Considering his background - which saw him raised on Ukrainian comfort food, his culinary training - which grounded him in French techniques and time spent in Mexico and several Central American countries - the executive chef at the Iron Room in Atlantic City, Kevin Cronin's menu might surprise you.
"I like the food to be distinctly American," Cronin says.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, the Upper Township resident moved to Ocean City in 1990, his freshman year in high school.
"My first culinary job, was at 13 or 14 years old," Cronin says.
His career path traveled from dishwasher to prep to short order to pantry, learning all the basic kitchen jobs.
Eventually dropping out of college to continue his pursuit of all things culinary, Cronin got a job cooking at the Tuckahoe Inn at Beesley's Point for well-known local Chef Tyson Merryman.
"That was my first real cooking job," Cronin says.
It turned out to be more than a job because Merryman taught his young protege everything from how to cook a steak properly to how to prepare the classic French mother sauces.
"He probably wouldn't call himself a mentor, but I would definitely call him that," Cronin says about Merryman.
From the age of 21, Cronin worked at the Tuckahoe Inn for two or three years, learning all the techniques he could absorb.
Cronin spent some time in New York City "staging" at various restaurants for several talented chefs, including David Bouley, where his job was a heavy dose of prepping. Stagiare is the French term for a kitchen intern who is given much of the basic kitchen drudge work in exchange for learning about the cuisine of a given chef.
Cronin ended up spending 10 years in New York, working as a chef at Wild Edible Seafood, Porter's in the Chelsea section of the city and eventually with his own catering business.
His next stop was in Central America where he worked as the chef at a boutique resort.
"I've had a very lucky career," Cronin says.
Returning to the states, Cronin returned to the Tuckahoe Inn for a few more years.
Wanting to get out on his own again, Cronin answered an ad for a chef's position on Craig's List. That brought him to an interview in Lakehurst, Ocean County, then a working interview at a restaurant.
While the initial interview process was cut and dried, Cronin was asked to cook at the restaurant interview. The interviewer asked Cronin to prepare a pasta dish, a meat dish, something on a crostini and a fish dish.
Accepting the challenge as something he thought was "a lot of fun." Cronin began by making fresh gnocchi with a simple cream sauce and scallops, a steak cooked medium rare and crostini with three different toppings, chicken liver mousse, salmon roe and tuna, and baba ghanoush spread, to show them the variety of things he could do.
"It wasn't anything mind-blowing, it was just executed well," Cronin says.
Cronin never even got to the fish dish. "They offered me the job the next day," Cronin says.
Even though Cronin has worked in mostly American restaurants and employs the French techniques used in them all, his travels to Central America have given him another point of view.
"I was in Oaxaca where a lot of good Mexican food seems to have its origins," Cronin says.
A year later, Cronin moved to Central America where he spent his time in what he terms the "surfing countries," south of Guatemala such as Panama, Costa Rico and Nicaragua, places that are really "seafood forward."
Those countries aren't that big and get product from both the Caribbean and from the Pacific Ocean and ship it all over the country.
Cronin says that when we think of taco trucks we think Portland, Austin, Philadelphia or Brooklyn. In Central America, he found taco trucks everywhere.
Cronin appreciates the food of the area and is glad that he took the opportunity to live abroad when he had the chance.
The menu at the Iron Room is a hodgepodge of all that he has experienced, like America is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Not quite fusion cuisine, but the ability to pull things from many different cultures.
Cronin's hangar steak recipe is Asian inspired and he also offers a crudo that is finished with garam masala, a wasabi watermelon and his own pickles.
His menu offers French and American cheeses and he sticks to heirloom and local vegetables as best he can.
"Even stuff like succotash, something I had as a kid, I made more of an adult version served with sockeye salmon," Cronin says.
"I feel that chefs in the states can utilize all of these different cultures to make very interesting menus and very interesting combinations," Cronin says. The traditional "handcuffs" are off the chefs in his kitchen.
Connected to the Atlantic City Bottle Company, the Iron Room has plenty of expertise available when it comes to pairing the perfect drink with Cronin's creations.
"We have an in-house sommelier for the wines, I do the beer pairings and our general manager does the whiskey pairings," says Cronin.
The store opened in May of 2013 and the restaurant recently celebrated its first anniversary on Aug. 6.
More in-depth chef's tables and prix fixe menus from certain areas such as Burgundy or Cronin's favorite Languedoc nights are in the planning stages for the future.
Cronin's recipe is one that a seasoned home cook can prepare in just a few hours.
"It's a real cool, easy dish you can do at home," says Cronin. "Even if you are barbecuing you can do it."
The Iron Room
648 N. Albany Ave., Atlantic City
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Happy Hour daily from 3 to 6 p.m. with small bites menu
Korean BBQ Hangar steak
4 8-ounce hangar steaks cut in half, marinated
10 strips of bacon, cooked, diced small
3 quarts of Brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved
Steak marinade ingredients:
3 cups low sodium soy sauce
1 cup blended oil
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 garlic bulbs, crushed
large pinch black pepper
1 tablespoon sriracha
Allow steaks to marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking or overnight.
Sweet and sour ingredients:
2 cups low sodium soy sauce
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice or ponzu
1 bulb of ginger, peeled
1 shallot, halved
2 bulbs garlic, crushed
Combine all ingredients for sweet and sour in a sauce pot. Bring to rolling boil for about 10 minutes. Strain garlic, ginger and shallots. Reserve liquid.
Place cut Brussels sprouts in a saute pan with blended oil and cook until sprouts start to blister and brown. Add the cooked diced bacon then add sweet and sour sauce. Reduce sauce with sprouts on medium heat until liquid begins to thicken. Set aside.
In a separate saute pan, cast iron or outdoor grill sear hanger steaks until dark brown and crispy. Turn the steaks over and place into a 450-degree preheated oven until you reach desired temperature. Approximately 7 minutes for medium rare/medium or internal temperature of 135 degrees.
Place Brussels sprouts on a serving platter with sweet and sour sauce then place steaks on top.