By Mary Walton
When late last spring the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association awarded Damaris Adamo a five-year contract for food service at its two beachfront shacks, she did not lack for a name.
You have likely heard this verse, which springs almost reflexively to her lips:
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matthew 5:13; King James Bible, Cambridge ed.)
Salt is a preservative that prevents food from spoiling. Just so are Christians to preserve the tenets of their faith.
Also, salt tastes really good.
“Salt,” Adamo says, “is my favorite ingredient.” She adds by way of explanation, “I am Roman.”
As she talks, she is firing up the grill behind the shack closest to the pier, where she can be found most days, all day long. The first customers are gazing hungrily through the open window. The early shift of her youthful 24-member crew is arriving.
A veteran of several restaurant jobs, most recently as executive chef at Old Man Rafferty’s in Asbury Park, Adamo has introduced a dramatically different menu to Ocean Grove beach goers, who were long accustomed to a fare of hamburgers, hotdogs, fries and sandwiches. (In later years a simple wrap also made its appearance.)
The hamburgers, hotdogs and a couple of sandwiches are still there. But not the fries. She explains that a table-top fryer in the 10-by-12 foot shack is a safety hazard, and environmentally acceptable disposal of the cooking oil is a nettlesome problem. Unique to her menu are “griddledias,” grilled tortillas with chicken and veggie stuffings, and “pizzalettas,” flour disks spread with pizza toppings, folded over and grilled. And “fruiattas,” composed of fruit, sugar and ice.
“Yes,” says Adamo, “I make up words.” It’s all about branding, she says — having specialties unique to your business.
The beef, too, is distinctive. Certified angus, free of hormones and antibiotics. The same with the chicken, which is free range. Big puffy rolls resembling brioche are delivered fresh daily from Philadelphia. Her salsa comes from a company called Urban Roots in the Bronx. The hotdogs, she says, are the same as those served at Windmill, “only I sell them cheaper.” $2.00 as opposed to $2.30. Even the packages of chips are good guys. A portion of the proceeds from each variety is donated to a different charity.
Prices of most of her offerings, other than the hotdogs, range from $4 to $6 — more with toppings. Her emphasis is on food that is wholesome and healthy. “It’s a privilege to eat well in this country,” Adamo says. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
“We are fully licensed and health inspected,” she adds. “Every one of the staff has working papers.”
Her partner in Salt is Robert Cospito, for seven years the deli manager at Piancone’s in Bradley Beach. More recently, he worked under Adamo at Rafferty’s for four years as executive sous chef.
Adamo, 40, moved to Ocean Grove in 1998. She is the divorced mother of four: Christian, a pre-med student at Rutgers; Gabriella, a junior at Neptune High (and a “phenomenal grill cook”"; Sam Adams, 12, and Manny, 4. In addition to Salt, Adamo owns By the Sea Enterprises, a company that does catering and provides start-up services to restaurants. She advises would-be restaurant owners to “keep it simple, get it right, be consistent.”
When she was younger, Adamo enjoyed “some mild success as a stand-up comedian,” her dream back then. Now her dream is a cooking show, where she would “go into the intimacy of someone’s home to see how they prepare their food.” She can see it now: As people share family recipes, stories and their own secrets of cooking, “They laugh, they cry.”
To her, cooking is how you build relationships. “It’s a passion about food. It’s a passion about people. It’s about building relationships. It’s not how many hamburgers can I sell, but who can I sell them to.”