It’s early in the morning in Mountain Lakes, N.J., and restaurateur Chris Cannon is the only one in his family awake. His first task of the day: get his teenage daughters, Sadie and Tess, out of bed.
“To get them out of bed is like, ‘Oh my god!’ If you left them alone, they wouldn’t get up until 1:30 p.m. So I’m the one who gets up in the morning and makes them breakfast,” Cannon says.
This is a decidedly different pace of life for Cannon, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and made his name as a heavy hitter on the New York restaurant scene. In the 2000s, he was among the hottest restaurant moguls in Manhattan, launching highly acclaimed, ultra-chic eateries Alto, Convivio, Osteria Morini and Marea with chef Michael White under the Altamarea Group umbrella. But the partnership went south, and the two parted ways in 2010.
After a brief hiatus from the restaurant world following the split, Cannon and his family moved to his wife’s home state, New Jersey. There, he began a new chapter in his career, opening a 15,000-square-foot restaurant concept, Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, in 2014.
After the children leave for school, Cannon gets in a workout and checks emails before he hits the road to get to his restaurant in Morristown, the county seat, about 10 miles away.
Morristown's history goes back further than the country's; George Washington's Continental Army encamped here twice, and, being only 35 miles west of Manhattan, the town has long been home to the city's 1-percenters. Mansions and ornate buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries are scattered throughout the town and surrounding areas. The Vail Mansion is a perfect example.
When Cannon first came across the Vail Mansion, located near the center of town on South Street (known as Millionaire’s Row in the late 1800s and early 1900s), it had been abandoned for over two decades. Constructed in 1916 in the Italian Renaissance style, it originally served as a museum and residence for Theodore Vail and his family. Vail was president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.—AT&T—and is considered by many to be the chief architect of the Bell System monopoly.
“I subsequently found out about two years ago that all the marble here is the exact same marble at the AT&T building in downtown Manhattan, which was built at the same time,” notes Cannon.
“When it came to the building, I walked in and immediately saw the possibilities,” he says; here, he decided, he'd begin anew as a restaurateur with Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen. Today, the mansion, designated a historical landmark, boasts many of its original grandiose features, such as the dramatic main marble staircase, the 17-foot-high ceilings, several fireplaces and substantial columns. Like Vail, Cannon is a collector of art. He curated and owns the eclectic art collection and decorations found throughout the mansion.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen comprises four different concepts on three floors: the more formal, seafood-driven daPesca on the top level, the Vail Bar and the Oyster Bar on the main level, and the Rathskeller, a beer hall and private event space, in the basement.
Carolyn DeFir-Hunter, a wine representative for importer and distributor Skurnik Wines, is no stranger to Cannon: She used to work for him at his restaurants in New York City. Their interaction is more akin to close friends than work professionals; Cannon finds out she hasn’t had lunch yet, so right away he orders her a dish of pasta from the kitchen.
In the Vail Bar, DeFir-Hunter sets up a line of wines for Cannon to taste through. The only other people in the room are bartenders preparing for the night’s opening. Cannon turns on some throwback crooner music before he and DeFir-Hunter begin the tasting, which includes grower Champagne and diverse South African, Portuguese and French wines.
When it comes to Jockey Hollow’s wine program, Cannon is the person in charge. Because of his expansive knowledge of wine and experience running wine-centric restaurants for over 30 years, Cannon has developed an acute vision of what he wants the Jockey Hollow wine program to be.
“Almost everything we buy ends up being under a 5,000-case production,” says Cannon. “It’s through continuing to taste and taste and taste that we found we always gravitate toward these kinds of wines. Most of these wines are pretty much organic, a lot are biodynamic. Some are maybe not organic or biodynamic because the wineries are so small that they cannot afford to certify themselves, but they basically are.” Cannon is also looking for wines that overdeliver for their price.
He comments as he tastes. Of the Mullineux Old Vines Swartland White 2017, he says, “I look at wines like this, and I’m like, ‘OK, this is a wine that someone who knows nothing about wine would say is delicious. And somebody who knows a ton about wine would be wowed.'”
Of the Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial Rully Le Meix Cadot Vieilles Vignes 2016: “I’d rather sell you this than some shitty Meursault from some producer that’s not even that good … It’s got density, it’s got great balance.”
During these tastings, Cannon also keeps an eye out for wines that would be a fit for his Cannonball Blind Wine Dinner series, which the restaurant hosts every Friday night. Each dinner ($95 per person) consists of five courses with a different wine served blind for each course, picked by Cannon and his head sommelier, Adam Wechsler.
“It’s not a gimmick or anything,” says Cannon. “We want you to try this and that. We want you to try stuff that, the people behind this, you know this is their life. It’s not a beverage. All they think about is how they are going to make their wine better. And to me that’s magical and beautiful.”
After Cannon tastes a dozen or so wines, another wine rep appears with more off-the-beaten-path selections for Cannon to mull over. Kurt Fauerbach, a sales representative for another distributor, V.O.S. Selections, pours Cannon a splash of the Leah Jorgensen Blanc de Cabernet Franc 2017—a still white wine made from Cab Franc in Oregon—and Holus Bolus Roussanne from Black Sheep Finds in California’s Santa Maria Valley. “For a long time I hardly bought American wine," he admits. "Now I am like, ‘Oh god there is so much good stuff!’ They finally hit their stride.”
With a wine list that changes constantly, it’s important for Jockey Hollow’s servers to be up to date and knowledgeable on the wine program, so Wechsler holds "class" for the servers every month or two. “The good thing about Chris is that nothing is so precious where we can’t open to taste it," he says. "I have learned a ridiculous amount because he’s like, ‘Oh let me open this. Let me see what this is tasting like these days.’”
Today’s tasting focuses on South America, and Wechsler discusses the background, flavor profile and winemaking behind each wine.
"For me, part of it is about supporting the food; part of it is the pragmatic approach to running a restaurant," says Wechsler after the session, of his job's appeal. "Part of the fun of working here—especially in Morristown and not Brooklyn or Central Park South—is [it is] the future of great American restaurants. If you go to any weird, off-the-beaten path restaurant in a town that has less than 50,000 people, there’s a very good chance you are going to have an amazing culinary experience.”
Cannon has also come to appreciate the charms of smaller-town dining: "Because in New York you're paying $250 a square foot, you can only have wines that are $90 and over on your list. You go to the best restaurants in New York and there's nothing under $100, nothing. And here we have literally 150 wines under $60. When you're paying 12 to 14 bucks [wholesale], you can open anything and just pour for somebody. You can just be hospitable. You're in our house, we're gonna pour you whatever the hell you want. Have a good time.
"In New York, it's like a contract. 'Hey, sit down, you're gonna spend $300.'"
Cannonball Wine Dinner attendees sit among other diners upstairs in daPesca. Cannon or Wechsler pour wines from a decanter and keep mum about their identities. Once each course is complete, the wine is revealed, usually followed by guests saying, “Wow! I had no idea,” or, rarely, “I knew it!”
Tonight, Cannon can be seen working his way around the entire building: Between preparing a table for a dinner hosted by a newly minted CEO of a Fortune 500 company, talking to Cannonball Wine Dinner attendees, greeting people arriving on the main level, and overseeing the party in the basement, Cannon's decades of experience as a multitasking master and hospitality guru show.
Time flies, and it’s not long before the clock strikes 10:30 p.m. Cannon leaves the restaurant and heads home to his family, as another day of discovering exciting wines and delivering one of the most singular dining experiences around awaits.
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