N.Y. chefs lured by the inn crowd
Two Big Apple veterans have found happiness running a 300-year-old Salem County spot.
By Rita Giordano
Inquirer Staff Writer

They met at the Sign of the Dove, two young chefs working together at one of the poshest restaurants in the oh-so-posh Manhattan dining scene.

The culinary Who’s Who jobs continued – he at the Russian Tea Room, to name one; she at Jean Georges at the Trump International Hotel; and both at the New Leaf Cafe, an uptown eatery backed by Bette Midler. Laurence Fishburne’s wedding gala was held there.

Glitzy stuff all right, but still they got to pining for a place of their own. At New York real estate prices, though, they were looking at maybe a hot dog cart.

Then it happened. A posting on the Internet: an 18th-century inn. In Salem County, South Jersey. For sale.

Good-bye, Big Apple. Hello, County Route 540.

On Sept. 9, Brian and Joanne Goode became the proud owners and proprietors of Ye Olde Centerton Inn, a pre-Revolutionary War, former stagecoach stop nestled in the heart of New Jersey farmland.

Nowadays, instead of catering to the tastes of the rich and famous, Brian is up at 4:30 a.m. baking bread, and Joanne presides over the front desk, graciously greeting such guests as the ladies of the Red Hat Society, local farmers, and visiting businesspeople.

Meanwhile, their son, David, 4, is going mano a mano with his new preschool buddies and getting a kick out of monitoring the comings and goings of the chicken truck as it whizzes by.

His parents are pretty happy, too.

“Walking in and knowing it’s my place is something I’ve wanted a long time,” said Brian, 40.

Said Joanne, 38: “I never met a chef who didn’t want to have their own place.”

But buying the Centerton Inn wasn’t just a career move. Moving from Manhattan to bucolic Salem County was a huge lifestyle change. Their housing, for starters, and less hassle.

In the 15 or so years that they lived in Manhattan, Brian, who is originally from Morristown in North Jersey, and Joanne, who hails from Barrington in Camden County, for a long time owned an East Side studio the size of an afterthought, then rented a bigger place uptown. There were all the joys of New York life, and the headaches – the jockeying for position in a shared laundry room, the blood sport of finding a parking spot.

In Centerton, they still rent – an apartment across the street from the inn – but it’s a duplex.

“For me being a New Yorker, this is like the Taj Mahal,” Brian said. “I have a washer and dryer in the basement. I have a basement, first of all.”

That and a parking spot, noted Joanne.

“Those two issues alone have taken a lot of stress out of our lives,” she said.

Of course, there are trade-offs. In Manhattan, everything was at their fingertips. There is no Virgin Megastore in downtown Centerton. There is no downtown.

“We look at Gloucester County as sort of the seat of civilization,” Brian said. “If I go there I can go to a Commerce Bank. I can buy a CD.”

But the happy surprises have been more numerous. They have found people welcoming and warm. When Brian is up early baking, neighbors stop by for coffee and chat. One of them has been helping him ferret out the best produce.

Then there’s the inn itself. While its history has not been scrupulously documented – many say it opened in 1706, while others say it was a few decades later – the inn is believed be the oldest continuously operating inn in New Jersey and one of the oldest in the country. The Marquis de Lafayette is said to have planned Revolutionary War strategy there, and Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne visited on food-foraging expeditions for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.

“We have ghosts,” Joanne said, sounding pleased at the prospect and more than willing to recount the tale of the three Loyalists allegedly buried under the inn and of the innkeeper’s daughter who took her own life after seeing her beau hanged.

Both Goodes have embraced the history of the inn – down to even those well-known peanuts that have been roasted on the premises for decades.

Still, some locals were leery about what the New Yorkers would do. Over nearly three centuries, a place has its ups and downs. The inn’s guest rooms haven’t been occupied in many years. But people were quite happy with the food under previous owner Cosmo Terrigno, 62, who also has the Hillcrest Tavern and the Coach Room in Bridgeton and who, it so happens, came to South Jersey by way of the Bronx decades ago. Would the newcomers change everything?

Apparently not. The inn’s veteran staff, for one thing, is still in place.

“They’re actually better than a lot of the servers in New York City,” Brian said. “Those people are all waiting for the next casting call. If they get it, they’re gone. No notice. These people are lifers.”

Nor are the Goodes planning to turn the inn into a sushi bar.

“Sometimes the space itself is telling me what I have to do,” Brian said. “The space is telling me, ‘Don’t mess this up. It’s been going 300 years straight.’ “

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