It would be easy to assume that a chef who has a background working with chefs known for their fine dining would run a formal and hard-to-access restaurant. Chef Cal Stamenov has cooked alongside chefs including Jean-Louis Palladin, Michel Richard, Eric Ripert, and Alain Ducasse, all known for their restaurants with impossible-to-get reservations and exacting standards. Instead, Stamenov oversees dining at the Bernardus Lodge & Spa, where the resort restaurant welcomes all guests and the cooks love working in the calm atmosphere of the kitchen.
When Bernardus Lodge closed for renovations, the flagship restaurant, Marinus, shuttered. Then, the casual grill was also closed. The property managers’ main concern was whether Stamenov, who joined the resort in 1999, would stay on with only a single restaurant to serve all guests. Stamenov finally announced that he would run the dining program, but things were going to change.
In 2015, the Lodge debuted Lucia Restaurant & Bar, a fresh concept showcasing the culinary creativity of a true artist who has championed the region’s bounty for nearly two decades. What Stamenov has created at Bernardus is nothing short of spectacular. Don’t believe us? Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio, who declared Stamenov’s food the “best in the world.” His proclamation can be seen written on the wall at the Chef’s Table in the kitchen alongside praise from Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the late, great Julia Child. “I made her a roast chicken,” Stamenov humbly shares.
The menu at Bernardus is farm-to-table focused. Or rather, garden to table. The property has an herb and vegetable garden on site that Stamenov personally guides guests through. During the walk, it is not uncommon to see bartenders foraging for cocktail ingredients, cooks examining herbs, or spa staff plucking fresh lavender. What’s not grown on site is sourced from the chef’s own backyard — two acres of organic fruits and vegetables, three bee boxes with domestic and wild Italian honey bees, more than 150 fruit trees, and a cache of Plymouth, Barred Rock, Rhode Island, Speckled Sussex, and Ameraucana chickens whose eggs always make a menu appearance. “I am lucky to live so close by,” Stamenov says.
This season, Stamenov developed a Mentors’ Menu of à la carte dishes to honor the chefs who have shaped his wide-ranging career. For the late Michel Richard, known for his French cooking, there’s a smoked salmon terrine with wasabi crème fraîche and scallops Alibaba. The skills he learned from Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo at Le Louis XV Alain Ducasse — one of the world’s best restaurants — are on display in the thyme-roasted venison with chanterelles, and the rabbit rillette with foie gras and black truffles.
In addition to the amazing dishes, Stamenov’s kitchen culture is something else his mentors would be proud of. Even on the busiest of nights with banquets, cellar dinners, a full house, and the Chef’s Table all full, the staff runs with quick precision and shows the utmost respect for one another. “Please, Chef” and “Thank you, Chef” are commonly heard, and the team jumps in to help when someone falls behind.
Foodies may be able to hear — and taste — more of his kitchen stories in the future as a Bernardus cookbook is on the horizon.