Josh Capon can’t help himself.
The 51-year-old celebrity chef and restaurateur, renowned for his award-winning burgers, his frequent television appearances and larger-than-life personality, just has to feed anyone who sets foot into his well-appointed home in Tenafly.
Which is what the fast-talking, fast-moving, quick-smiling father of two did when another reporter and I came by to interview him. In the airy, stark-white kitchen of his 5,000-square-foot home, Capon whipped up a multi-dish lunch of grilled flatbread topped with artichoke tapenade; creamy, fresh mozzarella and oven-roasted tomatoes; a Greek salad bathed in a superb charred lemon vinaigrette; and perfectly grilled shrimp and ultra-sweet lemons.
“Here’s a tip,” he said, as he sprinkled fresh basil onto the flatbread, “if you want super-sweet lemons, grill them.”
As is his wont, the self-titled “King of Hospitality,” an epithet friends, neighbors and colleagues would agree fits, had made way too much of everything. “I don’t know how to make a salad for three,” he confessed.
No problem. Capon stuffed the leftovers into paper food containers (he has a cabinet full of them for such circumstances) and called a neighbor who came by quickly. She left wearing a big smile and carrying a shopping bag full of Capon’s generosity.
“I just want to make people happy.” Capon said.
Cooking accolades and a new restaurant in Vegas
A good thing for someone who has been in the hospitality industry for more than a quarter century, cooking in and/or running restaurants, including Aureole (13 Michelin stars) and Lenox Room with Charlie Palmer; Park Avenue Cafe with world-renowned chef and Fort Lee resident David Burke; and eventually his own places including Lure Fishbar, Bowery Meat Company and Burger & Barrel, all in New York City. Currently, he is a partner of VCR Hospitality Group that is poised to open, among other restaurants, Flyfish Club, the first private dining club in New York City where membership is purchased through NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens, a kind of cryptocurrency.
Capon is particularly delighted to be opening Capons, an eponymous burger joint in the now under-construction Fontainebleau Las Vegas. “This is a big deal for me,” said Capon, a seven-time winner of NYC Wine & Food Festival’s Burger Bash. “I am so proud.”
Being hospitable is, he believes, in his DNA. “You can’t fake hospitality,” he said. “It’s in your blood. I’m a people person.”
And food, he said, brings people together. Besides, he loves food.
“All I want to do is eat and all I want to do is lose weight.”
He swims in his backyard pool most mornings. He tends to his garden. He plays tennis. But what he does just about all the time is cook. He and his wife, Lori, often entertain friends and family at their place.
Capon prefers entertaining at home to going out to restaurants. The few the couple does patronize include Olar Noso in Northvale, The Hill in Closter, Roost in Sparkill and Mel’s Butcher Block in Tenafly.
“I shouldn’t say this as a chef, but you should entertain at home,” he said.
Two kitchens in Tenafly
Their home in Tenafly has two kitchens — one indoors and one outdoors. He loves them both, especially the kitchen’s big island, the dual wall ovens, and his outdoor barbecue. They moved in seven years ago after living in a cramped apartment in New York City. “I wanted to leave New York,” Capon said. “Lori didn’t. I wanted a backyard, a barbecue, fresh air, normal schools.” One morning, he announced, “That’s it. I want out.” Lori, he said, thought he was asking for a divorce. Though he cleared that up as fast as he could, “she still didn’t talk to me for a day,” he said.
Today they’re both thrilled to be living in Tenafly. “Moving here was the best decision we made. Tenafly is a wonderful place to live. I love the people, the community.”
The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
“As soon as he moved here, he became a fixture in the community” said Lauren Forman, a friend and neighbor. “His dinner parties are wonderful. He knows how to bring people together.”
“Our whole family’s palate has expanded because of Josh,” Forman continued. “He truly understands how food can bring people together. He is more than a food personality; he is a unifier.”
Jason Prussian, his friend of 40 years, has been the beneficiary of Capon’s feasts and camaraderie.
“He’s the ultimate entertainer,” Prussian said. “He makes everyone feel welcome. He has a way of taking care of people and making them feel special. He is the king of taking care of everyone else.”
‘The ultimate entertainment’
Capon learned how to please, host and cook from his dad, Sam Capon, a school teacher and commercial real estate broker who loved to entertain at the family’s home in Pomona, New York. When friends would drop by, his father would make tapas “way before most Americans had ever even heard of tapas,” he said. “He’d call them nibbles. I got the food bug and the gift of gab from him.”
While in high school, Capon worked as a busboy in local cafe Our Gang Inn— and soon enough demonstrated not only his cooking skills but people skills. When the head chef failed to show up one morning, Capon, then 16, took charge of the kitchen. The young cook didn’t just bang out pancakes, eggs and potatoes, he made apple fritters and sent them out to all the regulars. “It was a little amuse bouche,” he said. Customers were thrilled.
At the University of Maryland, he’d make dinners for friends. “They’d pay me $20 each, I’d shop and I’d make meals that they loved.” What he wasn’t making, however, were As. “I wasn’t performing academically. I was floundering.” Encouraged by his parents, he dropped out and went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. “I found my calling in life,” he said. “I just thrived.” He graduated in 1994 and went on to work with top chefs like Charlie Palmer (“He was great”) and David Burke (“He taught me how to have fun with food”). It was through Burke that he got to travel and work in top-notch restaurants in Europe.
“I killed pigs and butchered them. I made blood sausages from their blood. I was pulling ramps out of forests before I knew what they were. I was making fresh pasta. I was cooking seafood that I’d never seen before. It was amazing.”
When he returned to the states a year later, he worked at Matthew’s, celebrity chef Matthew Kenny’s spot in Manhattan and then Canteen in SoHo, which eventually was replaced by Lure Fishbar, one of the four restaurants he co-owned as a partner of the Mercer Hospitality Group. He worked there for 20 years, then COVID hit and his restaurants closed, giving him precious time to take stock of his life.
“I realized I wasn’t happy,” he said. “This is a very demanding business. I was working five or six nights a week. I didn’t see my kids. I was yearning for more family time.”
‘Cooking with the Capons’
He left the restaurant group, hung out with his family; read books to his son, Max, today 14, and helped him with homework; and with his daughter, Amanda, 17 today, began a fun, lively cooking show on social media called Cooking with the Capons. (His daughter would break into a dance; he would follow). He also offered customized virtual and eventually also in-person cooking classes.
“I was sharing my passion and knowledge,” he said. “It was so rewarding.”
While he is fully cognizant of the horrific devastation the pandemic caused, “COVID was the best thing that happened to me,” he said.
He has continued throughout to delight audiences with his easygoing, fun and warm appearances on The Food Network, Rachael Ray, TODAY and Good Morning America, among others. And he began getting back into the restaurant business, with a new restaurant group. He anticipates opening at least five restaurants in the coming year.
Two years ago, his dad, 82, died after a bad fall. Capon, who is Jewish, hosted a shiva, a usually somber get-together held to mourn the loss. There was nothing somber about this shiva. For starters, it was called a “Shiva Palooza.”
“My father said you can mourn my loss but you better celebrate my life,” Capon said.
Capon festooned his backyard with tiki torches, blasted Anita Baker (his dad’s favorite) songs; had fire pits going; poured lots of tequila shots and served lots of delicious food. “People who had places to go, restaurant reservations, for example, came back to hang out,” he said.
It should not surprise. After all, the King of Hospitality made sure that everyone was having a good time.
“It’s what I like to do,” Capon said.