The old adage that you don’t eat at a jazz club is being disproved on a regular basis by John Chambal at a haunt in Tarrytown devoted to America’s Great Musical Idiom. Here, the recipe for success includes a chef with a local following and fond memories of his Rivertown childhood.
Chambal, a veteran caterer who helmed the restaurant and prepared meals emporium Good Food in Briarcliff Manor for nearly a decade, has been in charge of the food operation at Jazz Forum since 2020, and judging by the steady stream of dinners, salads and desserts leaving the small kitchen on a recent visit, music fans are on to the fine chow at the club.
For the most part, Chambal’s work as the chef at Jazz Forum encompasses the three days when the club is in operation, Friday through Sunday, plus preparations on Thursday, when he is simmering the Bolognese sauce for the fusilli or rolling up the all-beef small plate meatballs, two of the club’s signature dishes. Also, on the Sunday evenings when the club presents Brazilian jazz, Chambal is in early to make feijoada (pronounced fay-jwah-dah), a smoked sausage, pork and bean stew that is the national dish of Brazil and served as a one-night special.
The rest of the limited menu at Jazz Forum revolves around staples in classic Italian cuisine favored by the club’s proprietors, trumpet / flugelhorn player Mark Morganelli and his wife and business partner, Ellen Prior—antipasti, burrata on salad, seasonal soup offerings and platters with cured meats and cheeses, along with dinner-sized portions of farro with vegetables, free range chicken and roasted salmon. Complementing the savories for sweet tooths are cannoli and gelato, of course, and Chambal’s unique takes on apple crisp and fudge brownies.
Asked what Jazz Forum patrons seemed to enjoy the most out of his kitchen, Chambal quickly exclaims, “They like it all!”
The real trick, Chambal notes, is getting all of the orders out within a tight time constraint. The club presents music in two sets, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and because each set lasts usually from 75 to 90 minutes long, drink and food service cannot dawdle. On nights when there is a full house, there can be nearly 100 people being served each set.
“Mark and Ellen have a real passion for food, so we bring in great produce, prepare it nicely and get it out as fast as possible,” Chambal says. “It’s a challenge every weekend, but also very satisfying for me professionally. We know people don’t go out to jazz clubs for the food. OK, but why not? The idea was to create a situation in which people know they’ll get a great meal when they come here and judging from the feedback that’s what we have accomplished.”
Chambal grew up in Elmsford, attended Tarrytown schools and was chums with Charlie Breitenbach, whose family owned a bakery on Dixon Lane that is now the site of Jazz Forum. After school he would visit Charlie at the bakery – “the smell of the cakes and breads being baked was incredible,” he said. By the time he was 11, Chambal was earning two dollars an hour washing dishes at the Washington Irving Boat Club. He graduated from Sleepy Hollow High School and moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked in different restaurants for 10 years, and advanced through the Hyatt kitchen management program before returning to Tarrytown and working as a baker for caterer Abigail Kirsch for two years before opening a catering business, Custom Cuisine. Beginning in the early 1990s, Morganelli was a regular customer of Chambal’s catering biz for the backstage spread at Music Hall concerts he was presenting through his nonprofit Jazz Forum Arts.
Now 58, Chambal lives in Elmsford and spends off hours running an organic farm at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, the seasonal source of much of the produce used at Jazz Forum. He runs an award-winning wine operation there as well. In his spare time, he races sail boats and also kayaks on the Hudson. On any given night at Jazz Forum, Chambal can pop his head out of the kitchen and see some old Good Food customers still hungering for his meals and familiar faces from the Tarrytowns.
Jazz Forum opened in June 2017, and three previous cooks had bit the biscotti before Chambal signed on.
“John is so easy to get along with—and he cooks really well,” said Prior. “Initially, we were not here to be a restaurant, but now we want to celebrate what he does. The food he makes is delicious.” Prior added that it was Chambal’s idea to make dinners with the club’s unused inventory and donated them to the local food pantry during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. “We are just so proud of John—we don’t want to ever lose him! And did you know he likes to sing when he is cooking?”