In May, Josh Thomsen, who had been executive chef at Agricola since it opened two years ago, left the restaurant to take a position at a resort in Florida. Stepping into his kitchen clogs in Princeton is Crawford Koeniger, who joined the Agricola team this past January.
Jim Nawn, owner of both Agricola and Great Road Farm in Skillman, which produces much of the food served at the restaurant, told me he chose Koeniger, who turns 35 on June 6, because “Crawford is a thoughtful young chef who has shown an ability to motivate and develop the people he leads, while possessing a creative ability with the food he crafts.”
“Thoughtful” is exactly the right descriptive, as I learned in an interview with Koeniger about his new duties. This chef chose to meet at Great Road Farm rather than the restaurant, and as we toured its six-plus cultivated acres of fields, hoop houses and greenhouses, he talked about how a deep connection to the farm was a key factor in attracting him to the Agricola job.
He had learned to appreciate that connection while working in the past at another local restaurant: Eno Terra in Kingston, which has Canal Farm. In fact, Koeniger counts Eno Terra’s executive chef at the time, Chris Albrecht, among his most influential mentors.
“After a time working with Chris, he allowed me to take over a lot of things, such as scheduling,” Koeniger says. “It got to the point I was doing most of the stuff that he had been doing at the restaurant, and he was able to spend a lot more time out on the farm and in the community. In the end, that came back to me, because I started to learn more about the farm and the farmers in the area and the community presence. It was just wonderful and really helped me lots.”
When Koeniger was hired earlier this year by Agricola, he came straight from a stint (post-Eno Terra) as executive chef at Washington House in Basking Ridge. The particular project Nawn and Thomsen had in mind for him was the development of a proposed food barn, which is still in the works.
“They’re re-erecting a barn to serve as a center for classes, lectures, perhaps some catering, and possibly on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights a prix fixe dinner,” he says with excitement. “It would be a little more upscale, taking what we do at Agricola and refining it.”
Even now, Koeniger works hand-in-glove with Great Road Farm’s farmer, Steve Tomlinson. “Steve’s constantly taking on new projects,” he says. “We have cows now, and sheep, in addition to our chickens.” Koeniger points to a nascent bed of asparagus, and also notes that Tomlinson is growing artichokes for the first time. In addition, several uncultivated sections of the 112-acre farm are being set aside to be seeded with wild edibles — plants, bushes, trees — that grow naturally in this area, such as fiddlehead ferns.
As for putting his stamp on Agricola’s menu, Koeniger says the transition will happen gradually. “Josh did an exceptional job,” he admits. “I don’t think there’s a restaurant in the top 10 in New Jersey that’s doing anywhere near the numbers Agricola is. To be able to hold all that together is a massive feat.”
Koeniger and his chef de cuisine, Chris Ilias, whom he brought with him from Washington House, have already revamped the dessert menu, and will be rolling out changes to the remainder of the menu starting in early June.
“As far as what the guest can expect, I’m focused on simplifying food and building on flavors,” Koeniger says. “When I’m putting down a strawberry I want somebody to taste strawberry. I don’t need to hide the strawberry with all sorts of other things. But at the same time I want to build flavors, whether it’s the smallest bit of salt that’s going to make it taste more like a strawberry, or the smallest bit of rosewater that’s going to bring out the floral capabilities of the strawberry without you knowing there’s rosewater in there.”
Same deal, he says, with something like chicken. “It should taste like chicken. It doesn’t have to be buried in wine and butter and all these things that mask what you’re eating.”
Koeniger says that feedback on the changed desserts from Agricola’s regulars has been overwhelmingly positive, for which he gives credit mainly to Ilias.
“We know we have to recapture the public’s attention right now,” he says. “Our guests are saying that dessert has sort of been elevated.” Which is ironic, since the menu is a short list of classics: strawberry shortcake, cheesecake, chocolate tart, and carrot cake.
“The names are simple; the expression is a lot more complicated,” he says. The carrots in that cake, for example, are cooked sous vide, the cake itself is deconstructed and the dessert includes Bourbon caramel sauce. And plain cream cheese frosting wouldn’t suffice.
“We’re whipping crème fraiche with cream cheese so you have this note of tartness which builds flavor — that’s where the interest lies,” he explains. “When we’re doing 300 covers on a Saturday night I can’t spend the majority of our time making sure every single component on the dish has perfect placement, but what I can do is make sure every note on your palate has perfect placement. It’s still going to be rustic food, it’s still going to be very presentable, but the things that are happening when you close your eyes, the things that are happening when you pay attention to your nose and palate, are going to be a little more fine-tuned.”
Koeniger is also focused on using all parts of the farm’s crops at all stages of growth. In the field, he points to bok choy that has already bolted — but insists that its resultant buds and flowers are full of “amazing” flavor, that its now-fibrous leaves can be softened with a good sauté, and even its thick stalks can become sweet when cooked, similarly to those of broccoli. “It’s all about communication between me and Steve,” he says of his close relationship with the farmer.
“Most chefs haven’t thought through that cycle from infancy all the way through to bolting.” He intends to counter what he calls “the in-the-box perception of a chef who might look at the bolted bok choy and think, ‘this doesn’t look a whole lot like what we order from California, so it must be ready to be gotten rid of’.”
He hopes that the chefs and kitchen staff at Agricola, which number around 30, will also be inspired to think this way. “A lot of our chefs haven’t seen this and I want them to grow, too. I want a learning environment.”
Before turning to the culinary arts, Koeniger studied philosophy at Drew University. This was after two years as a business major at Babson College in Boston, after which time he sold software.
“I was 20 years old and making, like, $65,000 a year, but I was miserable,” he says. He eventually returned to his father’s home in Maplewood to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Starting as a dishwasher at age 14, Koeniger had always worked in restaurant kitchens, so he took at job at Freeman’s Fish Market in town just to make money.
“Meantime, I made up these lists of things I could and couldn’t do with my life, the pros and cons — trying to be very systematic about what my future could be,” he explains. “One day it dawned on me: why can’t it be what I’m already doing? I was coming home smelling like fish — I had to shower with lemon to remove the scent so my girlfriend would hang out with me — but I didn’t mind it. I realized I enjoyed it.”
Koeniger went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and, “it was all straight from there.”
Koeniger lives in Ringoes with his wife of five years, Suzanne. The two met while working at the Bridgewater Marriott, where she was front-office manager. In his spare time Koeniger, an avid driver, rebuilds car engines.
This chef admits that up until now, he has hopped from restaurant to restaurant. Besides the aforementioned properties, the roster includes Eleven Madison Park in NY, Roots Steakhouse in Summit, and the Pluckmin Inn. But Agricola — and Princeton — is where he wants to plant roots. “There aren’t a lot of places like Princeton, where you have a city feel but eight minutes away you have a place like this,” he says, gesturing out over the fields of Great Road Farm. “I think there’s a food scene that can just explode in this town and I’m looking to be part of that.”