Greg Manning: The Neighborhood Chef Award 2012

Chef Greg Manning wins the 2012 Neighborhood Chef Award in Cooking Light's Trailblazing Chef Awards.
Tim Cebula

Since opening Serenity Café just over a year ago, Greg Manning has built a fiercely loyal following in the Jersey shore town of Toms River. The kind of customers who come out in force to cast more than 6,000 votes for him in our online vote for best neighborhood restaurant chef award—25 percent of the total national voting. These are the loyal sort of customers who fill his restaurant at 7 p.m. on a weeknight.

Serenity's part of the Shore is not exactly the heart of fine dining; far from it. The explanation for Manning’s success is that he definitely sets a higher bar. Ask a few of Serenity’s regulars to explain the attraction, and one word repeats: creative. His fans say what excites them the most about his food are the unlikely flavor combinations: duck with vanilla sauce, or Asian-flavored spring rolls with huckleberry-red wine reduction. “I love to experiment,” Manning says. “Crazy things go together, they just have to make sense in your mouth.”

Serenity regular and Toms River native Donny Sanders affirms the appeal: “He does things that are, for this area, really out in left field. He’s probably the most creative guy around.”

Another customer, Karl Schlenker, describes Manning’s cooking style as “American creative eclectic.”

Manning overhauls his menu every three weeks. He says some of his biggest hits of the past year include a lobster potpie and an item he says he will never remove from the menu again: the unlikely sounding Buffalo calamari with Gorgonzola sauce—but then, at some point buffalo chicken wings must have sounded pretty unlikely, too.

“It came off the menu once, and I got crucified for it, so I promised I’d never take it off again.”