RAMSEY, N.J. — Josh Bernstein saunters across Ramsey’s farmers’ market with nothing but salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of olive oil in his basket.
It’s 11:30 on a Sunday morning and Bernstein, the executive chef of Clifton’s Spuntino Wine Bar and Italian Tapas, has a 10-minute cooking demo for shoppers in an hour.
He has no idea what he’s going to make. It has to be simple. It has to be quick. It has to make the crowd want to cook.
“It’s a lot easier when you’re a trained chef,” said Bernstein, 28. “But cooking is just about inspiration more than anything else.”
The Wayne native has about two-dozen vendors to feed his ingenuity. He spots a table of greens out of the corner of his eye. Then he sees a shiny, purple eggplant that he knows will pair well with ripe tomatoes for a ratatouille.
Bernstein collects the remaining vegetables and spices he’ll need for the dish while mingling with familiar shoppers and picking up fresh produce for himself.
This is an ordinary Sunday morning for Bernstein — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This has been a lifelong thing for me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to cook — even in my early years.”
The Culinary Institute of America-trained chef recalls watching Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Graham Kerr on television in his youth. At 12 years old, Bernstein began cooking for his family and went on to pursue restaurant management in college.
The chef honed his culinary skills at a mom and pop restaurant in Wayne before training under Brooks Nicklas at Rosemary and Sage in Riverdale for six months.
“From a professional standpoint, that was one of the most rewarding experiences of my young career,” Bernstein said of his time with Nicklas. “It was a 100 percent from-scratch kitchen, everything done in a classical and correct way.”
Bernstein and the other chefs at Spuntino recently cooked at the James Beard House in New York City, among the top culinary foundations in the world.
The experience was the highlight of Bernstein’s career but, he said, it doesn’t take a professional cook to be a good cook. It’s something he aims to prove every Sunday in Ramsey.
“Anyone can do it,” he said.