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Tastemakers: Where are They Now?

February 8, 2010

by Monsieur Anton

In May of 2008, Cleveland was emerging on the culinary landscape.  No longer was the North Coast nationally known as a city where pierogies and White Castle passed for fine dining.  Six months prior, Michael Symon had won a Food Network competition to become an Iron Chef, and his notoriety had shone a spotlight on the other wonderful chefs in Cleveland.

This attention led Cleveland Magazine to do a feature on the chefs they named as the “Tastemakers” for the region.  These were chefs, profiled by John Long, Laura Taxel, Douglass Trattner and Michelle Venorsky that raised the bar for our local culinary scene, placing C-town on the map.  As we enter the new decade let’s take a look back at how these chefs have done since then, and look forward to the future.

Jonathon Sawyer The Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate had stepped out of the shadow of his former employer Symon and was doing some exciting things at Bar Cento.  His simple food done well, along with tasty upscale pizza brought life to West 25th.  He has since left for greener pastures, The Greenhouse Tavern to be precise, which he opened to rave reviews, being named one the “Top 10 New Restaurants” in the country by Bon Appetit. He has led the charge for sustainable ingredients with The Greenhouse Tavern being named Ohio’s first certified green restaurant.  Sawyer has certainly worked his way up to be considered one the area’s signature chefs.

Michael Symon What can be said about Cleveland’s Iron Chef that hasn’t been said before?  He is the face of the region’s culinary scene on the national level.  At the time of the article Symon had Lolita in Tremont and had opened Lola on East 6th.  Since then he has opened Bar Symon in Avon Lake and the B Spot in Woodmere along with incarnations of those two eateries in Quicken Loan Arena.  He’s even ventured into that state up north with the award winning Roast in Detroit.  Somewhere in between all of that he appears in his role as Iron Chef the Food Network show while developing new programming for the network.  His first cookbook Live to Cook was all the rage with foodies this past holiday season.  Through it all this Prince of Pork has stayed true to his Cleveland roots, always finding time to make local appearances while staying connected to his restaurants.

Dante Boccuzzi The time since the article was written has been trying for the talented Boccuzzi.  He had taken over Lockkeeper’s in Valley View.  Upon leaving that spot and ceding it back to the previous owners he set upon opening Restaurant Dante in an old bank building in Tremont.  Things did not go smoothly for Boccuzzi with restaurant issues taking a back seat to cancer.  After a long fight the cancer is gone and despite many delays Restaurant Dante has opened to huge crowds.  Through it all Dante has displayed the culinary skills honed working under famed chef Charlie Palmer.  With a clean bill of health, things are looking bright for the rock and roll chef.

Steve Schimoler Schimoler may be Cleveland’s version of Alton Brown merging science and food to a delicious end.  Schimoler has also been a leader in using locally produced food in his restaurant Crop Bistro.  His innovative vision never loses site of the basic rules of fine food and respect for the ingredients.  He has established an online farmer’s market to link local growers with cooperative on-profit venture to promote the Cleveland music scene.  Other more media conscious chefs may get more notoriety, but few have given back as much to the community than Schimoler.

Heather Haviland Every good roster of chef’s needs a great pastry chef and that is where Heather Haviland comes in.  The self taught Haviland opened Lucky’s Tavern in Tremont and became known for her luscious pastries and homemade lunches.  Another avid proponent of locally grown food, Haviland has since branched her operation out to the east side of town’s Larchmere District with the Vine & Bean Café expanding her offerings to dinner time.  The Vine & Bean in a converted Victorian home has been a hit with foodies and critics alike drawing numbers of fans for the Sunday brunch.  Perhaps nobody in town has done so much with such small spaces as Haviland.

Rocco Whalen One Cleveland’s most recognizable chef’s, Whalen struck an imposing figure.  The large, bald owner/chef of Fahrenheit in Tremont has shed quite a few pounds while adhering to a healthier lifestyle.  Luckily his food still tastes as it good as it ever has.  Rocco’s fine fusion cuisine with a strong Asian influence has landed Fahrenheit on many critics’ top restaurant lists.  He has carried the torch for the local restaurant scene being very visible both in town and national events such as representing Cleveland in the Taste of the NFL event in which he is in South Florida doing as we speak.

Annie Chu Sun Luck Garden in Cleveland Heights defines the word unassuming.  This little gem in a small strip regularly puts out some of the best Asian food to be found in these parts.  Owner/chef Annie Chu is not shy about taking traditional Chinese dishes and infusing elements of other cuisines.  She is one of the most unheralded chefs in the city.  Chu had to close down Sun Luck Garden for awhile last year as she battled health problems.  As a show of solidarity, a who’s who of Cleveland chefs bonded together for a culinary event to benefit Chu.  Happily both Chu and Sun Luck Garden are both on their feet again.

Doug Katz One of the city’s most popular chefs, Katz launched the renaissance of Shaker Square’s food scene with Fire Food & Drink.  Fire may be one of the most consistent local eateries both from a commercial and culinary standpoint.  As standing president of Cleveland Independents, Katz drew national publicity taking on CNBC’s Suze Orman who urged people to not go to restaurants for a month to save money.  Katz rightly pointed out in an open letter published in newspapers across the country that doing so would cripple one of the nation’s largest industries.  Fortunately people found Katz more credible than Orman.

