Growing up in Brick, Mike Jurusz was known as the kid who could fit in with just about any group in school. Name a sport, and he probably played it for the Dragons. So when a buddy in high school suggested he try out the culinary program at the new vocational school that opened up across the street from Brick Township High School, he decided to give it a go.
The prospect of free food may have helped, he admits, but those four years of classes in his hometown ultimately led him on a journey across the country, from city to city and coast to coast, and eventually back home to Ocean County as the head chef and owner of one of the Shore’s best restaurants – and best comeback stories following Superstorm Sandy.
Jurusz is the owner of Chef Mike’s ABG on the oceanfront in South Seaside Park, just outside the gate to Island Beach State Park. He still lives in Brick – these days on the Brick Memorial side of town – and has come full circle to realize his dream of owning his own restaurant after spending years training under some of the nation’s best chefs in a multitude of cuisines.
“My family bought a house down here in 1971 when I was two years old,” Jurusz said. “I’m half Polish and half Italian, so for me, growing up in that household was wild. My dad’s parents were from Poland and they moved here when he was a young boy. They did everything traditionally – Polish food, spoke the language, made everything from scratch. And my mom’s parents were from Italy and were the same way.”
His grandparents’ traditional dishes were made with “stuff the FDA won’t even allow anymore,” like meats that were half lean and half fat, and natural creams and butters.
Jurusz’s introduction to the restaurant business came before he even realized it. A neighbor – his childhood friend’s father – owned the Matchpoint Lounge restaurant on Route 88, and he and his friend would play there during the day.
Eventually, “he put us to work,” Jurusz said, peeling shrimp, pounding chicken and grinding tomatoes to make traditional Italian sauces.
“I was cooking all of this really cool, hardcore stuff, and didn’t even know it.”
By the time Jurusz began taking classes at the vocational school, he knew becoming a chef would be his career.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I knew I had a natural gift for it. I didn’t even have to try. I just listened and paid attention to what was being said.”
His first two years at Vo -Tech were under the guidance of a traditional Italian chef. But at one point during his high school career, the chef in charge of the program died, and the school district hired a younger chef who had worked at restaurants in New York City.
“Suddenly, I’m learning how to do these crazy sauces, break down veal, and it was nothing like anyone else was doing around here,” Jurusz said.
From there, he was accepted at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. and graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA and perfect attendance, all while working in restaurants and learning the business.
Then, what he now calls “Chef Mike’s Nationwide Tour” began.
His career as a young chef took him to 13 states in just a few years. From New York, to Oklahoma, to Arizona and out to Los Angeles.
“I studied under the best chefs in the country, traveled everywhere, and once you get in that circle it’s kind of like you’re in,” Jurusz explained. “I always had a job, though of course I had no money. But I did it to be a sponge, just to absorb everything.”
In the midst of the the tour, however, he said he always felt a pull to come back home to Brick and the Jersey Shore.
A Return Home
He was chef and manager in restaurants in Secaucus and Bay Head, helped start the Marlins Cafe in Point Pleasant Beach, and eventually was hired as head chef at the Atlantic Bar and Grille, the restaurant to which he would eventually return as owner.
“They wanted to turn the place around,” he said, from a relatively low-end bar by the beach to a higher-end restaurant. The potential – being one of the few restaurants at the Jersey Shore with an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean – was huge. So little by little, Jurusz introduced new menu items, focusing on the dinner crowd. There were fresh oysters, the first Chilean sea bass selections at the Jersey Shore, and unique microbrews on tap to go with everything. There were hundreds of wine options. And by the end of the year, the once-struggling restaurant had produced over $1 million in sales.
“I was able to do something really special there,” he recalls, with the crowd ranging from locals to multiple governors who would spend hours there each weekend while visiting their retreat at nearby Island Beach State Park.
Eventually, however, Jurusz said the prices grew very high as the restaurant evolved.
“It became an occasion restaurant,” he said. “I would meet people and they would say, ‘we’d love to come, but it’s so expensive.'”
That left Jurusz searching for a new opportunity, which eventually presented itself in Point Pleasant Beach, where he was given the opportunity to design and open 709 on Arnold Avenue. The restaurant opened to spectacular reviews – and a packed house, night after night – in 2010 under Jurusz’s management as head chef.
“It took almost a year just to set the place up; when I first went there, it was only four walls,” he said.
Though 709 was a hit, Jurusz still wanted to own his own restaurant, having experienced so much success on both the business and culinary ends, with the desire to bring both together.
Chef Mike’s ABG Is Born
Shortly after Superstorm Sandy struck the Jersey Shore in 2012, leaving the northern barrier island in tatters, Jurusz got the call – an opportunity to purchase Atlantic Bar and Grille.
By late 2012, his absence had taken a toll. Revenue was down, and the restaurant had lost its luster. But the good news was that the oceanfront building itself – built in the 1950s with tons of concrete by an Italian immigrant – had stood up perfectly to Sandy, suffering no damage in the storm. Armed with a key to the front door and a pass to enter the then-barricaded island, Jurusz fired up the ovens, took a look around the place, and decided to make his return – this time as owner.
After a good cleaning and an investment in orders of fresh fish, meats and ingredients, the restaurant – now called Chef Mike’s ABG – was up and running in a month’s time.
The restaurant, again, became a hit, with familiar staff members, many of whom had been there for the better part of 15 years. But in addition to the ultra-fresh seafood and shellfish, high-quality cuts of meat and unique drink options, Jurusz has focused on providing a superior level of personal service, something he feels the industry as a whole has been lacking.
“It’s called the hospitality industry for a reason, but people seem to have forgotten that part,” he said.
The restaurant accommodates special requests, and features dishes that are safe for those who have certain food allergies or prefer a vegetarian choice.
The specials are always changing – through the holiday season, shellfish and raw bar items are being featured – and the restaurant has forged a unique and valuable reputation for preparing varying cuisines equally well. The menu features items ranging from an onion crusted Chilean sea bass to a grilled New Zealand rack of lamb. Other specialties include tender, peppercorn-crusted fillet mignon medallions prepared with lump crab in a bleu cheese cream sauce with garlic mashed potatoes.
The restaurant is now featuring its Friday “date night” menu, with two dinner selections from a special menu and a bottle of wine for $50, a perfect way for new patrons to become introduced.
For Jurusz, owning the restaurant also serves as a homecoming, where friends from the area meet – and old classmates stop in for a special, oceanfront dinner.
“I’ve lived in 13 different states, but I always came back to Brick,” Jurusz said.[divider] [box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″ ]Chef Mike’s ABG
• Address: 10 Central Ave, Seaside Park, NJ 08752
• Phone: 732-854-1588
• Website: http://www.chefmikesabg.com[/box]