Known for their fresh take on steakhouse ambiance, upscale menu, wine selection and five star service, Eddie Merlot’s has taken the Midwest by storm with locations in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and most recently, Illinois, in Burr Ridge, Warrenville and Lincolnshire.
2013 promises to be another stellar year for the mini chain with new openings scheduled in Bloomfield, Michigan, Pittsburgh and Denver. At the core of it all, is the company’s Executive Chef, Tony Dee.
This is a lifestyle, not a job
Executive Chef, Tony Dee says food was a big thing in his family, so much so, in fact, that he and his grandparents would, “plan vacations around where they wanted to eat” when he was a kid. When he “had to get a job” to support his high school sports activities, he went to work as a dishwasher at the local sports bar & grill. Dee’s first culinary caper occurred one Friday night when the owner of the restaurant asked him to fill in at the last minute for the cook who took ill suddenly.
Did he know what he was doing?
“That’s what the owner asked me,” smiled Dee. “I hadn’t been officially trained, but I’d cooked for my buddies and watched the cooks at the bar long enough to know what I was supposed to do. We managed to save the shift that night and from that moment on I began ‘filling in’ more and more. Three months later, I took a job as a cook at the local country club.”
When Tony graduated high school several years later, he was hooked, turning down football scholarships and opting instead for culinary school. He chose Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. One of the first culinary schools to offer business management curriculum for the restaurant/hospitality industry, Dee saw the JWU program as a career growth must have. He continued to work as a cook throughout his college years and returned home after graduation as a highly experienced emerging chef.
Zigzagging north to south and north again, Tony worked for name restaurant groups, such as Cameron and Barton G, “This is a lifestyle, not a job,” declared Dee, “lots of travel and sacrifice.” He further honed his management skills when he accepted an offer to work for a private hospitality firm in the British Virgin Islands in the role of Food & Beverage Director managing four restaurants. “I’m glad I did that because it gave me a renewed appreciation for the U.S.”, says Dee referring to the rampant lack of food safety and sanitation there.
Crediting much of his career growth to being, “fortunate to have met many great people”, Dee shared it was another chance event which led him to his current position. “I was at a charity event and went to the bar to get a drink. It was right after I had come back to the U.S., and I didn’t know most of the people that were there. I struck up a conversation with a guy at the bar; we immediately hit it off and spent a good time chatting. At one point, I told him I’d just moved back and was looking for my next opportunity. He said to me, ‘ I know, your resume is on my desk’ – it was Bruce Kraus, Director of Operations for Eddie Merlot’s. Shortly after, I was offered the Executive Chef position in Indianapolis. Last fall I moved to the Chicago area as the Executive Chef responsible for all locations.”
Taking Care of Business
How do Executive Chefs spend their time? Managing an ever-growing multi state operation of any kind takes organization and discipline – both inherent to Dee. He says he, “tries to do breakfast – coffee, juice, yogurt – check emails and get to his first location by 8 each morning…the phones usually start by then.” Vendor calls, catching up with Bruce, handling personnel issues and production needs fill the majority of the morning until he leaves to check in at another location. Always keeping menu and management in check, he tries to talk to “at least two” chefs every day.
What is the hardest challenge for any upscale restaurant?
“Sourcing! Getting the product you want affordably. Portion sizes are shrinking now because prices cannot continue to rise – 85% of restaurants fail in the first 11 months.”
What do you think makes a restaurant with great food even greater?
“Quality service. When I was in my 20’s I was going to catch the mistake you made, but you have to know how to deal with people – one bad meal delivery doesn’t make a bad restaurant. Knowing how to handle mistakes when they happen is crucial. We make sure our chefs are trained properly so they can train cooks better, who can train other staff better, and so on. Training…for us, it really starts with whom you hire – not just for their experience, but for their personality too.”
What do you see as a change in customer trend?
“People go out to eat today; they don’t dine; they don’t enjoy anymore. The experience has changed. No one gets dressed up to go out anymore … but the ‘good china’ shouldn’t just come out for the holidays. I don’t want people to stop – lose their passion for the food they eat – I want them to have a great meal with family and friends …it’s about the experience.”
Asked if he’d ever be interested in doing a cooking show, Dee quickly replies, “8 million people will see you make mistakes”. He is thankful for the role TV has played in nurturing public interest for the culinary arts and attributes much of the “foodie revolution” to “culinary ed-u-tainment”.
Closest to his heart is teaching. Dee would love to pay it forward and help kids go to culinary school.