When the Barnebei family is getting ready for Memorial Day, there is the usual traffic to and from each other's places, a deluge of cellphone calls and tons of food prep involved. After decades in the restaurant industry, Jim and Nancy Barnebei have the unique joy of seeing their three grown children thriving in the family business - three of them to be exact.
Nancy Barnebei still runs the Concord Cafe in Wildwood, just as she did when her children were young. But now Jamie, the eldest whose married name is DelMonte, has her own upscale Italian restaurant in Wildwood Crest, named for her grandmother, Marie Nicole. And a few years ago, the two sons, Jeff, 33, and Justin, 31, opened the North End American Grill in North Wildwood, a casual surfer bar with a menu that strives to be unlike any other on the island.
"It's definitely a casual California flair with an upscale bar menu," Justin Barnebei says. "You can still get wings, chicken fingers, burgers. But no chicken cheesesteak, no cheesesteaks like you can get anywhere else on the island. We have a fair amount of seafood, especially this year. For example, we have a soft-shell crab BLT, the lobster corn chowder, a great lobster roll…"
Justin Barnebei says he uses red onions in his mirotoix, a French aromatic trio of carrots, onions and celery used as a base for many dishes. He uses frozen Jersey corn in his chowder "because it's just better tasting" and the kernels stay intact longer when frozen, which helps to keep the base from looking like a puree.
Even though both men attended Saint Joseph's college, receiving non-restaurant related degrees, Justin Barnebei says he always knew he would make a career of cooking near the shore. Photos on the walls in his father's office at Concord Cafe show a young Jeff and Justin playing with the dough and generally taking an interest in their parents' restaurant from a young age. These days, when his North Wildwood restaurant closes in winter, Justin Barnebei heads south to do even more cooking by a surfing beach, in Jaco, Costa Rica.
At age 12, Justin was helping his brother handwash dishes while they watched their older cousins working in the kitchen with their friends. By the time Justin was in high school, working on the kitchen line was the cool summer job all his friends wanted, and he got his first taste of the old adage if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.
"Working in an office was never going to happen for me. I always knew I would end up in the kitchen since I was like, 12," he says. "I was in the kitchen 14 years before I ever went to school. Then I chose French Culinary Institute because it was only a six-month program instead of two years. I needed to get back to work."
Despite all family members working in restaurants, Justin is the only one in the family who cooks for a living, often leaving their restaurant for Jeff to run while he helps out his mom or sister in their kitchens as needed.
Helping Jamie DelMonte take over an established restaurant, Jim Barnebei has dealt with his fair share of prima-donna chefs who think it's all about their cooking. But it's a combination of everyone's talents that keep the Barnebei family restaurants running smoothly, he says. So in a pinch, Justin was able to fill in and make the Italian recipes to specification.
"It's nice to have a family member take pride in the product and who is there to keep the quality consistent," Jim Barnebei said of his son. "Justin was happy to just humbly make the food right, and it's nice when you can't always be there, to have an on-site presence at the same time.
"Luckily, with the three restaurants now, we can spread out a bit so we're not always in each other's space."
Jim Barnebei says he never pressured his kids to work in the family business, but he always knew Justin was meant to be a chef.
"I'm not surprised, you know how I knew?" Jim Barnebei asks. "When they were little - really young like 5, 6, 7 - they used to have these extra-curriculars the kids could do. Jamie was doing I don't remember what, Jeff was going on nature walks … and Justin chose Kids in the Kitchen. He was always making cookies, cupcakes, and the little kids would eat them walking home, whatever he made."
At North End American Grill, Jeff and Justin have more freedom to try specials that interest them, and give guests a different taste of vacation cuisine. For example, one of their mainstays is the aforementioned lobster corn chowder. At dinner, Justin can spread his wings and come up with entrees such as wasabi-crusted filet mignon with truffle mashed potatoes and asparagus, or whip up the fresh catch of the day.
And it wouldn't be a proper holiday meal without a red, white and blue cake decorated with the American flag. Justin Barnebei claims he's no baker, but his father remembers those cookies and cupcakes that were so popular with the kids. And so the North End American Grill is offering a marble cake with buttercream frosting, blueberry stars and strawberry stripes this Memorial Day, plus its summer lobster corn chowder.
Contact Felicia Compian:
North End American Grill
206 Olde New Jersey Ave., North Wildwood
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 3 a.m. Sundays