A New Wave in Seaside
Craft coffee, farm-to-table dining, a nano-brewery, cabanas on the beach – is this Tulum we’re talking about? Some sort of Brooklyn-by-the-sea? Nope. It’s Seaside, and there’s something of a culinary revival underway. Cool new eateries and businesses have been springing up in town, turning the Boulevard and boardwalk into a walkable destination for great food with relaxed beach vibes. Take the farm-to-table, plage-chic café, Free Range, for instance.
Now open year-round for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Free Range has made its mark and gained the attention of food lovers. It’s not uncommon to find people who’ve traveled in from all over the state specifically to eat at Free Range, with some beach time as an added bonus. “It’s been really gratifying to see customers are coming from up north – areas more typically known for food - but they try Free Range and keep coming back,” says Head Chef Paul Keyser.
“We try to take things that are kind of familiar to people and ask, ‘How can we elevate this and take it to the next level?’” Consider the B.E.C. sandwich – Free Range’s take on a bacon egg and cheese. Instead of bacon, Free Range starts with high-quality pork belly from Berkshire pork (“the Rolls Royce of pork” as Keyser enthusiastically notes), which is bred for higher fat content and a deeper, richer, juicier flavor. Free Range grinds it and then slow-roasts it in the oven for 8 hours, after which it can be sliced just like bacon. Add two locally sourced eggs and cheese, and place it all on a toasted brioche roll, and you have the Free Range B.E.C.
“For me, I love the fact that it’s got this casual but cool ambiance. It’s great in the morning for a caviar toast and a cappuccino, but it works equally well for a big dinner splitting a tomahawk steak, truffle fries, and BYOB drinks with friends” says one patron. “The food is amazing and I like that it’s from local vendors, so I’m eating something unique to the area, which has all this great fishing and produce.”
When Free Range calls itself farm-to-table, it means it. An order for fresh produce goes out on Mondays, on Tuesdays it is harvested, and literally one day later it’s being served at Free Range – never even touching a warehouse. And why not? NJ is the garden state, after all. It’s not just produce, though. Fish is sourced fresh from nearby Pt. Pleasant, from a vendor that uses sustainable fishing practices. Lobster comes directly from Shark River Hills. As Keyser puts it, “Why get Maine scallops? NJ scallops are sweeter and brighter. The NJ climate is really great for scallops.” Dairy? “There are creameries with amazing milk right here in NJ.” “Not only is the quality better, but there’s this greater sense of connection with the food when you know exactly where it’s coming from, and you’re personally interacting with the farmer. I think you gain a greater appreciation for the food when you reflect on how much hard work goes into producing it.”
Being farm-to-table means that Keyser needs to adapt to what nature brings him. “The day starts around 7 am for us. We get e-mails in the morning with what the fisheries have caught, weather reports, what crops are available or not because of a drought. Then we’ll talk with our vendors. One of the guys I buy fish from will come by and say, ‘look at this beautiful halibut today,’ and I’ll add it to the menu that night.” Seasonally, he also adjusts the menu. “In Winter, we’ll feature more root vegetables, but as we come into Spring we start introducing fresh peas, greens, and buttermilk pies.”
As he talks through some of the complexities of running the business and coming up with creative menu ideas, Keyser comes across as someone who’s humble, but clearly quite competent and wise beyond his 27 years of age. Having grown up in nearby Toms River, Keyser developed a passion for food at a young age. “My parents are Italian and Irish, and everybody was always cooking. My Dad was a chef for a period when I was young as well and I was fascinated by the process.” Coincidentally, his first job in the industry was a summer gig at Hemingway’s – located caddy corner to what would eventually become Free Range. It was there, as a young line cook, that he met Moussa Bass, who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu in France and became an early mentor, teaching him some of the more technical aspects of cooking. Beyond his personal experiences, Keyser says he has drawn inspiration from chef Michael White (of 2-Michelin-star Marea, 1-Michelin-Star Ai Fiori, and Osteria Morini fame). “I love how he takes farm-fresh food and then elevates the presentation. He’s got a great way of presenting freshness to the customer.”
While gaining experience in a number of restaurants, Keyser attended Montclair for college and graduated with a business degree, which has proven helpful. “I think the finance degree helps because I have a close eye on the numbers. There are so many ways a restaurant business can fail by not watching costs and waste.”
Following school, Keyser went back to work at Hemingway’s, eventually becoming the Executive Chef. From there, he went on to stints at The Fromagerie in Rumson and Maridian Properties, working around the Hoboken area and gaining experience opening restaurants like Birch and Coco Havana.”
The inspiration for Free Range came about in 2016. Two years earlier in 2014, Keyser had returned home to become the executive chef at the restaurant that had introduced him to the professional kitchen – Hemingway’s. It was there that Rick Lee (of well-loved Xina in Toms River) first met him and was impressed with his work. Seeing the burgeoning food scene in places like Asbury, Lee realized that Seaside had great potential, and that there was a need in the market for Free Range. The two partnered, designed and furnished the space themselves, built the menu, hired and trained the staff, and opened to rave reviews in 2017.
Seeing the place that Free Range occupies on the Boulevard in Seaside, one can’t help but be reminded of what another young New Jersey-ite, Travis Lett, did for Venice Beach with Gjelina when it opened on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in 2008 – and thus a town that had once been dismissed quickly became the place to open a business or go out for a meal if you were in the know. And in the two years since Free Range has opened, a steady flow of promising new businesses have opened on or near the Boulevard – Genevieve’s, Heavy Reel, and Santeria have been great additions to the strong base of spots like PJ’s, Hemingway’s, and Klee’s.
Together, these are helping turn Seaside into a walkable destination with that rare but coveted pairing: good food and drinks with laid-back, beach town vibes.
Free Range is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the summers, and on weekends in the winter. Check their Instagram and Facebook accounts for more details.
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