In the pandemic’s wake, Mohawk House is entering a new era. August marks the Sparta, N.J., restaurant’s 15th year in business.
And though they still can’t open indoor dining due to Covid-19 restrictions, owners Steve and Rachel Scro just added five new staff members to the team: general manager Mark Musilli, sous chef Mary Monteforte, assistant chefs Justin Prodo and Rose Salazar, and executive chef Peter Case.
All five were most recently working together at Crystal Springs Resort prior to its temporary closure due to Covid-19.
But why expand the team now, during such uncertain times?
“It’s a four-letter word: hope,” said Steve. “Hope for better times. Hope that sooner or later things will become normal. I always keep moving forward. I’m always looking to better myself and be a better steward for the community, raising the bar continuously, and never staying stagnant.”
Throughout the pandemic, the Scros kept moving. They’ve added sliding barn doors to open up The Mohawk House dining room, allowing space for larger events such as weddings. Planning and building Modern Farmer, their new restaurant slated to open later this fall, never stopped.
And there’s more to come.
“Modern Farmer is not going to be our last project,” Steve said. “I have other properties that I am working on vigorously. In order for us to compete, we had to up the ante and build an elite team that’s ready to meet any challenge that comes in the future.”
An elite team
The newly hired team members’ resumes boast decades of experience at some of the tristate area’s most impressive establishments.
“They have really brought forth a great energy, and it’s so uplifting and inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded people,” said Rachel. “So even though we’re in a very difficult time and a very challenging time, it’s really pushing us through and giving us a lot of positive work and things to focus on.”
General manager Mark Musilli brings 35 years of hospitality industry experience to the table. Prior to Mohawk House, Musilli was executive vice president of Food and Beverage at Crystal Springs and general manager/chief operating officer at Lake Mohawk Country Club in Sparta.
Executive chef Peter Case, who has worked at luxury resorts and exclusive restaurants throughout his career, started out washing dishes at Fares Country Inn in Andover, N.J.
“I got the bug, I guess you could say,” he said. “I enjoyed the rush. They moved me up to hot apps, shucking oysters and clams. But my mother was also a very good cook, It’s cliché, but it’s true.”
Case was introduced to cuisines from around the world at an early age. His parents, both first-generation immigrants, would take him on trips to visit family in Greece and Germany. After graduating from Kittatinny Regional High School, Case enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he cooked on a ship that maintained navigational buoys. He would incorporate fresh, local ingredients from the commissaries as they navigated to destinations such as Hawaii, Micronesia, and the Central Pacific Islands.
Afterward he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, and did his externship at the famed Rainbow Room, located on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. After graduating he returned to The Rainbow Room as a roundsman, cooking at any station that needed the most help. During his time there, he worked a couple of Grammy Awards, preparing meals for star-studded before-and-after parties.
From there, Case continued his work in fine-dining at high-end destinations such as the St. Regis Hotel, where celebrities would stay under pseudonyms, and the Glenmere Mansion in Warwick, N.Y.
His impressive skill set is coupled with a genuine love for what he does. Case’s favorite part of the job is making people happy.
“It’s very intimate because you’re putting food into someone’s stomach,” he said. “And when they’re satisfied with their meal, it’s a nice feeling. It’s very personal.”
Raising the bar
The new team has already revamped Mohawk House’s ultra-seasonal a la carte menu. The high-end steakhouse will always have its signature dishes, but everything is being taken to the next level, showcasing local ingredients at their peak.
Musilli’s favorite menu addition? A dry-aged burger topped with brisket. “It’s amazing,” he said.
Case said the fresh scallops, which are seared in a black steel pan and served alongside beluga lentils and fresh root vegetables in a tomato fondue, are particularly popular.
His passion for procuring fresh ingredients, and bringing out the very best flavors in every dish he creates, is evident.
“Bottom line, it’s about respect for the food: the fish monger got me those scallops,” he said. “The farmer picked those carrots. You have to have respect for it.”
The newly hired team members “have really brought forth a great energy, and it’s so uplifting and inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded people. So even though we’re in a very difficult time and a very challenging time, it’s really pushing us through and giving us a lot of positive work and things to focus on.” --Rachel Scro