After studying in Paris and serving elsewhere, the chef opens restaurant lauded by The New York Times
By Kevin Gray
Robert Ubhaus ’96 stood on the porch and gathered himself. If he was going to learn how to become a chef, this was going to be where it started. He was ready to take a chance.
The previous summer, the teenager and future bistro owner worked in an Italian restaurant in Edison, N.J., as a busboy for a time before his distaste for the “front of the house” led to a reassignment in the kitchen—washing dishes. Not quite the glamour spot, he thought, but closer to where he wanted to be.
Resolved to become a chef, Ubhaus opened the door to The Green Gables—“the best restaurant on the New Jersey Shore’s Long Beach Island,” he says—and asked to speak with the owner/chef.
“I was nervous, but asked him if he would hire me,” recalls Ubhaus, who opened Resto in Madison, N.J., last year. “He said, ‘If you’re willing to forget everything you’ve learned so far, you can start learning from me on Friday’.”
Ubhaus jumped at the opportunity to learn from a top chef in a unique kitchen environment. The Green Gables had two seatings every evening and was not bound by a set menu.
“Unless they had severe allergies or a big aversion to it, what we were serving that night is what guests ate,” Ubhaus says. “It was European style. Because of that, it was amazing how many different menus we created.”
Often, the items on the menu depended on what fresh seafood was available from Barnegat Light in New Jersey, the Fulton Street Market in New York City or the Produce Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
“We would find the best ingredients that were fresh and create the menu from that,” Ubhaus says. “The most important thing I learned during that summer was to respect the food.”
It’s a lesson that has been a key ingredient to his successful career. Ubhaus studied at the American University in Paris and worked in well-regarded restaurants in California, New York, and New Jersey.
“My life goal has been to own my own restaurant,” he says. “There was a nice space available in Madison, New Jersey, that was very manageable in terms of size and what I was looking to do.”
A double major in international affairs and economics & business at Lafayette, Ubhaus used his experience writing business plans during a college class when he developed one for his new restaurant. (In fact, during the class, Ubhaus wrote a business plan for the restaurant he wanted to own one day.) He also turned to friend Tom Urbaniak ’96 to do his general contracting work on his restaurant.
Resto (see www.restonj.com), which opened in May 2008, has just 26 seats. Ubhaus’ vision is a fine-dining restaurant “without any of the pretension.”
“We want our guests to have the great food of New York City without having to worry about using the right fork,” he says. “We want to loosen up that strict dining code.”
In a nod to Ubhaus’ experience at the Green Gables, Resto already has had more than a dozen menus. Doing so keeps Ubhaus’ skills sharp and allows him to be creative with ingredients and combinations. It also challenges his guests’ palates.
“Part of what I’m creating here is a level of trust between me and my guests,” he says. “If they like the soup one visit, maybe they will trust me enough to try the soup the next time even though it’s not the same kind they had before.”
Guest response has been especially favorable and reviews have been very positive. In January, a reviewer from the Newark Star-Ledger wrote, “Resto is an innovative bistro offering its patrons excitement without risk” while rating it 3 out of 4 stars. And none other than The New York Times lauded Resto and Ubhaus as “excellent” (the highest rating for a New Jersey restaurant) in March.
“I’m not going to retire on this because there’s a cap on the revenue with a restaurant this size,” he says. “I do have a goal for expansion, but I equate it to buying a condominium as a starter home before moving up into a larger house. Resto is the perfect size for me at this point.”
Ubhaus’ success can be traced to the lesson he learned before he ever began restaurant cooking in earnest, when he stood on that porch in Long Beach Island: When opportunity doesn’t come knocking, sometimes you just have to pull the door open, walk right in, and ask for what you want.