Joseph Peterson — “Chef Joe” — can pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a chef. He was a 12-year-old boy living in Dryden, New York, about an hour south of Syracuse. It was 10 o’clock at night, his mother was at work, and he was hungry. “I made stir fry beef with noodles and it tasted so good,” he said with a broad smile. “I had so much fun making it that the next day I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Right around that time, Dryden got its first cable service. Peterson wasted no time discovering cooking shows and famed chef Ming Tsai’s “East Meets West” program particularly captivated the tween. “He showed people how he cooked inside his restaurant, which was French-American-Asian. As a kid, I watched that show every Saturday and wanted to grow up to be just like him,” Peterson said.
Fast forward to 2009 when Peterson, fresh out of Boston’s Cordon Bleu cooking school, went to work for his idol at Tsai’s acclaimed Wellesley restaurant, Blue Ginger. After training under the celebrity chef, he went on to become executive chef at Jerry Remy’s, the downtown Boston restaurant near Fenway Park.
That’s where “Chef Joe” was working when Andrew Ingemi, who co-owns Village Tavern with his father, Arthur, realized that he would be a perfect fit for their Salem restaurant. “Jerry Remy’s gave him experience with volume,” Ingemi said. “I needed someone who would have no trouble with an October crowd. With Joe’s experience of a busy restaurant with Red Sox games multiple times a week, it was an easy choice.”
Ingemi hired Peterson last fall and the two unveiled an overhauled menu last month.
Part of Ingemi’s dream was to make Village Tavern known for higher end tavern fare rather than just bar food. The new menu features such dishes as Sweet and Sour Duck and 28-day dry-aged grass fed sirloin, which “may be the very best steak you’ll ever have, other than at a fancy steakhouse in Boston,” he said.
Peterson is equally excited about the fusion side of the menu, which mixes traditional appetizers and Asian touches in such inventions as Philly Steak Egg Roll and Buffalo Chicken Ragoon.
Dear to Peterson’s heart is his Beef Strogonoff, which is a hearty and tasty dish his mother used to make once a week. His special secret? He adds sour cream at the end to give it a “zing” (his mom used heavy cream).
“A lot of cooking is about technique,” Peterson said as he prepared this dish for the Salem Gazette. “Stroganoff is simple, but hard to make it taste well.”
Ingemi’s family has been in the restaurant business in Salem since the 1970’s. His great-grandfather is the Steve of Steve’s Market and his father and grandfather have owned many eateries over the years. Ingemi didn’t join them until 2012, when his father and brother were opening the Village Tavern and asked him to help out. At the time, he was working in Boston at State Street Bank. He thought he would stay a year. Five years later, he’s still there.
“I fell in love with working with my family and making the restaurant better. It’s so rewarding,” he said. “It’s kind of fun — we have a big history in Salem.”
He’s also proud of “Chef Joe” and all the staff for “kicking it up a notch” to be up to Joe’s standards in the kitchen. “We’re able to give guests the overall experience we’ve been wanting to give them for the last couple of year,” Ingemi said.
Peterson is delighted to be in Salem after many years in Boston. While he’s looking forward to making an impact with his food, he is just as eager to take a leadership role among his employees in his kitchen. In the six months he has been at Village Tavern, he has already promoted many from within and has built a team spirit and loyalty among his staff.
“Taking a cook and making him sous-chef or taking a peeler and making him a prep chef, that the kind of stuff that excites me. I like growing people. I could do everything myself back there, but that’s not the idea,” he said.