David Viana is in complete control at the pass in his open kitchen, where he calmly plates dishes before they are picked up and taken to tables. There is no anxiety on his face as he delicately spoons sauce onto a plate, no panic in his movements as he deliberately arranges each ingredient. He smiles often as he talks with his staff, a genuine sense of ease and comfort emanating from him. This aura of tranquility is something not always seen, nor easily attained, in an industry notorious for its stress-inducing work environment, but Viana, at the age of 42, seems to have figured it out.
Viana is partner and executive chef at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, a restaurant and cooking school founded in 2013 by Neilly Robinson and her mother, Judy Rosenblum. Viana, who has over two decades of cooking experience, joined the team in 2016 and has worked with Robinson to establish Heirloom as one of the best restaurants in New Jersey. For Viana, being brought onto the team was a windfall of good fortune after a long period of instability.
“By the time I met Neilly and Heirloom, I was about to quit,” he says. “Neilly is the one who talked me out of it.”
The two were brought together through their mutual friend Dan Richer, owner of the lauded Jersey City pizzeria Razza. Robinson had been holding dinners at Heirloom featuring guest chefs and connected with Viana for a collaboration on Richer’s advice. At the time, Viana was working as executive chef at the Kitchen at Grove Station, where he received critical praise from the New York Times and was awarded three stars by New Jersey Monthly. After being blown away by his food, Robinson invited Viana to come and host a dinner.
“He was very impressive,” Robinson says. “The dinner was great, and I think he definitely felt a kinship to Heirloom and our space and what we were doing. It was just a very natural, organic fit.”
A few months later, Viana and his team ended up leaving Grove Station. He continued holding dinners at Heirloom and also helped Robinson teach a few cooking classes, but eventually moved on to open Barrio Costero in Asbury Park.
“It was a crazy, crazy opening for him,” Robinson says. “He was working 80-plus-hour weeks, just working to the bone.”
However, Viana came to realize that Barrio was not a good fit for him and made the decision to walk away. With yet another failed attempt added to his name, Viana was at a crossroads in his career.
“I was like, ‘OK, I think I’ve hit my wall,’” he says. “I haven’t really gotten anywhere. My bank account is always empty. I’m living paycheck to paycheck. … I haven’t found a level of success that I thought I could. It’s not everybody else’s fault anymore at this point. I can only look in the mirror.”
Viana, whose parents emigrated from Portugal, was raised in Elizabeth. He had never envisioned for himself a life on the line—a life of burns and cuts and measurements. Instead, he had every intention of going to law school after attending Seton Hall for criminal justice. Upon graduation, Viana took a job as a probation officer in Union County and quickly understood he had chosen the wrong field.
“I realized once I got involved in the criminal justice system and the court system that it was really soul-sucking and corrupt,” he says. “I realized it was not what I thought it was.”
While deciding his next steps, Viana looked back fondly at his time working in restaurants throughout college. Though he never took those jobs seriously, he began to reconsider his position on cooking as a career.
“I started thinking, ‘Maybe I belong in the kitchen,’” he says. “I was enjoying my day better even when I was doing something that was much more tedious and arduous and paid less.”
So, he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and completed a one-year program in 2003. His career started in the city working under chefs like Bobby Flay and Michael White. His talents eventually landed him a position at Eleven Madison Park, a dream come true for any cook looking to join the big leagues.
The perfection demanded in that kitchen started to wear on Viana and the burnout so many fine dining chefs experience began to set in. This led him to take on a six-month stage in Portugal, where he worked at the two Michelin starred Vila Joya. He made the move back to Jersey and worked his way through different kitchens, but those feelings of exhaustion never let up.
“The signs were all there,” he says. “I was just blowing past all of them because I wanted so badly to be a chef and to be successful at it. I was really creating my own fucking spiral of bad choices with bad people.”
After he left Barrio, Robinson approached Viana with an offer to be a partner at Heirloom and help her run a weekend supper club. When Robinson had originally opened Heirloom, it was only as a cooking school and retail boutique. She started hosting dinners to try and bring in more revenue, but the novel concept was still struggling to survive. Bringing on Viana to start a part-time restaurant was a last-ditch effort to try and save her business. “We both had nothing to lose,” Viana says. “That right there is very powerful.”
Seven years later, Viana and Robinson now have a thriving business. Aside from the original Heirloom location, they have also opened an outpost at the St. Laurent Social Club in Asbury Park and are working on a new concept in Strathmore set to open this spring, Lita. Named after Viana’s mother and inspired by his Portuguese upbringing, Lita will spotlight the food he grew up eating—food he now looks back on with a twinge of sentimental pleasure.
The idea for Lita came about during the pandemic lockdowns, when Viana had found himself with a lot of extra time to cook.
“I started finding this moment of wanting to recreate certain things that I had in my childhood that I hadn’t had in a long time,” he says. Food always played an important role in Viana’s life. His family used to gather every Sunday at his grandmothers for dinner, where they would spend time together around a large communal table.
“My grandmother made everything from scratch,” he says. “I’d literally be sitting there having breakfast and I’d see her start plucking a chicken for lunch. She was always covered in blood or something. It used to freak me out.”
Viana says he didn’t realize it then, but it was watching his grandmother all those years ago that instilled in him the passion for cooking he now has. With Lita, Viana wants to reinvigorate that food of his youth while doing justice to his grandmother—presenting her dishes to a new audience so that they can revel in nostalgia with him.
Viana is no longer cynical about cooking or his life in the kitchen, a fact with which he entirely credits Robinson.
“Having someone let you do the thing you know best and trust your judgment was a big thing that I hadn’t found yet,” he says. “And that’s what Neilly brought to the table.”
Viana has now found the level of success he was searching for, although he jokingly admits he’d feel unfulfilled if he dies without getting a Michelin Star.
“I know that I’m a chef in New Jersey, so that’s not likely,” Viana says. “But, you know, life is long. I don’t know where I’ll be next.”
For more info on Heirloom Kitchen’s Old Bridge and Asbury Park locations, and Lita, go to heirloomkitchen.com.