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Josh Capon can’t help it.
The 51-year-old celebrity chef and restaurateur, known for his award-winning burgers, frequent television appearances and larger-than-life personality, has to pamper everyone who enters his well-appointed Tenafly home.
That’s exactly what the fast-talking, fast-talking, quick-smiling father of two did when another reporter and I stopped by to interview him. In the airy, crisp white kitchen of his 5,000-square-foot home, Capon prepared a multi-dish lunch of grilled pita bread and artichoke tapenade; creamy, fresh mozzarella and oven-roasted tomatoes; a Greek salad bathed in a gorgeous charred lemon vinaigrette; and perfectly grilled shrimp and ultra-sweet lemons.
“Here’s a tip,” he said as he sprinkled fresh basil on the flatbread, “if you want super sweet lemons, grill them.”
As is his wont, the self-proclaimed “King of Hospitality,” a moniker friends, neighbors and colleagues would agree with, had done way too much of everything. “I don’t know how to make a salad for three,” he admitted.
No problem. Capon stuffed the leftovers into paper food containers (he has a cupboard full of them just in case) and called a neighbor who quickly came over. She left with a big smile and a shopping bag full of Capon’s generosity.
“I just want to make people happy,” Capon said.
Cooking awards and a new restaurant in Vegas
A good thing for someone who has worked in the hospitality industry for more than a quarter century, cooking and/or managing restaurants including Aureole (13 Michelin stars) and Lenox Room with Charlie Palmer; Park Avenue Café with world-renowned chef and Fort Lee resident David Burke; and finally his own establishments, including Lure Fishbar, Bowery Meat Company and Burger & Barrel, all in New York City. He is currently a partner in VCR Hospitality Group, which plans to open, among other restaurants, Flyfish Club, the first private dining club in New York City where membership is purchased through NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, a type of cryptocurrency.
Capon is particularly excited about the opening of Capons, a eponymous burger joint in the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, currently under construction. “This is a big deal for me,” said Capon, a seven-time winner of the NYC Wine & Food Festival’s Burger Bash. “I am so proud.”
He believes hospitality is in his DNA. “You can’t fake hospitality,” he said. “It’s in your blood. I’m a people person.”
And food, he said, brings people together. He also loves food.
“All I want to do is eat and all I want to do is lose weight.”
Most mornings he swims in his backyard pool. He takes care of his garden. He plays tennis. But what he almost always does is cook. He and his wife Lori often entertain friends and family.
Capon prefers entertaining at home rather than in restaurants. Some of the few places the couple visits include Olar Noso in Northvale, The Hill in Closter, Roost in Sparkill and Mel’s Butcher Block in Tenafly.
“As a chef, I shouldn’t say this, but you should entertain at home,” he said.
Two kitchens in Tenafly
Their Tenafly home has two kitchens – one indoors and one outdoors. He loves both, especially the large kitchen island, the double-walled ovens and his outdoor grill. They moved in seven years ago after living in a cramped apartment in New York City. “I wanted to leave New York,” Capon said. “Not Lori. I wanted a backyard, a barbecue area, fresh air, normal schools.” One morning he announced, “This is it. I want out.” Lori, he said, thought he was filing for divorce. Even though he sorted it out as quickly as he could, “she still didn’t speak to me for a day,” he said.
Today they are both thrilled to live in Tenafly. “Moving here was the best decision we made. Tenafly is a wonderful place to live. I love the people, the community.”
The feeling seems to be mutual.
“As soon as he moved here, he became a fixture in the community,” said Lauren Forman, a friend and neighbor. “His dinner parties are wonderful. He knows how to bring people together.”
“Our entire family’s palate has expanded because of Josh,” Forman continued. “He really understands how food can bring people together. He’s more than just a food personality; he is a unifier.”
Jason Prussian, his friend of 40 years, was the beneficiary of Capon’s parties and camaraderie.
“He’s the ultimate entertainer,” Prussian said. “He makes everyone feel welcome. He has a way of caring for people and making them feel special. He’s the king when it comes to taking care of everyone else.”
“The ultimate entertainment”
Capon learned from his father, Sam Capon, a schoolteacher and commercial real estate agent who enjoyed entertaining, hosting, and cooking at the family home in Pomona, New York. When friends came over, his father cooked tapas, “long before most Americans had ever heard of tapas,” he said. “He would call them kibbles. I got the feeding bug and the gift of giving from him.”
While at school, Capon worked as a busboy at the local café Our Gang Inn – and soon demonstrated not only his cooking skills, but also his people skills. When the head chef didn’t show up one morning, Capon, then 16, took over the management of the kitchen. The young chef not only baked pancakes, eggs and potatoes, he also made apple fritters and sent them out to all the regulars. “It was a little amuse-bouche,” he said. The customers were thrilled.
At the University of Maryland, he prepared dinner for friends. “They paid me $20 each and I shopped and made meals they liked.” What he didn’t do, however, were As. “I didn’t achieve any academic achievements. I faltered.” Encouraged by his parents, he dropped out and attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. “I have found my calling in life,” he said. “I was just fine.” He graduated in 1994 and went on to work with top chefs like Charlie Palmer (“He was great”) and David Burke (“He taught me how to have fun with food”). Burke allowed him to travel and work in top restaurants in Europe.
“I killed and butchered pigs. I made black puddings from her blood. I was pulling ramps out of woods before I knew what they were. I made fresh pasta. I cooked seafood that I had never seen before. That was great.”
When he returned to the States a year later, he worked at Matthew’s, the celebrity chef Matthew Kenny’s establishment in Manhattan, and then at Canteen in SoHo, which was eventually replaced by Lure Fishbar, one of the four restaurants he owned as a partner with Mercer Hospitality Group. He worked there for 20 years, then the Corona crisis hit and his restaurants closed, which gave him valuable time to take stock of his life.
“I realized I wasn’t happy,” he said. “This is a very demanding business. I worked five or six nights a week. I haven’t seen my children. I longed for more time with family.”
“Cooking with the Capons”
He left the restaurant group and spent time with his family; read books to his son Max, now 14, and helped him with his homework; and with his now 17-year-old daughter Amanda, he started a fun, lively cooking show on social media called “Cooking with the Capons.” (His daughter started dancing; he followed her). He also offered customized virtual and eventually in-person cooking classes.
“I shared my passion and knowledge,” he said. “It was so rewarding.”
Although he is fully aware of the terrible devastation the pandemic has wrought, “COVID was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said.
He continues to delight audiences with his relaxed, funny and heartfelt appearances on The Food Network, Rachael Ray, TODAY and Good Morning America, among others. And he began to get back into the restaurant business with a new restaurant group. He expects to open at least five restaurants in the coming year.
Two years ago, his 82-year-old father died after a serious fall. Capon, a Jew, hosted a shiva, a usually somber gathering to mourn loss. There was nothing dark about this Shiva. First of all, it was called “Shiva Palooza”.
“My father said you can mourn my loss, but you should celebrate my life,” Capon said.
Capon decorated his backyard with tiki torches and sang Anita Baker songs (his father’s favorites); had fireplaces in use; poured lots of tequila shots and served lots of delicious food. “People who had places to go, like restaurant reservations, came back to hang out,” he said.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Finally, the King of Hospitality made sure everyone was fine.
“This is what I like to do,” Capon said.