The attitude at Latitude 41 is casual

| 15 Feb 2012 | 11:28

Award-winning chef returns home to West Milford HEWITT — Latitude 41 Lounge and Restaurant owner and Executive Chef, Jason Hajek, knew from the time he was 14 years old that he wanted to be a chef. A native of Upper Greenwood Lake, West Milford, his first restaurant job gave him a taste of the culinary life. Although low on the staff totem pole at the time, he liked the camaraderie, the late-night lifestyle and the fast-paced world of a restaurant kitchen. But there was one more decision-making tipping point for Hajek. “The chef drove a Porsche,” he said. Go west young chef After graduating from West Milford High School in 1994 he headed to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island and graduated with a degree in culinary arts. He remained in Rhode Island for four years, working for a master chef at a five-star restaurant. However, an earlier road trip to California had left an impression on him and he headed west. “I loved the weather and the Bay area. The internet boom was going on and new restaurants were opening up. There was a lot of money and new, cool chefs doing new things,” he said. He spent 11 years in the Bay area, all the while perfecting his craft. So much so that he can now proudly add to his resume the Antonin Careme Medal, presented by The Chefs Association of the Pacific Coast to those who have made extraordinary contributions to the culinary profession, to education and advancement of culinary arts. Now he has something in common with Julia Child, and he is the youngest chef ever to receive the medal. Home is where your heart is But the mountains of West Milford beckoned him. He and his wife, Maeve, were expecting their second child and the economy was crashing, so they packed up and came back to his roots and the comfort and support of family. How does it feel to be back in town? “It’s awesome. I never thought I’d be back but as you get older you mature. I tell everyone the mountain is magnetic, everyone comes back,” he said. And awesome it is. He found the perfect location for his first restaurant, right on the waters of Greenwood Lake, allowing for outdoor dining in the warm weather and providing boat slips for diners who work up an appetite on the lake. Indoors he has a comfortable lounge and bar and a dining area that fits the California style. He officially opened for business last Labor Day. “It’s very causal. I offer higher end food at lower prices. You’re not paying for a waiter in a tux; it’s laid back and I put a different twist on traditional items,” he said. California influences For the meat, fish and pasta lover, Hajek offers three different traditional entrees daily. Then there’s tapas style, meaning small plates. They are meant to be shared and people are encouraged to order a few different plates and enjoy each other’s selections, or order several for themselves for a complete but varied dinner. “There’s a lot of California influence,” said Hajek. “I use fresh ingredients, different spices, some with a Latin influence. We do chicken wings, smoky, spicy barbeque, lamb chops with honey Dijon glaze,” he said. Then there’s the Caesar salad, calamari, pan fried mozzarella, and something interestingly called Irish Nachos. For the sandwich lover, look to the Greenwood Lake Cheese Steak, made with beef short ribs, cheddar cheese and sweet and sour onions. Are you hungry yet? “It’s not going to break your bank. You can try some new and creative dishes and have a good time out,” Hajek said. Welcome home As far as the name of the restaurant, Latitude 41, Hajek said, “It runs across the whole world. The location we’re at in West Milford is the same latitude in California,” Owning a restaurant is a big job but luckily Maeve Hajek is a willing partner, handling the business side, taking the pressure off the chef and giving him time to be creative. “She’s a huge help,” Hajek said, and organizing events is one of her specialties. One such event, the Women’s Clothing Swap, will take place this Sunday, Jan. 29, at Latitude 41. Bring in gently used items, clothing, shoes, outerwear and accessories then take home whatever you like. “We ask that you bring in at least 10 items so we have a good variety for everyone to choose from. We also ask that you take only what you will use. The leftover items will be donated to a local women’s shelter,” Maeve said. Hajek called it a girl’s day out, without spending a fortune, and an opportunity to help the less fortunate. A West Milford son has come home to build his future. He’s brought with him some new ideas to tempt the palate and an eagerness to please his guests. You don’t have to wait for the warm weather to enjoy the location of Latitude 41; indoors it’s always warm and hospitable. Women’s First Annual Clothing Swap Jan. 29, 2 to 6 p.m. Latitude 41 Tickets: $10 in advance; $15 at the door Includes swap, beverages and passed hors d’oeuvres Call 973-506-7557 for information and tickets Latitude 41 Lounge and Restaurant 322 Lakeside Road, Hewitt 973-506-7557 Kitchen is open Wed. and Thurs. 12 to 3 p.m and 5 to 9 p.m; Fri., 12 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Sat., 12 to 10 p.m.; Sun., 12 to 9 p.m. Bar is open Wed. through Sunday 12 p.m. to midnight.