The Story of My Life
Food has always been a part of my life. Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, I was inspired by my parents. Dad and I spent lots of time tending to our garden and preserving everything from jam, to beets, to pickles. Mom makes a killer pierogie and the best chicken paprikash. Large meals with our extended family were a staple. It seems like everything we did, somehow involved food.
By age twelve, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I was frequently cooking the family dinners and started reading Bon Appétit for recipe ideas. Even at that age, I would often come up with my own creations. My destiny became more imminent when I asked for a wok for my thirteenth birthday. Yes, a wok!
There was one other love for me growing up. Hockey was my passion. I love the smell of the ice, the calmness of a rink before a 6 am practice and the sound of the blades cutting through the ice. The non-stop action and the aggressiveness of the sport suited my personality.
Sixteen years old and driven by my desire for a car - a 1972 Volkwagen Super Beetle named Estel to be exact - I got my first restaurant job as a bus boy at a local restaurant. I worked like hell and asked a lot of questions. I came in early and on my days off to learn as much as I could from the cooks. Eventually I moved into the kitchen full time and never looked back.
I began traveling to Manhattan on the weekends to stage (stah-zje) in as many restaurants as possible. Staging meant working many hours for free, just for the experience. I learned a lot from many screaming, pan-throwing chefs running kitchens. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was being yelled at for, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, because it helped me get to where I am today.
As part of my degree program, I completed an externship at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. More double shifts. I would work in the morning for my externship and spend the evenings staging at the hotels fine dining restaurant called Peacock Alley. The Waldorf~Astoria was an amazing experience, and not just because the kitchen was a full city block long! It reinforced everything I was learning at school and provided me with a true working foundation.
My next opportunity was at Caliterra in the Wyndham Hotel, running the restaurant and banquets. Eventually I was named regional Executive Chef, managing nine hotels.
During this time I competed at the prestigious Bocuse D’Or USA, the ultimate culinary competition against 27 other countries. There were many long days and nights preparing for the competition, but it was so much fun. It was an honor to be one of the top three chefs in the U.S. both times I competed.
Then I received word that the chef of David Burke’s Primehouse at The James Hotel was leaving. They wanted me to take over, but I was reluctant about moving to a steakhouse, as my cooking style had always been about refinement. But I saw it as an opportunity to grow, and it was a great decision. I get to use my creativity both inside and outside the kitchen for various promotions, marketing and events.
My team includes not only the kitchen staff and front of house, but everyone it takes to run the hotel, from housekeeping to engineering, to the front desk. I take my kitchen crew to farms, to make cheese, to shop at farmers’ markets. We buy whole animals, make our own sausages and challenge each other with internal competitions. It’s a great working environment and I’m fortunate to work with a great staff. It is a very busy place; we always have something going on and I love that.