Showdown for a cause
Local chefs compete for bragging rights, food co-op building fund
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Jun 16, 2013 | 4767 views | 0 0 comments | 138 138 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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VB3 chef Michael Colletti was the winner of the 2013 Chef Showdown. Colletti took home the top prize for his kale-inspired dish. Photo credit: Ray Schwartz

By now, members of the Jersey City Food Co-op thought they’d be well on their way to having a brick-and-mortar store open for shoppers in search of affordable fresh food. Launched in 2010, the Co-op had planned to open a cooperatively-run affordable organic grocery sometime in 2012.

While the collective currently has close to 200 members – whom the co-op refers to as “owners” – and continues to make strides towards opening an actual store, the organization realized last year that these plans needed to be put on hold.

“We have a distribution center and an office space near Journal Square, and we are selling food to our members,” board member Emilio DeLia told the Reporter last year. “We did an assessment and realized that the conditions, both in the economy at large and within our organization being what they are, it really wasn’t possible to open a store. We realized there may need to be a step between where we are now and our ultimate goal of opening a retail store.”

Thus, the organization spent much of 2012 growing its membership base and distributing affordable fresh food to a wider audience.

Having done that, the organization is now putting its efforts to find a permanent address back on the front burner and recently held its second annual Chef Showdown fundraiser to raise resources for that goal.

Four JC chefs, one mystery ingredient

About 180 people gathered at Barrow Mansion on June 9 to taste, and judge, the delectable dishes four local professional chefs were able to come up with using one mystery ingredient. That mystery ingredient was kale, in an obvious nod to the book “Fifty Shades on Kale: Delicious & Nutritious Kale Recipes,” by Jennifer Iserloh and Drew Ramsey. (While the mystery ingredient was inspired by the book, the recipes the chefs concocted were not. Each chef came up with his or her own original dish.)

This year’s chefs included Michael Colletti from VB3, Wayne Lyons of Soul Flavors, Feliks Kim of Honey Bakery, and Trinsky Widjaya from Golden Grille who competed for bragging rights and a trophy in several categories for their recipes. The chefs were honored in the categories of most innovative recipe, the “people’s choice,” and, the top prize, the judges’ choice award.
We need to be doing more events like these so that we can keep the great things that Jersey City has going for it.”
The judges included former Ward F City Councilwoman Michelle Massey; Ed Ramirez, owner of Ed’s Salvage; artist and Uptown Crew founder Trish Szymanski; newly elected Ward E City Councilwoman Candice Osborne; and The Food Network’s Mory Thomas.

“This is a great event,” said Lyons, who was honored by the Showdown judges as having the most innovative kale dish. “This is the second year we’ve participated in the Chef Showdown. It’s a fun, friendly competition and it goes to help an important community project. So, we love being here.”

Colletti, who won the judges’ choice award this year, agreed.

“What we see a lot in Jersey City is a great restaurant or business open up and they stick around for a while. But then they struggle and can’t make it and go out of business,” said Colletti. “That’s very common here. We see that too often. So, I see this event as a way for the community to support Jersey City businesses and the food coop. We need to be doing more events like these so that we can keep the great things that Jersey City has going for it.”

Alma Malabanan-McGrath, a food co-op member, said the group generated $5,500 for its building fund from its inaugural Chef Showdown last year through Showdown ticket sales and raffle and silent auction tickets.

“The money that members pay for their shares just goes to the food distribution side of what we do,” said Malabanan-McGrath. “But we realized that for us to be able to eventually move into a brick-and-mortar [building] we were going to need a dedicated fund just for that purpose. So, the money we raise from the Showdown is just for that fund.”

Great food at affordable prices

Currently operating out of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, at 440 Hoboken Ave., the Jersey City Food Co-op is modeled after the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn.

Until the group can find a permanent home of its own, co-op “owners” can purchase fruit, locally farmed vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, and a host of other items. (And by “locally farmed,” the co-op means the items come from farms within a 500 mile radius of Jersey City. The farms providing items are based in southern New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.)

Malabanan-McGrath said the co-op is currently serviced by more than 75 farms in the tri-state area.

Currently to become an “owner” people can join the co-op for an investment fee of $160, $50 of which goes towards a member’s initial food purchase. In addition to this investment, co-op owners must also give at least four hours of their time each month to running the business. Anyone can become an owner, whether they’re a Jersey City resident or not.

In exchange for their time and money co-op owners can purchase items online from the Co-op Preshop. The Preshop allows owners to buy groceries and other items before the brick-and-mortar store is opened. Grass-fed, locally-raised meat and poultry, farm-fresh eggs from free-range hens, certified naturally grown fruit and vegetables, and baked goods are among the items that can be bought through the Preshop, according to the co-op’s web site.

The array of items offered are familiar enough that most shoppers won’t be turned away by uber-exotic choices.

The organization has formed relationships with such businesses as Eden Organic, Frontier Natural Food Co-op, Regional Access, a New York state-based distributor, Lancaster Farm Fresh, and Zone Seven, among others, to supply the items available through the Preshop.

Food orders can be placed on a biweekly basis and can be picked up from the church, also on a bi-weekly basis.

If the cooperative is successful in opening its planned grocery store, owners will eventually be able to do their shopping in-person rather than online.

Interim steps

The online Preshop is, however, an interim step and opening the retail store remains the co-op’s end goal.

On the advice of a team of business and philanthropic leaders from across the state who recently met with the organization, the Jersey City Food Co-op is considering other ways to offer a store-like experience for shoppers without having to open an actual market. These options would require fewer resources and would have less overhead than a grocery store but would still help the co-op reach its goal of having a brick and mortar location.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at

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