FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP — A champion chef has taken over the kitchen at iPlay America, Schanck Road.
Joe Raiola, the 2010 winner of the Food Network series “Chopped,” has been transforming the menu at the indoor amusement park’s restaurant, Game Time Bar and Grill, since he took over 19 months ago.
“We brought in ‘Chopped’ champion chef Joseph Raiola because we want only the best for our guests,” said Bob McDaid, founder and chief executive officer of iPlay America, Freehold Township.
Raiola said he was attracted to iPlay America’s “multi-unit action” and said he loves the fast pace of cooking.
“The menu is leaps and bounds from where it was when I got here,” he said.
When he first saw iPlay America, Raiola thought it was “an amusement park on Route 9 with essentially a bar menu that was mediocre.”
Raiola, 41, said he is “trying to promote restaurant on its own.”
“I revamped every aspect of food and beverage. Ninety percent of the food at the restaurant is scratch made,” the chef said.
That includes his own tomato sauce and pizza dough.
“I wanted the menu to cater to the eclectic tastes of moms and dads, the kids and the bar crowd. It is a cool diversified menu with out-of-the-box ways of preparing food,” Raiola said.
“His dishes reflect his passion for creativity in the kitchen while using the freshest ingredients available, bringing Game Time Bar and Grill, as well as iPlay America’s catered affairs, to another level,” McDaid said.
Raiola, who creates the recipes for the menu, highlighted some of the newest offerings: Mexican mahi tacos, chicken and waffles, and ricotta gnocchi.
“I would put this menu up against any other in New Jersey in our genre,” he said.
Restaurant numbers are up 25 percent and food costs are down 60 percent, according to Raiola.
The executive chef honed his cooking skills in restaurants such as Tavern on the Green, New York City; Morton’s Steakhouse, Brooklyn; and Tribeca Grill, New York City. Raiola has also managed high-volume and corporate events.
Raiola was born on Staten Island and said his first cooking experiences came when he prepared recipes found on the side of cereal boxes for his siblings.
His first job in the restaurant business was at the age of 13 when he was hired as a dishwasher at a neighborhood Italian restaurant.
“After a year, I moved up to salads, and after another year, when I was 15, I moved up to the grill,” Raiola said.
He said “passion for food drew me in.”
“When I started out in the restaurant business there was no Food Network. I never saw the role of chef as a glorified position. At the end of the day, I’m a cook,” Raiola said.
— Christine Barcia