The Stockton Inn is experiencing a rebirth. The iconic 300-year-old jewel nestled along the Delaware River in the bucolic borough of Stockton, New Jersey, is in the midst of a transformation that pays homage to its storied past while advancing it into the 21st century. After enduring extensive renovations, the property is celebrating the addition of a new chef, a cutting-edge wine and spirits program, and a dedication to superior service standards. The Stockton Inn is back, and quite possibly better than ever!
The driving force behind this transformation is owner Mitch Millett, a former aviation entrepreneur turned restoration buff. Millett bought the struggling Inn in June 2012. His passion is in restoring historic buildings. The 64-year-old has refurbished more than half a dozen properties including restaurants around the country. His initial goal was to bring the Inn, built in 1710, back to its former days of glory. In the process he discovered that returning the property to its prime means as much to many of the Inn’s guests as it does to him.
Over the past two and a half years, the Inn has undergone a complete physical overhaul. Millett has managed an exhaustive makeover of the buildings and grounds, including: new roofs; a new electric service; new kitchen equipment; extensive restorations to the historic murals (which are on-going); new furniture; and upgrades to the dining rooms and The Dog & Deer Tavern — one of the first taverns in New Jersey, which secured its operating license in 1796!
In its recent past, the Inn was primarily known as a popular wedding and banquet venue. Millett says, “It became clear to me that this property was ill-equipped to be both a banquet venue and a serious a-la-carte restaurant, at the same time, in the same space.”
He had a big decision to make: orchestrate banquets or operate a serious restaurant? Millett decided to focus on improving the culinary quality and to refocus the property as a serious dining destination. He shut down the banquet and lodging operations in December, 2013 and began the process of building a noteworthy restaurant.
However, he quickly realized he needed to take additional measures to make the dining experience extraordinary. In late July 2014, Millett closed the restaurant in order to do a reset and to “re-imagine what the inn should be going forward.” During that hiatus, Millett continued with the renovations which included extensive work on its entrances, hired an entirely new full-time-only staff of restaurant professionals, and handpicked a new Executive Chef, Alan Heckman, recruited from the Washington Crossing Inn.
The “new” only 20 table restaurant is now open for dinner five nights a week (Wednesday-Sunday) serving “colonial inspired cuisine” which, according to Millett, means using only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, including plenty of seafood and one pot dishes — the types of proteins and produce which the colonists may have enjoyed. During the warmer months, there will be seating on the property’s expansive outdoor garden patio.
For most of the 20th Century, the property was operated by the Colligan family as Colligan’s Stockton Inn — a restaurant and hotel. During Prohibition, the Inn operated as a speakeasy. It was immortalized when its wishing well by the main entrance became the centerpiece of the song, “There’s a Small Hotel,” written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and later featured on Broadway in 1936. According to local legend, Margaret Mitchell wrote sections of “Gone with the Wind” at a table in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms over the course of several days during the early 1930s. The Inn became a mecca for writers, artists, and thespians during the Golden Age of America and many other luminaries, including the summer home to New York’s Algonquin Round Table.
Today, Millett has a new vision for the legendary property, and in August, 2014 he tapped Chef Alan Heckman to execute an imaginative menu that is delicious, progressive and remains true to the inn’s colonial inspirations.
The 29-year-old Heckman is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He says he was intrigued with the challenge of transforming a concept with more than 300 years of history behind it. “What we’re trying to do is so unique and complex that I find myself obsessing about the dishes and ingredients constantly,” he said. “I can’t just conceive a dish and serve it because it’s delicious. Everything has to fit into our mission.”
Heckman calls his style “true cooking with an intense focus on seasonality and local sourcing.”
“The way the world works today, I can get anything I want any time of year,” quipped Heckman. “Unfortunately, many chefs know this and tend to use ingredients when they are out of season. My philosophy is to utilize ingredients when they are at their natural peak; we’ll serve locally raised asparagus during spring, Jersey tomatoes in late summer, and complement these treasures with ingredients that pair beautifully together, which fit into our colonial inspired focus.”
Heckman was a Navy brat who grew up all over the U.S. He found his love for the kitchen at an early age while cooking alongside his mom as a kid. Upon graduation from CIA, he was hired by James Beard nominee, Executive Chef Aaron Wright at Canlis, the 65-year-old family-owned Seattle institution, rated the 19th-best restaurant in the U.S. by Gourmet magazine in 2006. It was there, he says, that he fell in love with the restaurant industry. “They showed me the true meaning of what it’s like when your co-workers become your second family.” Next, he went on to Connecticut to work under Chef Tom Colicchio at Craftsteak.
Then, in 2008 at 24 years of age, he left the U.S. and spent a year traveling the world and enjoyed a half dozen stagiaires throughout Italy, Germany, Holland and Tunisia. After his international culinary journey, Heckman returned home and he accepted the position of sous chef at Aspen Restaurant in Old Saybrook, CT between 2009 and 2010. After two years at Aspen, Alan relocated to Pennsylvania to join the Washington Crossing Inn as their Sous Chef, and after six months was promoted to Executive Chef.
As part of the transformation, Millett has enlisted wine and spirits expert Brian Freedman to revamp the restaurant’s beverage program. Freedman has reworked the wine list to include what he calls “approachable vintages that pair beautifully with the Inn’s seasonally changing menu”. In addition to the wine list renovation, Freedman has conceived a selection of revamped classic cocktails which pay homage to the property’s storied past, and has forged partnerships with area craft breweries to provide freshly brewed beers which will rotate seasonally to compliment the cuisine.
“I feel we have come a long way toward accomplishing our goal of restoring this historic property to the treasure it once was,” said Millett. “I am honored to have had the opportunity to steward this endeavor and take great pride every time we meet guests who appreciate all that we have done. I’m thrilled to give the Stockton Inn back to New Jersey.”
Learn more about the Stockton Inn by visiting http://www.stocktoninn.com.