If Cannon was the happiest person in the mansion, Terry Connolly was a close second. She runs the soup kitchen, a few doors down from the new Jockey Hollow restaurant.
The evening was a benefit for her nonprofit.
“It means $40,000 we hadn’t expected to have. It will feed a lot of people, and provide a lot of services. He is a good neighbor,” Connolly said.
She said Cannon had approached the soup kitchen, not the other way around.
A similar story was heard in the upstairs kitchen at Jockey Hollow. Andrea Lekberg of The Artist Baker now is doing double duty as pastry chef for the restaurant. Cannon is a customer of her shop on Cattano Avenue, she said.
“I feel really fortunate to be part of this,” Lekberg said, as she and colleague Erica Leahy prepared trays of chocolate hazelnut tarts, fruit choux, lemon poppy cookies and fresh figs with walnuts and caramel.
‘WOW! THAT’S AMBITIOUS’
Nearby in the bustling kitchen, Chef Alfred Portale of the Gotham Bar and Grill was ready to serve Sweet Corn Tortellini, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Sun Gold Tomatoes, White Corn Crema and Pecorino Pepato. Those ingredients added up to one of five courses on Thursday’s menu.
Portale remembers his reaction two years ago when Cannon, an old friend, drove him to Morristown for a look at the Vail Mansion:
“Wow! That is ambitious!”
Now, the chef said, “the restaurant speaks for itself. I think [Cannon] will do great. He’s a great restaurateur. He lives in New Jersey. It’s a great location, a beautiful space, and he’s got a very talented chef. All the pieces are in place.”
Cannon’s chef is Kevin Sippel, who worked with him at L’Impero and Alto in New York. Sippel also got hooked after a look-see in 2012.
“It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the Jockey Hollow chef, who moved from Brooklyn to Parsippany with his wife and two young daughters. No Jersey jokes for him.
“Coming out here and seeing all the green and the trees was mind-blowing,” Sippel said. And get this: “I have a parking space and a washer/dryer. It’s a serious upgrade!”
Sippel called Cannon “the hardest working guy in the business, and a great leader, too. He’s great at assembling a team. We know what he wants– he wants to be the best.”
Cannon allowed Sippel to design the kitchen to suit the chef’s tastes, which were honed in France and Italy.
Sippel will get freshly butchered meat from Ralston Farm in Mendham; Forty North Oyster Farms in Mantoloking will supply the oysters. Cannon invested in the oyster farm to help it rebound from Hurricane Sandy, according to Matt Gregg of Forty North.
Oysters will run from $1- to $3 apiece at Jockey Hollow’s Oyster Bar, with appetizers between $8- and $16 and meals ranging from a $14 sandwich to a $35 steak, said General Manager Ron Morgan.
Thursday’s big spenders enjoyed caviar, Sockeye salmon, roasted squab and smoked short ribs, among other items. When Jockey Hollow opens to the public, its upstairs dining room will feature a four-course prix fixe menu for $72.
That menu will feature “American food, with a strong farm-to-table inspiration,” Morgan said.
Jockey Hollow still must be inspected by the town for a certificate of occupancy. That document, in turn, is required by the state before it can issue Cannon a concessionaire’s license to serve liquor, according to a spokesman for the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Temporary permits enabled Thursday’s grand opening, according to town officials. The Morristown fire department was there on standby because the sprinkler system has not been tested yet.
Getting from there to here
Everyone pushed hard to be ready for Thursday, said Morgan, who lives in Jersey City.
“We lost some sleep,” the general manager said. “We’re all nice guys, but we won’t stop until we get things right.”
Morgan worked with Cannon at L’Impero and Convivio in New York, and described him as a no-nonsense fellow who dreams big.
“This is always what he had in his mind, something this grand but not overbearing or pretentious,” Morgan said. “It’s really about having fun: Great service, great food and great wine.”
Kevin Sippel, the Jockey Hollow chef, said he knew the mansion would be ready for the grand opening.
“You’re working with Chris Cannon. It gets done.”