Chef Chris Bellino never does anything halfway. Finding his passion for food at age 14 years, he began working in local restaurants in order to gain the hands-on experience he would need later to move up in the culinary world.
Bellino then attended two culinary schools - the Atlantic County Vo-Tech commercial foods program and the Baltimore International Culinary College in Maryland, graduating at the top of his class.
Bellino then spent 11 years at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, working his way up to restaurant chef, before leaving to take the job as executive chef at the well-respected Vienna Inn in Galloway Township.
Bellino next moved to the Smithville Inn in 2008 where, as executive chef, he has been able to add his own touches to a classic menu, such as the addition of his Yorkshire Pudding to the ever-popular prime rib of beef.
The Smithville Inn in Galloway Township, surrounded by many small quaint shops, is not only a restaurant but a destination where numerous weddings and other functions are celebrated every year.
Bellino's menu has evolved as his interest in all things culinary and experience in various ethnic cuisines has increased.
A family man, Bellino likes to barbecue for his two children - Lyla and Liam - and his wife, Suzanne, who also is a trained pastry chef. In his spare time, Bellino is an avid skier and gardener, who loves going to the beach and doing anything that can be enjoyed near the water's edge.
We talked to Bellino about his career and his life in food.
Which foods are your guilty pleasure?
I'm a pig lover. Roast pork, bacon, prosciutto, speck, pancetta, but there is nothing like a nice fatty piece of pan-fried pork belly. The texture, saltiness and richness are incredible.
What is the best meal you have ever eaten?
I don't think I can pinpoint one meal at one place. I've had so many memorable dining experiences. Maybe a salad here or a side dish there. One that sticks out in my mind was the Silver Queen Corn Grits I ate at Luke Palladino's in Northfield. Or the lobster bisque at Winfield's in Millville. It all depends on what I'm in the mood for. I love the house salad at Chef Vola's in Atlantic City.
Which local chef is doing food you admire?
Demetrios Haronis, culinary director at Tropicana Casino and Resort. I've known D for 18 years and worked with him for 12 years at Tropicana. I have always admired his culinary mind. He has a good sense of what is hot and always seems to be ahead of the trend. His passion for culinary arts is second to none. He is a big advocate of sustainable foods and using local farms which in turn has made me more aware of the high-quality ingredients located right here in our backyard.
How would you describe your personal cooking style?
My personal cooking style is all-encompassing. I have worked in quite a few different kitchens in my career, including Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and American. I have taken bits and pieces from each experience which has lead me to my current technique that incorporates all of these different cuisines.
Do you watch any culinary shows on TV?
I loved to watch classic cooking shows like Yan Can Cook, Julia Child, and Justin Wilson "the Ragin Cajun" on PBS. I miss the early days of Food Network shows like "Chillin N Grillin" with Jack McDavid and Bobby Flay that focused on cooking, not crazy ingredients, a time clock or washed-up celebrities making fools of themselves. Today's cooking shows seem so staged and give young hopeful culinarians a false impression of what the culinary world is all about.
Do you cook at home?
I do. I'm the guy with the smoker going in a January snow storm. Usually, it's more like French toast in the morning for my kids before school, since I'm only home for dinner a couple nights per week.
What is the one kitchen ingredient any home cook shouldn't be without?
Butter is the one ingredient that comes to mind, you can use it in everything. Finish sauces, saute, bake, pan fry, smear it on crusty bread. Yum.
What about a kitchen gadget?
I'm not a fan of kitchen gadgets, unlike my father who has two of every gadget ever made. Although he is a great cook with or without his gadgets. If I had to pick one I would say no chef should be without a good pair of long-handled tongs. They are like your extended fingers.
How about a cookbook?
A: I have a nice collection of cookbooks. I change the menus at the Historic Smithville Inn twice a year, so I'm constantly referencing them for technique and ideas. I don't think chefs can have one book you couldn't be without. I would say my Art Culinaire books, they come quarterly and are inspiring in their chef interviews, recipes and illustrations.
When did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
I know I always wanted to cook. Wherever I have worked, I always wanted to be better than the guy working next to me. In 2001, that mentality opened doors for me at Tropicana and gave me valuable experience that I utilize today in my kitchen.
What do you enjoy cooking most?
I love to barbecue, but it has to be charcoal. There is nothing like a good char-grilled steak and some corn on the cob with grilled potatoes.
What is your ultimate desert island meal?
Jamaican jerk pork with duck fat french fries. Served with a nice cold Dogfish 60 minute IPA.
What are your culinary influences?
Greek, Italian, Mediterranean, classic French. I'm a fan of food in general. I like it all and try to incorporate all cuisines into my menus.
What is your background?
I started cooking at vo-tech while I was in high school. After school I had a job cooking at the Galloway Diner. I have an associates degree in culinary arts from Baltimore International College, located right in the Inner Harbor. After graduating college, I worked at a few places before landing at the Tropicana Casino Hotel in 1996. I stayed for 11 years moving up through the ranks. I left there a restaurant chef running the banquet department in 2007. In late 2008 I joined the Historic Smithville Inn as executive chef where I oversee daily operations, including all food production for a la carte dining and the banquet department. We are a full-service restaurant that has banquet facilities for any occasion.
What do you like about the local culinary scene?
I like the diversity in the area. People are very fortunate to have such a vast array of restaurants to choose from.
What kind of restaurant do we have too many of?
Chain restaurants. I'm not saying I haven't been to chain restaurants, but there is so much fresh local talent in mom and pop places and the new concepts in Atlantic City is what makes the area special. Chains are the same place no matter where you travel and are more of a convenience than culinary experience.
Historic Smithville Inn Fried Tomatoes
•1 red bell pepper
•2 cups panko bread crumbs
•1 bunch parsley, chopped
•1 beef steak tomato
•1 teaspoon lemon
•1 cup flour,
•seasoned with salt and pepper
•3 eggs, beaten
•2 cups vegetable oil
•3 ounces gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
•1 ounce of aged
Roast the bell pepper over flame until skin is charred. Peel and cut into strips, set aside.
Chop panko and parsley in food processor until the bread crumbs turn green. Slice the tomato in three thick 3/4-inch slices. Season with lemon pepper. Dredge in seasoned flour then egg, then green panko mix.
Pan fry in vegetable oil until golden. Place on oven-safe pan and top with fire-roasted peppers. Add crumbled gorgonzola and place in broiler until cheese melts. Plate and drizzle with aged balsamic.