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Six chefs — six stories


For one, it was to pursue the American dream.

For another, his parents thought it would be a good way to keep him out of trouble.

For all, it’s about crafting food to make people happy.

We all have a story about how we came to where we are in life. The six chefs who were interviewed about how they compete with chain restaurants also took time to explain their paths to success.

Sarah R. Brown

Sackets Harbor Brew pub

Miss Brown, 28, lived in Sackets Harbor year-round until she was 5 years old. Her family then moved to Massachusetts, where her father was a professor at Bentley University in Waltham. But Miss Brown would return to Sackets Harbor in summers, and she landed a job at the Brew Pub when she was 12.

“I was like the assistant hostess,” she said. “I used to come in on weekends and show people to their tables. I wasn’t doing much, but it was something for me to do.”

She later became the restaurant’s “salad girl.” Less than a decade ago, she took culinary classes in Jefferson Community College’s hospitality and tourism program. She became executive chef at Sackets Harbor Brew Pub three years ago.

Food at the microbrewery doesn’t take a back seat to the beer, Miss Brown said.

“We do have a lot of beer connoisseurs in here, but also people who just know this is a good place they can come and get a good meal,” she said. “Tom and Pearl (owners Thomas W. Scozzafava and Pearl H. Ashcraft) give me a lot of creative leeway. I want to try and see what I can do.”

Brenda T. Cavallario

Cavallario’s Cucina

“I believe all of us have a calling,” Mrs. Cavallario said on a sunny morning at one of the tables that line the restaurant’s row of windows overlooking North Massey Street. “Since I was a very young girl, I always enjoyed cooking and preparing food.”

She laughed when asked if she was brought up in an Italian household, as the “cucina” (Italian for kitchen) name would indicate.

“I don’t have a drop of Italian in me,” she said. “My mother always said I was a wannabe. It’s the passion for the food.”

Mrs. Cavallario and her husband, Peter G., have worked in the restaurant business for more than 30 years. They both started out working at Cavallario’s in Alexandria Bay, owned by Peter’s parents, Frank and Concetta.

Brenda was 15 when she began dating Peter. Three years later, she began working at the restaurant.

“I was just dating him, and his family had a summer restaurant, so I just went to work for his parents,” Brenda said.

She became a self-taught chef and has won awards along the way. In 2007, her veal roulade al verde won awards at the Beef Council’s Veal Platinum Plate contest, an “iron chef”-type event held at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Ontario County.

Mrs. Cavallario gets her creative instincts from her mother, K. Suzanne Chellis.

“I had the advantage of growing up in a household that entertained,” Mrs. Cavallario said. “This was back in the ’70s when cuisine was first labeled ‘gourmet.’ My mom let me in the kitchen to do whatever I wanted to do — from salad to dessert.”

In 2002, the Cucina relocated from Eastern Boulevard to its current location to enhance its lunch business. Change is part of the restaurant business, the couple noted, and Mr. Cavallario said he and his wife share a key trait.

“Being brought up as hard workers, we persevere through the challenges,” he said.

Henry Fischer

Ives Hill Country Club

Mr. Fischer, 29, grew up in Cologne, Germany, and came from a family that loved to cook. He became interested in cooking by watching his great-grandmother, who owned a restaurant.

“My whole family cooks and everybody is cooking all the time,” Mr. Fischer said. “When you walk into one of my family members’ houses, it always smells like someone is cooking.”

He got his start early in the food business. His father was a friend of a baker and neighbor, which led to a job for young Henry.

“When I was 7, I started carrying small bags of flour,” he said.

Mr. Fischer trained in Germany at a culinary college and later at two highly regarded restaurants in Cologne and Lehrbach. He also trained in Naples, Italy, and lived for a while in France.

“Then I came back to Germany as an assistant manager of a restaurant,” Mr. Fischer said. “Then I decided to pursue the American dream.”

He scheduled a flight on Sept. 11, 2001, for a job lined up in New York City. The terrorist attacks on the U.S. temporarily grounded planes. For Mr. Fischer, it was a delay of about five days.

Later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and hotel management from the Florida Culinary Institute and landed a job with a catering company that traveled the country hosting such events as celebrity galas in Los Angeles and car shows. He then worked at restaurants in the New York City area.

