Today’s restaurant model is as tired as its overworked employees. That’s why when Neilly Robinson first opened up Heirloom Kitchen in 2013, she did so with fresh eyes. The mission back then, which still holds true six years later, was to create a culinary center whose focus was on food education. A place where you could take a cooking class and learn how to sear a steak or hone your knife skills. Where you could purchase artisan pots and pans or eclectic table settings. A place to eat amongst friends and where the chefs are there to not only cook your food, but to answer all your questions. Although Heirloom Kitchen originated as a part-time retail boutique and recreational cooking school, it has since introduced a weekend farm-to-table restaurant and supper club helmed by Robinson’s right-hand man and James Beard Award-nominated chef David Viana.
Robinson thought up this hybrid model some time ago with the help of her mother, Judy Rosenblum, and while the two have always shared a passion for cooking and entertaining, Robinson didn’t consider making this her life’s work until she was already employed as an agent in the fashion industry. After deciding to depart from her chosen career path and following a few failed attempts at starting a pizza business, the idea of opening up a restaurant of her own suddenly seemed out of reach.
“I thought that I had to surround myself with the talent of others because I wasn’t a chef,” Robinson explained. “But what I realized is that there’s no one better to go into business with than family. Breaking bread with friends and family is something that’s always been near and dear to my heart, so the idea of being able to do that without having to actually open up a restaurant seemed like a really unique concept.”
Growing up in Monmouth County, Robinson knew more than anyone what the area was missing—an innovative food experience. So she set out to create more than just a place to grab a bite. What Robinson ended up with was an interactive space where regular people could go to cook, eat and learn about local ingredients and a place where top notch chefs could come together and collaborate. After planting Heirloom Kitchen’s roots in Old Bridge, it was just a matter of connecting the dots.
“At the time, I had one full-time employee who was the kitchen manager. Everyone else I would bring in as freelancers—chef friends, instructors—it was a rotating calendar,” Robinson explained. It wasn’t until Chef Viana showed up in 2016 that things really started to take shape.
The two were first introduced during one of Heirloom Kitchen’s guest chef dinners—a monthly event dating back to before there was an actual working restaurant. Chefs would come from all across the tri-state to take over the kitchen for the night, sometimes even teaming up to create a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Chef Viana stayed around to help Robinson host private events, industry dinners and public cooking classes until eventually agreeing to come on full-time and conceptualize Heirloom Kitchen’s restaurant program.
“Pairing up with such a talented chef really saved the business, having someone that’s a true visionary and who had the idea of how to execute when so many people said there’s no way. He never saw the problems, only the positives.”
The so-called “problems” Robinson’s referring to is the fact that Heirloom Kitchen operates on a residential-style kitchen using only six gas burners and two wall ovens. Another quirk that sets their restaurant model apart. That being said, the kitchen is merely a stage for diners to observe and for chefs like Viana to play and perform Thursday through Sunday and during the slower days of the week, host cooking classes.
“There’s a true infrastructure to what we do now. We have a full kitchen staff including a chef de cuisine, executive chef, sous chef, pastry chef and someone who works on garde-manger. Those five people take turns teaching different classes and they all have different skill sets and come from different ethnic backgrounds. This is how we’re actually able to operate seven days a week.”
For employees of Heirloom Kitchen, this model allows the unique opportunity to teach and interact with guests Monday through Wednesday, and cook for the public during peak dining hours. The classes they offer are all sponsored by Whole Foods and range from learning how to prepare a Pat LaFrieda dry-aged steak to pasta-making, mastering Israeli brunch and more. Not to mention they’re taught by actual restaurant chefs—Viana being one of them, who’s worked under legends like Bobby Flay, Anthony Bucco, Michael White and currently competes on this season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
Chef Viana applies his expertise to crafting the menu at Heirloom Kitchen which is highly seasonal and changes weekly. “Everything that goes on the menu has to have some sort of interesting aspect to it,” Chef Viana explained. “Even though we’re in New Jersey, I want it to feel like the Lower East Side. It should be somewhat edgy, or fun, or whimsical, but still comfortable enough for someone in Old Bridge to want to order it.”
Many of the dishes are grounded in nostalgia and are somewhat representative of American food that we know and love just with a bit of a twist. For example, scallops get served with an Asian-inspired pesto made with sesame oil and shiso leaves instead of basil; foie gras is accompanied by rosemary ris-“oat”-o; and rice pudding has a Filipino twist with flavors of coconut and pandan.
Heirloom Kitchen’s collaboration dinners are perhaps an even hotter ticket, a talent showcase of the state’s best culinary offerings. Chefs are seemingly out of their element in terms of equipment and setting but what guests can expect with every chef crossover is a show. There might be some unexpected experimentation going on or you’ll see chefs bouncing new ideas and flavor combinations by each other. The entire creative process is on display, including the chance to dine on some of the most forward-thinking dishes across North, Central and South Jersey. Some past Heirloom Kitchen mashups include meals by Common Lot, Turtle + The Wolf and Pig and Prince.
While convenience is what guests of Heirloom Kitchen will find at their all-in-one business model, for Robinson and Viana, this multifaceted approach was a necessity. “We’re able to keep costs down, keep our space active everyday and it’s a niche offering that doesn’t require a ton of people to perform,” Viana explained. By providing one of the most modern dining experiences New Jersey has seen and offering what Food & Wine named as one of the “best cooking classes around the world,” Heirloom Kitchen has found a way to fill two neighborhood voids at once.