By Cheryl Conway
With the chill in the air, everyone seems to crave that comfy food to warm their insides like hot chocolate, tasty soups and spicy chili.
As a specialty throughout the season, Fresco Mexican in Chester will be serving its award winning chili. Co-owner Marco Rojas along with his Head Chef Noe Hor Veliz and staff of Fresco Mexican recently won first place in Chester’s third Annual Harvest Celebration for his Smoked Pork Black Bean Tomatillo Chili.
Co-sponsored by Historic Chester Business Association (HCBA) and French’s Food Company, Fresco Mexican has competed for three years in the food fest, winning two years in a row for its chili. This year’s contest was held on Perry St., Sat., Oct. 15, from noon to 3 p.m., with restaurants competing for best soup, chili and dessert. The catch to this year’s contest was the participants had to use ingredients from French’s Food Company.
“It worked for us,” says Fresco Mexican Co-Owner Carlos Cervantes. “This year we had to use their products. That’s what brought us to the win. He won.”
Out of ten contestants for the chili cook off from area restaurants such as in Morristown, Hackettstown and Madison, Rojas and Cervantes were thrilled to be selected as first place chili contest winners selected by judges’ choice blind taste test, says Cervantes. The judges were from CCM Culinary Arts Department, “Edible Jersey” Magazine and French’s Food Company.
Rojas was “over the top,” when he found out he won, says Cervantes. “He was ecstatic. We went up against some really good restaurants.”
Cervantes would not reveal Rojas’ secret recipe but says “it’s very fresh; nothing is canned.” The pork is roasted in banana leaves, resulting in its smoky pork, chili flavor.
“We use roast pork, black beans, smoked Mexican Chiles,” describes Rojas on the ilovechester.com food fest site. “We had to come up with a recipe, original recipe,” he says. “We do our own roast pork with black beans and tomatillos that makes it so unique, and smoked chili which gives all the flavor to our final dish.”
Rojas describes one of the best things from his cooking. “It is a big joy watching our customers taking the first bite and seeing the big smile on their face.”
Known for its authentic Mexican cuisine, Fresco Mexican typically does not feature chili on its menu. But since Rojas’ creation was such a hit, the owners decided to keep it on the menu as a “seasonal special” through the fall and maybe let it linger into the winter. Customers can try the chili for lunch or dinner with nachos, stuffed burritos or roasted chili relleno.
“Chili is more American” cuisine, says Cervantes. But with Rojas’ incredible background as a former executive chef of the Black Horse Pub in Mendham and Short Hills Club in Short Hills, his chili creation is that good.
Rojas, from Guadalajara Mexico, developed his regional style of Mexican cooking in his mother’s kitchen. It was there where he learned how to use the fresh produce, cheese, and meats from the local merchants.
He relocated to New Jersey in the late 80’s, working in those various restaurants before joining Cervantes in opening Fresco in Flanders in 2006. The pair relocated to Chester in 2010, opening Fresco Mexican. One year later, in 2011, they opened a unique gift shop right next door- Random Acts of Fresco – featuring hand-crafted artisan imports from countries such as Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Haiti, and India
“We have a beautiful trophy,” from the chili contest, says Cervantes, who moved to NJ from Key West in 1988. He had started his career in hotels at the famed Pier House Beach Club and Resort then managed various restaurants throughout the northern NJ area; including 15 years at The Madison Hotel in Morristown as a sales and catering manager.
Fresco Mexican is open seven days a week, Sun.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Fri.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.