Eric Williams Williams’ Ohio City Mexican restaurant Momocho spawned a new modern element on Mexican food and in doing so took the cuisine to another level.  His dishes have a complexity not usually found in food from south of the border.  Williams has since gone on to buy the Happy Dog hot dog joint in Gordon Square that features dozens of gourmet toppings for the franks and live music.  Hey, if Michael Symon can open a hamburger place, Williams can do hot dogs.

Jonathon Bennett Through attention to detail and an innovative palate Bennett made Moxie a destination spot for foodies.  He is able to blend various cuisines together to create stunning plates that dazzle the eyes and taste pretty darn good too.  The extended run that Moxie has had is a testament to him.

John Kolar Kolar took fine dining to Medina County.  He established his global culinary vision working under Doug Katz, and famed Manhattan chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten before being the opening chef at Three Birds.  Venturing out on his own he took a chance that fine dining would be well revived away from the core of the restaurant scene.  Because of his talent as a chef, it has.

Karen Small Smalls Ohio City bistro has established a loyal following based on its eclectic atmosphere and quality food.  Her dishes can change with the seasons but always reflects an adherence to tradition country cooking; and I mean that in the best way.

Marlin Kaplan If longevity determines the quality of the chef, then Marlin Kaplan is right up there.  Previous to the Cleveland Magazine article Kaplan had paved the way for others opening Marlin’s on East 6th at a time when nobody was taking a chance on downtown.  His faith was rewarded as it became the spot for power dinners among the city’s elite.  Then came One Walnut on East 9th, and with it Kaplan’s continued growth as a chef.  Then, as the article was coming out Kaplan took a chance on another neighborhood that others had eschewed, the Gordon Square district at West 65th and Detroit with Luxe.  Luxe has been a lightning rod for development in the area, and it may very well be the next trendy food spot in town, and it will owe much of it to Marlin Kaplan.

Shawn Monday Probably the least widely known chef on the list Monday opened Downtown 140 in Hudson with his wife Tiffany to rave reviews.  If they were in a trendier or even closer location, he would be much more well known.  His take on small plates with variances on Asian influences as well as unique flavor combinations has netted wonderful results.

Zach Bruell Along with Kaplan the elder statesman of this list, Bruell has fronted a string of successful restaurants dating back to the 80’s with Z Contemporary Cuisine.  He has remained a busy man.  Back in 2008, Bruell was riding high on the popularity of Tremont’s Parallax, and shortly after the Cleveland Magazine article, Esquire magazine was named one of the nation’s “top 20 new restaurants.”  Not resting on his laurels, nor a one trick pony, Bruell has since opened L’Albatros, a French bistro in University Circle, and in the last couple of weeks Chianto , a high end Italian concept on East 4th.  He is undoubtedly the busiest chef in town this side of Michael Symon.

Brandt Evans Evans is a big guy who tends toward big flavors at Blue Canyon in Twinsburg.  He has also established himself as a mentor to younger chefs.  After making a name for himself at Kosta’s the former Tremont eatery Brandt went bigger and bolder with Blue Canyon, and it has paid off.

It is interesting to look back on these chefs in the time since Cleveland Magazine wrote the article.  All of the chefs are still on the scene, quite remarkable given the volatility of the restaurant business in current economy.  Some of them such as Symon, Bruell, Williams, Kaplan and Haviland have expanded their brand with additional venues.  Others like Boccuzzi and Sawyer have opened up their own places.  This says a lot about the Cleveland market.  As depressed as the economy may be Clevelanders are embracing their newfound reputation as a culinary hotbed.

Another thing that stands out when looking back on the list over the perspective of time is the shifting geography of the scene.  Once centered on Tremont as the crown jewel, restaurant districts are popping up on East 6th, Shaker Square, University Circle, Gordon Square, Ohio City, the Warehouse District and points beyond, even in neighboring counties.

Looking forward, what chefs should be on future lists?  I’ll start off the discussion with Sergio Abramof of Sergio’s and Sarava (he probably should have been on the 2008 list), Matt Fish of Melt, and Fabio Salerno of Gusto, Grotto and Lago.  Who do you see for future lists?

Chef Gusteau: Definitely an impressive list of culinary talent.  Alas you will not see Chef Gusteau’s name on such lists as he continues to resist opening his own restaurant, much to the dismay of Anton (who’d be hired instantly to run the front of the house!).  I am surprised that the Hotel Restaurant chefs and their respective establishments haven’t fared as well.  There was a time when Sans Souci (Renaissance) , Hyde Park, and Muse (Ritz) would garner a lot of attention.  Although Table 45 at the Intercontinental Hotel does well, it might well be due to Zach Bruell’s talent and ownership as opposed to any influence the hotel my have, if any.

Perhaps there is something to be said about the value of a recognizable and “famous” chef as the head of any restaurant, which appears rather obvious.  If true, does that mean part of the food trend has become more paparazzi than sincere food appreciation?  As long as these chefs maintain their food quality and efforts, their restaurants will avoid being considered as “places to be seen, but not necessarily places to have a great meal.”  Currently this core group of superstar chefs noted here remains consistent and true benchmarks of the Cleveland Food Scene.  The critical next phase will be the up and coming group of talented chefs within the next few years that will add another layer of complexity to the area, hopefully inspiring and challenging these chefs even further.  I truly believe that some of Cleveland’s best chefs have yet to be recognized, and continue to “secretly” cook and serve fabulous food daily without any attention…neither sought out nor received…because cooking is what they love to do…which is they key ingredient binding all great chefs together.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 5, 2010 3:51 am

    Coney Island hot dogs from Detroit pwn all other hot dogs!

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