Chef Spotlight: Leia Gaccione of South and Pine in NJ

—A window into the illustrious career of New Jersey star chef Leia Gaccione and her popular Morristown restaurant, South and Pine in NJ.

My first bite of Chef Leia Gaccione’s food was met with equal parts joy and envy. Admittedly, I didn’t want to like chicken and waffles as a legitimate entrée. I was much more eager to try her jerk oxtail hand pies, or the spicy lamb meatballs—they felt less trendy to me. But, Gaccione, as did many of my friends who have eaten her food before, insisted that the chicken and waffles be the first thing that I try when eating at her Morristown restaurant, South and Pine. So, I reluctantly stuck my fork into the amber-hued chicken and took a bite. And with that one bite, I was hooked. Gaccione made a fool of me with one perfect piece of chicken, and I am so happy that she did.

That has been her game from early on in her career. Whether you want to hear it or not, women in professional kitchens have always started from a step below their male counterparts. Even at the same position, a societal expectation has always been prevalent that women have more to prove. “When applying for a job, I just had to accept the cat-calling, and people grazing up against me in what they would call an accident. It was not right, but it was normal,” Gaccione explained. She never took this as a threat; instead, she turned it into her greatest strength. 

As a young girl, Gaccione drew inspiration from Julia Child on television. Later on, Alton Brown came along to strengthen her interest in food. However, as a senior in high school, she put her fictional knives away and applied to Montclair State University for Psychology. It was the first step in transitioning from high school into her career—until they lost her application. When fall came around, and the school she thought she would be studying at told her that she could not attend, she had to step back and think about what she would do. And so, her love for food brought her to the New York Restaurant School to study the craft she was destined to master.

Just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, a scared 17-year-old Gaccione was taking the bus into Manhattan daily not because she had to, but because she wanted to. “When I first walked into the school, it was just a building filled with kitchens. I had never seen anything like it. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy, and it also reinforced the idea that this is where I want to be,” she told me.

Gaccione takes a modest approach with almost everything. Even when discussing all of her successes to date, she still finds a way to downplay them. Take for example her work with the late Carl Ruiz, a NJ-born celebrity chef with several television and nationwide appearances under his belt. I was shocked to discover she worked so closely with Ruiz for several years, even opening the well-known Montclair restaurant Cuban Pete’s with him back in 2005.

Even more shocking was her eight years of work for chef superstar Bobby Flay. When a 23-year-old Gaccione had the opportunity to trail in one of Flay’s renowned restaurants, Bar Americain in Manhattan, she saw it as an opportunity to gain knowledge (and maybe even pocket a few of his legendary recipes). When her trail came to a close, she failed her mission of bringing some secrets back to her Montclair job because they immediately asked her to come back the following week as executive sous chef. With one three-day period of work, Gaccione, without even trying, surpassed nearly everyone in that kitchen. An inconceivable task for a woman in the industry, yet, for anyone who knows even the least about her, it was anything but unexpected.

I sat amazed as Gaccione continued to lay her career out in front of me. Whether it was her opening nearly half a dozen restaurants with various well-respected chefs, or her eight years of work as one of Bobby Flay’s go-to chefs, she has established a career that is book-worthy while doing it all under the radar. Perhaps a low-profile was the key to her collection of successes before even turning 30 years old; however, when it came time to move on as an independent chef is when Gaccione really began to make a name for herself. 

South + Pine

In 2015, Gaccione opened her long-awaited restaurant, South and Pine in Morristown, NJ. Fresh, seasonal food was one of the most important factors in the conceptualization of that restaurant—it still is today. We conversed about the impact of serving high-quality meat in a restaurant setting. Not only does it taste better than its mass produced counterparts, but it is more ethically responsible. What Gaccione described as “chicken-y chicken” to me may have seemed like a jest, but she was entirely serious. When you eat a piece of meat from an animal that was raised right, it truly does taste better.

The acceptance of eating meat, and what it means for that animal and the environment—it is not a “no harm” industry. “When people order a lamb chop here, they think of it as just that, a lamb chop. What so many people fail to realize is that a lamb chop comes from an actual lamb—an animal that was once alive and was killed for us to consume,” Gaccione said. 

Similarly Gaccione is always sourcing local produce when she can. She feels it is important to both the guests and to keeping local farms running. Besides, what many fail to see is that New Jersey is covered with rich farmland all throughout the state. 

