Alum Justin Kaplan Uses Culinary Skills to Open Restaurant with His Own Unique Flavor
For Mercer alum Justin Kaplan ’06 (A.A.S. HRIM), owner of Palate restaurant in Newtown, Pa., fine dining is an art that requires complete devotion on the part of the chef. But if someone had asked him about his culinary ambitions ten years ago, they would have been surprised to discover he had never given the food business much thought outside of the occasional cooking night with his girlfriend.
“I don’t come from a restaurant background, but my parents are adventurous eaters,” he said, adding that while both of his parents are business-minded, they had never themselves thought to combine their love of food with their occupation.
According to Kaplan, a Princeton resident, one mindset that his parents always did impress upon him was the way that food brings families and communities together, an idea that has stayed with him throughout his career, right up until he opened his restaurant two years ago.
After graduating from Lawrence High School, Kaplan chose psychology as his major when he first enrolled in college. It wasn’t until he got a job at the Lawrenceville Inn as a food expeditor the following summer that he began to gravitate towards cooking. As he observed the chefs in the kitchen each night, his fascination with how they prepped each plate began to grow.
“I became so interested in the process that when I saw a cook prepare a meal differently than the others I had observed, I would correct him,” Kaplan laughed. Eventually his attention to detail got noticed. When he worked up the nerve to ask if he could train to become a chef, his boss was more than happy to help him make the transition.
With his interest in cooking continuing to grow, Kaplan decided to take some culinary courses at Mercer. After taking classes with instructors Frank Benowitz, Doug Fee, and Chris DePagnier, he was hooked.
“They definitely had a very strong impact on my education,” said Kaplan. “At 19 years old, it’s hard to get motivated and passionate about a career, but they took what I thought was a hobby and made me realize it could be something concrete and real.”
Among Kaplan’s favorite classes at Mercer was “Food and Culture,” which covers the history of food and how institutions and organizations influence food habits and beliefs. He also enjoyed learning about the legal aspects of the hospitality industry, as well as how to market a culinary business to the community.
“Mercer is a great school to attend if you’re looking to get into the hospitality field,” said Kaplan. “The culinary instructors are highly motivated and involved in the surrounding community, and they constantly look for ways to grow their program and provide students with new opportunities.”
One instructor, Frank Benowitz, remembers Kaplan as a student who made the most of his education. “Justin was prepared and eager to learn both at MCCC and through his employment. His focus on continual learning is why he will be successful.”
After receiving his associate’s degree, Kaplan went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management on Mercer’s campus through its program with Fairleigh Dickinson University.
He also continued to hone his culinary skills in the real world with part-time jobs that helped him pay for school. After two years at the Lawrenceville Inn, he went on to become a sous chef at Coccola, an Italian restaurant in Hillsborough that boasted 300 seats, compared to 45 seats at his former employer. He then went on to work as a sous chef at other fine dining establishments in New Jersey, including Princeton’s Jasna Polana Country Club and Restaurant David Drake in Rahway.
It was at the Blue Bottle Café in Hopewell where Kaplan eventually put down roots for almost three years as a sous chef, assisting with ordering food for the restaurant and helping the owners, Rory and Aaron Philipson, with developing menus and food presentation.
While at the Blue Bottle, one of Kaplan’s coworkers asked for his assistance with creating and pricing a menu for a bar he was opening, which planted the seeds of entrepreneurship that ultimately led Kaplan to open a restaurant of his own.
“I started to think about what it would be like to start up and run my own business,” said Kaplan, who began the search for the perfect restaurant location, and eventually found one on State Street in Newtown, Pa., in a location that was previously a toy store. After nine months of renovations, Kaplan, just 26 years old, opened his first restaurant in July 2010.
“It’s so rewarding when you see one of your employees grow out of you,” said Blue Bottle’s Rory Philipson, who now teaches culinary courses as an adjunct instructor at MCCC in addition to running her busy restaurant. “He has my complete support. It’s not competition; it’s camaraderie.”
Palate, as his restaurant came to be named, offers seasonal, traditional American food, with unique and adventurous flavors. “We do everything,” he said, adding, “I don’t like to call it fine dining because I want people to relax and enjoy themselves; however I do serve the best ingredients.” He noted that because the restaurant is a BYOB he makes the food his top priority to keep his customers coming back.
While he’s now focused on running his business, Kaplan still finds time to return to Mercer and visit his instructors. “They still all remember me by name,” he said, adding that MCCC is the best college in the area to pursue a culinary career. “As an alum, I’m proud to say I graduated from Mercer.”