ATL. HIGHLANDS – Tom Drake says he doesn’t come from a ‘foodie’ family. But if you’ve ever sampled his Cottage Pie or Bangers and Mash Croquettes, or maybe his Crispy pickle brined Chicken Thigh sandwich, you’d think all he ever does is dream up unique recipes then prepare them with taste and elegance.
Tom is the executive chef at the Atlantic Highlands Yacht Club and for the past six months he has been delighting the palates of club members with unique cuisine, his own recipes, and designing each menu around the best that is available that week, ensuring that every ingredient is top quality from local farms and purveyors, from seafood and meats to extraordinary vegetables and desserts.
Chef Tom, as he is known, came to the yacht club armed with a resume of several decades in the culinary field, which officially started with his studies at the Culinary School in the Arts Institute in Philadelphia and proceeded through a number of different high end restaurants and teaching experiences. But in speaking with him, you learn that he’s been fascinated by food and its presentation from the time he was a kid and helped a family friend who catered parties, first chopping onions and slicing potatoes in the kitchen, then cooking, and eventually knowing it was the field in which he wanted to spend his career.
After high school, Tom opted to try further education in marine biology in community college, staying long enough to realize it wasn’t for him, before enrolling at the Culinary School and earning his degree. Through the years he has been a chef at several different restaurants, including the Fromagerie in Rumson, the five diamond Hilton in Short Hills and Triumph Brewing Company in New Hope, Pa as well as their restaurant in Red Bank. He has also left the kitchen to head up the classroom as well, teaching culinary classes to would be chefs.
When hired as chef at the Yacht Club, Chef Tom made it clear his goal is to present menus and recipes he creates that are different from dining experiences in any other restaurant. For this, he relies not only on his own creativity, but also on local purveyors, drawing his weekly ingredients from sources in Asbury Park and Long Branch, Long Valley and Vineland and numerous places in between. Nor are the ingredients simply fruits and vegetables. He has a couple of different purveyors of fish, including Lusty Lobster in Highlands and Local 130 Seafood in Asbury Park, gets his potatoes from Robbinsville, many of his dairy products from Long Valley and even his honey from Chester Township. When it comes to mushrooms, Chef Tom favors a specialty farm in Long Branch where he can select not just mushrooms, but a specific type including black pearl, or oyster, or king trumpet, depending on whether the recipe he is preparing calls for a peppery aftertaste, edible stems, or a blend with other vegetables in a soup or chili.
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Clearly, for this chef at the yacht club, it’s more than cooking and serving. It’s quality, unique flavors and combinations, eye-catching presentations, and a matchless dining experience in the casual yet elegant setting of the yacht club dining room.
Food preparation at the Yacht Club presents a unique challenge for a chef who has worked in spacious kitchens with several chefs and cooks. The kitchen at the club is small and he works alone, a challenge that is enhanced by the benefit it also brings.” Everything has to be absolutely fresh, that’s why I use local purveyors,” the chef said, “I simply don’t have any room to store anything or deep freezers to keep meats or seafood. “
Chef Tom has created more than 1000 recipes of his own over the years, and does not resort to books or even his own copies in preparing his creations the five nights a week the Yacht Club serves food. He enjoys tasting each preparation to ensure it meets his own palate’s expectations. He does admit, however, he is looking forward to the expansion plans the club already has begun, and a larger kitchen that could also mean an expanded menu.
Currently, the Yacht Club offers two different types of Chef Tom creations. There is a Wharf Menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 pm as well as on Sundays from 1 pm. That menu includes lighter fare rather than three course meals, and could include anything from a Cuban sandwich or burgers, albeit they’re very special here, or simply Chips and Dip made with crispy shallots, BBQ chips and a French onion dip, with more than half a dozen different choices. There are always meat, seafood and vegetarian entrees on each menu, which changes weekly.
Fridays and Saturdays, the Commodore’s Dinner always has three courses, appetizers, entrees and desserts, and generally an additional selection for the table of local cheese and meats. Diners are served from 6 p.m. on and to ensure the perfection Chef Tom insists of for everything out of his kitchen, reservations are necessary.
Tom and his wife Nicole have been married for almost 20 years and have a son AJ, whose talents run more to the artistic that the culinary. AJ creates art in several different media, and one of his black and white drawings is on the wall at the Yacht Club, though he prefers and has excelled at MANGA, the Japanese comic book art form.
For Yacht Club members, Chef Tom has brought not only outstanding food to their tables but also great support for New Jersey farms, unique recipes and blends of vegetables not generally found on restaurant menus, as well as a desire for perfection in every dish.
It is an unbeatable combination.