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Black chef at Hunterdon NJ wine bar breaks down barriers

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There are no black vineyard owners in New Jersey.

Nationwide, that figure is just 1%.

And in a survey of more than 3,000 people working in the wine industry, just 2% identified as black.

But Hunterdon County’s Cree Wine Company is helping boost those numbers. In June, the wine bar located in the historic former inn in Perryville in Union Township appointed Kadon Barnwell as executive chef.

“Kadon’s influence will certainly help break down local barriers and diversify the industry,” said Christopher Cree, owner of the Cree Wine Company. “I think Kadon’s talent, drive, professionalism, accomplishments and passion are great inspirations for anyone looking to get into the culinary arts.”

Barnwell, who was previously head chef at Wine Spectator’s Grand Award-winning Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, now oversees the development of the new pairing menu, as well as special meals and catered private events at Cree Wine Company.

“My main goal is to create seasonal things and reflections of my past experiences and culture,” Barnwell said. “I want food and wine to go together and it’s a beautiful dance between the two.”

Some of the dishes Barnwell has already added to the menu include shrimp and grits; calamari with miso chili and coriander; ricotta gnocchi with corn, crab and tomato; pumpkin blossoms stuffed with ricotta; and sake-poached scallops — “a dish you’d be happy with at a three-star Michelin restaurant,” Cree said.

Calamari at Cree Wine Company created by Kadon Barnwell.

Barnwell’s mother is Honduran, his father is Guyanese, and he grew up eating in the kitchen of his stepmother, who is Filipino.

“I ate everything growing up and was never picky about anything,” Barnwell said. “I want to invite flavors that comfort me and feel comfortable while making them accessible to people who aren’t used to such strong flavors or ingredients from elsewhere.”

Some of these ingredients include fish sauce, shrimp paste, and fermented vegetables – all hallmarks of Filipino cuisine. He also uses Indian spices, curries, goat cheese and cereals, which are often found in Guyanese cuisine.

Squash blossoms created by Kadon Barnwell at Cree Wine Company.

“A lot of my dishes are Asian-inspired, but I also use a lot of traditional French methods and then ingredients from other cultures to create balance,” Barnwell says.

At home, Barnwell eats plant-based meals and he wants to bring that element to Cree Wine Company by sometimes using tofu or creating vegetarian dishes.

Looking back:Cree Wine Company to open at historic Hunterdon Perryville Inn

While working at the Pluckemin Inn, Barnwell attended many of the restaurant’s wine dinners. Before that, he started his culinary career as a prep cook at Raritan Valley Country Club, after being promoted from the dishwasher. Even when he went through the dishwasher, he knew his future lay in haute cuisine.

“It’s always been my dream to do haute cuisine and work for Michelin-starred restaurants,” Barnwell said. “Wine has always been on my mind…but the Pluckemin Inn definitely got me to focus on it and see the possibility of wine pairing.”

In June, the Cree Wine Company of Hunterdon County appointed Kadon Barnwell as Executive Chef.

He knows that wine is a white-dominated industry, although he doesn’t know why. He introduced his own family to different wines, so they could see the range of varieties and how they can be paired with food.

“I’ve definitely noticed that wine culture is something that some people are brought up with,” Barnwell said. “I only have a few family members who love wine and understand where the wines are produced, the flavor profiles and the pairings. I’m trying to demystify that myself. How come we don’t fully immersed in the wine culture within the black community?”

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Barnwell said he had never experienced racism or been treated differently. He attributes all the wide-eyed looks to his age – he just turned 25, quite young for an executive chef in the world of high-end cuisine.

“I’m the guy who likes to stay behind the scenes, so people didn’t really know who I was until I was at Cree Wine Company,” Barnwell said. “I feel like when people saw me they didn’t believe I was doing what I was doing. But I don’t think it was about race. I just think it was because People are more surprised that I’m doing what I’m doing, whether it’s for who I am or my age.

Go: 167 Perryville Road, Union Township; 908-200-7772, creewineco.com.

Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member of the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, having become a blogger-turned-journalist after founding her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her food, drink and fun stories, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Contact: [email protected] or @JIntersimone.