What were family meals like?
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Grocery store food. We did a lot of canning when my grandparents were still alive. They actually were on a farm. So I grew up on their farm. We did a lot of farming, a lot of smoking, composting, you name it, dairy farming, that’s the way I grew up. My parents didn’t. They weren’t a chip off the old block, so to speak. My mom couldn’t cook. At all. That’s why I almost had to learn how to cook. She was horrible. She’ll say this to your face: “I can’t (cook).” I kinda had to work on that when I was younger.
Who was your cooking model?
My grandmother. My mother’s mother. I grew up on her farm. She was an outstanding cook. She was of Romanian descent. So I’m part German, part Romanian.
My mother’s mother cooked everything from scratch, like people did back then. A lot of stuff was grown there on the farm. Or accessed very locally — traded, bartered with other farmers, things like that. She did a lot of neat stuff. Sorta Old World — Eastern European stuff, goulashes, borscht, all kinds of stuff kids today really don’t get. She did all that stuff. It was really cool.
When did you begin to think, “Maybe I could do food professionally?”
It wasn’t until I was probably 19 or 20. I worked in kitchens when I was younger. And when I got out of high school, I went to (Hagerstown Community College). I got my associate’s degree. The whole time I was working in kitchens. I said “I’m not working in kitchens, there’s not no way. I want to go to college and get a job, like every normal person.”
So I got my associate’s, and I got a normal desk job, and I hated it. I couldn’t take it. It was the most horrible job. No way! There’s no way! So I hopped back in the kitchen.
Did you go to culinary school?
I started at (a culinary school in) Pittsburgh for a very limited amount of time. It was literally three weeks. I said, “This isn’t for me.” Because a lot of the stuff that I was learning, I already knew. Now I didn’t really give it a fair shake. I was a lot younger. But I decided to go it on my own.
I guess I had a natural affinity for (cooking), because I’ve always gotten promoted, from the time I was a little kid. I would move around the Frederick (Md.) area, I would find a chef that I liked, get a job there for a couple years, I would apprentice, which in my field is your normal, accepted way to learn. So I already had sort of the business background from my stint at HCC, and the culinary thing kind of worked out. And here I am.
Are you the executive chef at Meritus?
The official title is chef, food production manager. I started seven years ago, Feb. 22. It was my middle daughter, Hadley’s, birth day. She was born in Washington County Hospital. I started the following day. I was actually in the hospital for orientation that day, and my wife went home with the baby.
I directly oversee 27 (workers), and I indirectly oversee another 70. We have right about 100 (workers) in nutrition services.
You must use a lot of institutional, bulk food. Do you buy local at all?
We try to access as much as we can local, sustainable. We get, for example, we get all of our lettuces hydroponically grown out of Waynesboro. We get all our tomatoes from the same hydro farm. We do all kinds of stuff like that.
Part of the reason I wanted to profile you was to learn more about two programs — Fryerless Fridays and Meatless Mondays.
Meatless Mondays were started during World War I. There’s a slogan: “Rationing will win the war.” It ... got restarted during World War II (and) reinstituted about 2000 by the (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) as a way to spare animals. Health care has (promoted eating meals without meat) within the past five or six years. It’s something we (at Meritus) looked at in the past couple years. We said, “I don’t know if we can do this. What are people going to say?” We thought about it and then this wellness program came along, and it was a natural fit.
With Fryerless Fridays, you’re leading up to doing without the fryer completely. Tell me about that.