Could LBI living get any better than a classically trained French chef creating a masterful menu and serving it at the hosts’ seaside dinner party while they relax with their impressed guests?
Patrons who knew and loved chef Francis Pons from the former Little Bite of Italy/Francis’ in Surf City can now experience his gourmet French and Italian-inspired cuisine in a private dining experience at their home, as well as unique cooking classes or a private catered event. The restaurant has been sold, but devotees old and new are finding Francis in a new private dining realm.
Chef Francis loves the intimacy of cooking for a small group. It’s where he can share and showcase his culinary skills and see the reward on the diners’ faces. His signature Paella with Choice of Seafood will bring out the “ahhh” in awesome. Bouillabaisse and Beef Bourguignon are other spectacular signatures perfected by this native of southwest France. Open Lobster Ravioli is among dozens of other exquisite dishes, with meals capped by customer-favorite desserts such as Italian Cheesecake and Crème Caramel.
After years of running two brick-and-mortar businesses, the pandemic brought challenges to everyone, and Pons and partner Debra Malotta now embrace offering private dining affairs, “where we could safely provide a stellar culinary experience in the homes of our patrons,” the couple explained.
“Private dining is where Francis really soars,” said Malotta, Pons’ wife and the accountant of the partnership. “Not bound to a restaurant kitchen, he thoroughly enjoys his craft and brings that joy directly to his clientele on a more personal level. Francis loves to meet and talk shop with people. He enjoys his customers and regales them with tidbits of information about France and the culinary arts. He encourages interaction at all parties and events.”
“We really get to know our customers. You think about the customers as friends after you cook for them,” Pons reflected.
The soft-spoken chef smiles when showing pictures of families immersed in candlelit or sunlit memories brought to the table. They may mingle over drinks and appetizers to start (Pons is experienced at recommending a perfect wine pairing) and then move to soup, salad, main course and dessert, all an event. For that matter, they can have the special occasion catered at a venue outside their home.
“On a boat – why not?” Pons said, smiling. The duo and team will travel to the rest of the Jersey Shore, North Jersey, New York and beyond.
The nicest part of the job is that the customers “are happy with the food,” the partners agreed. “They interact, they have a great time and the customer can just eat, drink and be merry. It’s a worry-free night for them; they get to enjoy the food and their guests.”
Testimonials use words like “flawless,” “outstanding” and “superb.”
Pons was born and raised in Brive, France, 40 minutes northeast of Limoges. He was classically schooled and trained at LEP Hotelier Souillac Lot for three years in the southwest gastronomic region of France and completed his pastry studies in Bavaria.
In Monte Carlo, Pons completed an internship at the Hotel de Paris under the tutelage of Alain Ducasse. At the age of 29, Pons became an executive chef at the Hotel La Grotte in Lourdes, France. During this time, an Italian restaurateur staying at the hotel met Francis, liked his food and asked him to be executive chef at his new restaurant, Macelleria, in the meatpacking district of New York City.
Through mutual friends, Pons went to work as Sous Chef at Le Chateau, in North Salem, N.Y., before becoming executive chef at La Cote Basque in May 2004, home of Jean Jacques Rachou, another old-world chef from the southwest of France. He came to Long Beach Island in May 2006 as the owner of A Little Bite of Italy deli and in 2012, executive chef and pastry chef of his own upscale yet intimate French fusion restaurant, Francis’, at that location.
After 16 seasons, Pons sold the Surf City property in November 2021 and moved into the private dining realm. “We weathered storms, economic ups and downs, busy summers, not-so-busy summers, staff shortages and more. But nothing changed our business the way COVID-19 did,” he said.
The pandemic closed indoor dining for six months in 2020. For some customers, a nervousness about dining indoors lingered long after capacity opened up again. “During our many ‘what to do next’ conversations, Francis would often fondly recall an annual birthday meal he created for a special customer, in their own home … hence, an idea was born: Let’s bring the dining to our customers,” recalled Malotta.
“This direction allows him to constantly create new plates, dip into his eclectic catalog of plates and tweak dishes that are tailored to his customer’s tastes. Private dining is based on a collaborative effort between Francis and the client. But there are some specialties he’s cooked multiple times.
“Throughout our years on LBI, we also provided home catering as well as destination catering for hundreds of events, such as barbecues and graduation parties to formal weddings and everything in between. We did our best to elevate the catering experience, maintaining the highest quality of foods and standards, often prompting, ‘That was the best catered food I’ve ever tasted!’”
Pons summed up, “I cook, I clean, I go home. They don’t have to worry about anything.” The chef does some of the prep work before he arrives. For parties of nine or more, he hires the help of an experienced server.
Either customers have a menu in mind or they can collaborate with the chef. Sample dishes can be found on the website.
Among the menu of possible appetizers are these delicacies: Marinated Grilled Octopus with Arugula and Lemon, Viking Village Scallops Wrapped in Prosciutto or Bacon, Escargot, Oysters Rockefeller, Tuna Tartare, Sirloin Beef Tips on Toast or Skewers, Baby Lamb Chops, Crab & Spinach Puff Pastry, and French cheese platter. Soups include Lobster Bisque, Butternut Squash, Gazpacho, Cream of Cauliflower or Asparagus. The seafood, poultry and meats list goes on to include Bronzino, Orata, Duck Confit, Veal Tenderloin, Rack of Lamb, and Coq Au Vin.
The private dining service buys the food and prices it for the customer. It’s up to the customer how long they would like to have service; a typical party lasts two to four hours. “I work with the flow; I don’t rush people,” Pons said.
Private cooking classes were a natural extension.
“It started with multiple requests from our customers, ‘Can you teach us how to make this?’” shares the story on the website. “Next to cooking, Francis truly enjoys sharing his vast knowledge of cooking and baking with others. Soon he was teaching friends and beloved customers how to make a decadent birthday cake or that ‘one special meal’ for a romantic dinner. Francis and the students would enjoy the final creation over wine or coffee, happily enjoying some social time. We knew this would be another part of our new direction: cooking classes by Francis.”
During his spare time, Francis loves fishing with friends, making flies for his fly fishing hobby, woodworking and traveling with Malotta. He has three sons, ages 31, 29, 27, and two granddaughters. This past January, the couple visited Pons’ native southwest France. They always bring back ideas, but what was special was that his mom cooked for him.
“They had a battle of the wills: Who could make the better apple tart?” Debra recalled affectionately.
Besides a passion for cooking, Francis and Malotta have a strong passion for their Long Beach Island region community. They have supported local and statewide nonprofits and personally support events like the Lighthouse International Film Festival.
“We have a very strong work ethic and high expectations of ourselves so we give only our best to our customers. It’s who we are and how we work. Since we started on this private dining journey, we couldn’t be happier. And so are our customers.”
Private Dining By Francis is booking for 2022. The website is francissurfcity.com. Call 917-400-4431 for more details.
— Maria Scandale