“I came up here about three years ago through a friend of mine,” Mr. Fischer said.

He began his job at Ives Hill last fall after working at Goodfellos in Sackets Harbor.

Being a chef, Mr. Fischer said, is hard work, but very rewarding.

“I guess we’re the perfect martyrs,” he said. “All our energy goes into our work.”

Matthew J. Hudson

great american grill at Hilton Garden Inn

Mr. Hudson got his first taste of the restaurant business was when he was 14 as a dishwasher at the Harbor Inn in Clayton. He would work there for eight years, moving out of dish duty and learning cooking from chef Roger C. Hyde.

“As I was watching all the cooks on the line and watching Roger make some interesting things, and seeing the reaction people get, it made me want to continue in his footsteps,” Mr. Hudson said.

After graduating from Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, Mr. Hudson, 27, went to Kent Island, Md., where he worked at a conference facility. He was then executive chef of the Lyric Coffee House and Bistro in Clayton for three years.

Mr. Hudson joined Hilton Garden Inn when it opened last September.

“It’s hard, but it’s a fun job in the end,” Mr. Hudson said. “You meet good friends, and everybody you work with is like family.”

Michael Simpson

The Clipper Inn

Mr. Simpson’s family has a long history of being tied to the river. His grandfather on his father’s side was a fishing guide, and his grandparents on his mother’s side were caretakers for Bonnie Castle when it was a seminary.

Mr. Simpson’s parents, the late Maurice and Jayne, leased a hotel in Alexandria Bay for several years before purchasing the Clipper Inn in 1975. Michael and his brother, Patrick, soon had jobs.

“I think they were thinking this would keep both their kids out of trouble,” Mr. Simpson said.

Michael had thoughts of another career after high school and began studying marine science at a Long Island college.

“I had horrible study habits,” Michael said. “I wasn’t into it. For my brother, it was the same deal. I think that was part of my parents’ incentive. They were thinking, ‘These guys don’t have it together.’”

Mr. Simpson would work in restaurants in Florida in the winters, when the Clipper was closed, doing everything from “waiting tables to working in kitchens.”

“It was working at a bunch of different restaurants to see how other people were doing it which really helped a lot,” he said.

He has also taken classes at the Culinary Institute of America at both the Hyde Park and Napa Valley campuses, and has made food-focused trips to Europe.

But a key element of the Clipper Inn’s success, Mr. Simpson said, is a dedicated staff with several long-time employees. The bar manager, Michelle R. “Mitzie” Sullivan, has been at the restaurant for about three decades and was Mr. Simpson’s “best man” when he got married 24 years ago.

Francis Winters has been a chef at the restaurant for 27 years; Matthew Kearns has been a chef there since 1976.

“Having those people stay makes my life easier,” Mr. Simpson said. “It gives the business a real continuity.”

Michael, 58, and his brother bought out his parents in 1983. Michael became sole owner in 1990 as his brother, a former mayor of Alexandria Bay, pursued other business pursuits.

Lori A. Wells

Cafe Mira

Ms. Wells said she “grew up” at the Golden Lion on Arsenal Street. The restaurant, which closed in 1992, was owned by her parents Richard J. and Sharon Wells.

After working for years at the restaurant’s front end, circumstances led her to the kitchen. The Golden Lion’s chef quit when her parents were in Florida for a month.

“I decided I could probably do that,” Ms. Wells said. “I went back there and fell in love with that end of the restaurant, and I never wanted to work out front again after that.”

Ms. Wells, who said she is “totally self-taught,” also worked for about a decade for the Sboro family in Watertown. She worked at Art’s Jug for about two years and was chef and assistant manager at Sboro’s for about a decade.

She said the first time she walked into Cafe Mira she was determined to own it some day. She fell in love with features like its tin ceiling.

Scott and Leta Bodine opened the high-end restaurant in 2004. Ms. Wells and partner Lisa A. Reed took over, through leasing, in 2008. In the spring of 2010, fire caused extensive damage.

“It was a tough time, but it just seemed like people came from all over to pull us through,” Ms. Wells said.

A few months after the fire, the pair bought the restaurant from the Bodines. They drew up a business plan with the help of the Small Business Center at Jefferson Community College.

“We absolutely blew away expectations they had for us,” Ms. Wells said. “We’re getting busier and busier all the time.”

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