The Rams Head Inn in Galloway Township enjoys a solid reputation without being too ritzy for many area residents to have a fond memory or two from a wedding or similar family event there.
So it makes sense that it's also known for its chicken pot pie, an old-fashioned comfort food many might find too challenging to try and recreate at home. Better leave it to the professionals, people like Kurt Knowles, the Inn's proprietor, and his family of hospitality professionals.
When Knowles and his family took over the Inn from Fred Noyes in the late 1970s, they wanted to keep the established feel of the place. The pot pie already had become a staple on the Rams Head menu. Contrary to local legend, the recipe for the thinner, casserole-style version the Noyes' used to serve was never included in any sales contract, says manager Kay Affifi. But the Knowles family adapted it to the individual pies now served in little copper pots.
A retired European coppersmith hand-hammers each one on the grounds of The Manor, another Knowles-owned venue in North Jersey, where the family lives.
"People always come in and ask for (the pot pie)," Knowles said. One time, the restaurant did a menu change that eliminated the pot pie - temporarily.
"The customers raised hell," Knowles said. "They wanted it back."
And so back it came.
"It's part of the charm of the place," Knowles explained. "Through the years, chicken pot pie (with its common, inexpensive ingredients) has been considered comfort food, homestyle cooking. So it's fitting that a classic, American colonial inn should be known for such a homey dish."
Knowles knows there's plenty besides capital investment that goes into being an innkeeper. And as so much of entertaining starts in the kitchen, this family works hard to ensure a solid foundation of knowledge in that arena.
For example, he knows words like 'simple' and 'homestyle' can exist quite happily alongside 'upscale' and 'elegant' so long as there's 'quality' in the middle.
"If you go to France, even the upscale places that offer filet mignon and truffles also serve coq au vin," he said, alluding to the rustic French chicken dish. "It's all in the ingredients - fresh, good food - the quality of the product and the presentation."
While it's easy to throw some frozen peas and carrots into a pre-made, boxed broth and call it soup, there's a noticeable difference in taste if you use freshly steamed veggies, says Chef Elio Gracia. He should know, the Puerto Rican-born resident of Egg Harbor Township has made the chicken pot pie every day except Monday (when the Inn is closed) for the past 14 years. By now, he doesn't even think about measuring, he just knows exactly how the chicken supreme sauce should taste, just as he can tell from sight if the rue has the right texture, an essential step in the process.
During those years, he picked up a few tips on what's crucial to making the perfect pot pie - such as taking the time to make the dumplings right.
"It's very important to mix the shortening in thoroughly (with the dry ingredients) so there are no lumps. That's the most important part," Gracia said, as he expertly whisked the ingredients until smooth. "Then you can just plop them on top (of the chicken, vegetables and supreme sauce in the pot) and they hold up the puff pastry dough, so it stays dry while it's baking."
And of course, any good innkeeper knows it takes more than just a simple, hearty meal to make his guests merry. For those who enjoy a glass of wine with their pot pie, Knowles recommends a domestic Chardonnay that's not too oaky, or a sauvignon blanc that's flinty and crisp at this time of year. If you love red wine and aren't afraid to live on the edge a little (White meat with red wine, ooh la!) a delicate pinot noir, perhaps from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Calif., or the Willamet Valley in Oregon, also work.
"I like to cook," Knowles said. "There's not a lot of that I get to do. But we're very much a food and wine family."
Over the years, Knowles used his homestyle cooking skills to tweak the classic chicken pot pie recipe a bit, adding a little thyme here, a handful of bay leaves there. But every time, he ran it first by his guests, who consistently preferred the classic recipe he's shared here.
"It's balanced, no one ingredient overpowers the other," Knowles said. "Of course, the chicken is the mainstay, but it's delicate, the sauce is creamy, enhanced well by the pepper and a little coarse salt, maybe added tableside.
"Sometimes, it's nice with a little side cruet of truffle oil. It's nice if the customer wants that element, drizzled on. But that's strictly on request. Or you could add it at home, to taste. Everything should be spiced to taste."
If you can't get it just right, just head over to the Rams Head Inn and refresh those warm memories.
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