Perhaps even more important to Gaccione, was the removal of anything resembling pretentiousness. The open kitchen offers a glance into hecticity for hungry diners, and the simply dressed servers bring comfort to the table. 

Furthermore, the dishes put in front of you resemble in both taste and visuals something that you may receive at a restaurant with a strict dress code. This is what sets South + Pine apart for me. I have a guilty pleasure for the gluttonous, the meals that are inaccessible for many. They may make you feel like you’re on the set of a movie when you eat them, but their aesthetics often skew your opinions on the actuality of the meal itself. The affordability, and casual atmosphere of a restaurant like South + Pine is always there to bring me back into reality.

What is perhaps the most admirable of Gaccione’s profile is her insistence on giving both her staff and herself a life outside of work. This means two days off a week, reasonable hours and time off when truly needed. So often in this industry, the people who put the most in for you are spread too thin, and it has become a turn-off from restaurants for many. She finds it important to treat her staff to the privilege of living outside of work, and it has not failed her yet. Even more apparent, it has not failed diners, either. 

During my conversation with Gaccione, I asked her to cook me four to five dishes so that I could get a taste for what she brings to the table; so, she cooked me 11. As Gaccione glanced over the menu circling items she would cook for me, she was saying things like, “Oh, this is a must-try” or “this one just changed and I’m so proud of it.” She is confident in her cuisine, and that’s what makes it hers. 

The spicy lamb meatballs which are paired with crisp cucumber and tangy greek yogurt were everything I want in a starter. Laudable complexity of spice in the meatballs itself are cut like a knife with the cool, creamy yogurt. One of the few nearly perfect bites of food I have had in recent memory, and I quickly realized why this dish has not changed a cent in five years’ time. 

While the meatballs may stay the same, change is inevitable for the rest of the menu. Four seasons, four menu changes, each re-thinking over 75 percent of the menu. Just as diners get familiar with a dish, it is stripped away from them only to be improved with the next season. 

South + Pine

The local burrata makes a perfect example of this. Luscious burrata cheese is the star of the show here, but it would be nothing without the maple roasted pears and pumpkin seed granola that are currently being paired alongside it. A dish that shouts cries of the season as you eat it, I have not stopped thinking about it since. 

The PEI mussels combined plump mussels with smoked bacon, sage, and a New Jersey  favorite, Ironbound Hard Cider. Taking obvious inspiration from the classic mussels and white wine that has been played out to a problematic extent, the hard cider brings both uniqueness and a sense of seasonality to the table. 

South + Pine

I have made it clear my disdain toward chicken and waffles. It is always fine, and it tends to stop at that in my own opinion. Gaccione, on the other hand, takes it to the next level with a polenta waffle that is laden with diced hot sopressata, polenta crusted chicken, and a spicy Calabrian honey. Labeled on the menu as “Fried Chix” (because it has no business being associated with any other takes on the classic), this is in a league of its own. 

Every dish at South and Pine exceeded my expectations. The jerk oxtail hand pies were perfectly balanced between spicy and sweet, while the seared scallops with roasted broccoli and lemon dressed orzo offered a look into how outrageously great the bivalve can be when cooked correctly. The butter-basted monkfish with sweet potato and kale chowder, clams, and chorizo brought similar feelings of seasonality but in a totally different way from the aforementioned burrata. My only regret when eating Gaccione’s food was being unable to eat more.

After hearing her values, and eating her food, it was no surprise to me that she was able to open her second restaurant, Central + Main in Madison, NJ late last year. Similarly to South + Pine, Central + Main takes pride in serving seasonal and local food, but still sets itself apart from its predecessor with a different menu and atmosphere. I have come to realize that is just the Leia Gaccione way, and I’m certain it won’t be the last we see of it. 

At 36 years old, Gaccione has accomplished much of what many young aspiring chefs dream of achieving. Her drive to always be better, while remaining humble has grounded her as one of the best chefs in New Jersey. Still, similarly to much of her career to date, she is doing the most from a relatively low profile. Now, with two restaurants under her belt and a growing base of customers, her name is bound to stretch from coast to coast. Gaccione is much more than just a great female chef in the industry, her illustrious resume has landed her as a well-rounded talent, period. If you ask me, she is one of the best, and I’ll be anything but surprised when thousands of people are on the same page as I in the near future.

Photography by Peter Bonacci