Ergo Chef: A Cut Above the Rest

If necessity is the proverbial mother of invention, then Ergo Chef is a poster child. This is the story of how a family owned knife company was born.

In 1996, Chef Scott Staib was on the foodservice fast track as Sous Chef for Aramark. Rising through the ranks, the Johnson & Wales graduate was poised for great things – until he was derailed by tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome from the frequent motion of chopping and slicing.

We spoke with Chef Scott’s brother, Mike Staib, VP of Sales & Marketing at Ergo Chef, to find out what happened next…

Uncle George Staib, Shipping Manager

How did your family actually get to the point of making knives?

My mother, father, brother and I were actually sitting around the table one night. Scott had just been to the doctor that day. The doc told him he’d either have to come up with some alternative method or go to “the front of the house”. No way did Scott want to stop cooking – it was heartbreaking for him to imagine that. So, we started putting our heads together…

My brother and some of his chef buddies had a sit down at my dad’s company (Capital Design & Engineering) with my dad and his engineers – I watched. We started looking at how a knife fits into a chef’s hand, wrist movements during chopping and the angle of a knife when it hits a cutting board.

That’s how our ideas for developing an ergonomically sound knife came to fruition. We made a prototype and my brother’s symptoms disappeared within just three weeks of using it.

CrimsonKnifeWOW! That truly is amazing, you must have all been so excited!

We were – we had created a true extension of a chef’s hand.

On the Chopping Block

The next step was testing. We made lots of prototypes and sent them out with questionnaires to chefs, and cooking schools. We collected several years of feedback to make sure it was more than, just a knife for my brother. Over 90% of the people who tested, wanted the product. We thought, ‘hey – we really have something here!’ Then we had to find a manufacturer.

We fumbled in the beginning as many new companies do… dissected the steels, used high carbon from Germany. We went through one run in New York state which didn’t work, and then tried another source in Taiwan, which did incredible work, but we had to remake all the tooling – we almost called it quits.

It wasn’t until 2003 that we had the first great batch, and by 2005, we had a full line. Then we hooked up to an import company in New Jersey. Now, we’re available throughout the US and some parts of Canada. We were in Australia for a while, but the Aussies couldn’t get use to the design.

presidentialsealsWe also heard you are connected to former White House Chefs?               

Yes, we met Sam Morgante, who served as a White House Chef under George W., at a couple of industry shows. He came over and tried our product at the booth and really liked it. Sam then introduced us to former White House Chef, Martin Mongiello, who started the Presidential Culinary Museum. We have some Presidential Food Service Knife Sets on our website now – we truly value working with a veteran owned business.

How many family members work at Ergo Chef?

Our sister, Lori, is the office administrator… and our Uncle – a Vietnam Vet. He retired from the Post Office and said, “he wanted something to do part-time”, so he’s packing and shipping for us now.

L to R at the 2013 Houseware’s Show: Sister, Lori, Chef Randy Smith, Chef Scott Staib and Mike Staib

We rent space for the company in the back of the building of my dad’s business. There’s a door between us, so we can go over there and work with the engineers whenever we need to.

If it wasn’t for our father, we wouldn’t be in business today. He let us use his machines, his engineers – he literally gave us all of our R&D. You take out a loan for the business, and it makes a statement – to have been able to do our R&D like this – it’s huge!

What is your brother’s role?

Uncle George, Ergo Chef Shipping Manager

Uncle George, Ergo Chef Shipping Manager

Scott is actually president of the company, works R&D on new products and handles chef accounts – we found many restaurants rent their knives. He’s cooking only at home now – he actually leaves work, goes home and cooks dinner.

It’s ironic that all this started to keep him professionally nimble and now he’s running the company and not cooking anymore…

Yes! You certainly don’t start out saying, “I’m going to start a knife company!”

…and what were you doing before this all evolved?

I was in sales, marketing my father’s company and ultrasonics – plastic joining – they use the process in the medical field, for cell phones, in the car industry. I learned development of tools there, so I could sit down from the layman’s view with my brother the chef vs. home cooks, etc.

Cut to the Chase

What have been your biggest challenges in marketing the company?

Getting people used to the deErgo Knife Videosign – how do you do that when things are under glass? We just created a video, it has helped us a lot to show people how it works. It’s the angle and the rocking motion that really helps.

Another challenge we face is getting reps to present our products to buyers when they’re looking for new lines in our category. It’s tough when reps are presenting thousands of products – it gets deluded. This is another area where the video has helped.

The other challenge is branding – trying to get our name out there every year without a big budget. Advertising is too expensive. When Professional Chefs and BBQ Chefs use our knives at events, or on TV, we sometimes see a spike, but the internet is where it’s at – we’re trying to work that.

Where can you buy Ergo Chef knives?

You can buy them on Amazon and at gourmet kitchen stores across the country. [There’s a zip code search on their website.] You can also buy directly from our site.

Chef Scott and Mike will be at the International Home & Housewares Show, March 15-18 in Chicago. Stop by and see them at the Ergo Chef booth S 1460.

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For the Love of Chocolate

The French Pastry School at CityFLOC1 Colleges of Chicago has produced some of the most talented pastry chefs in Chicago and around the nation.

Founded by Chefs, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F., the school is known for offering innovative, effective and intensive programs geared to equip students with the abilities to achieve excellence in the pastry, baking and confectionery arts.

Some of the most talented pastry professionals in the world teach at the French Pastry school, dedicated to passing on their knowledge to students who share a passion for pastry artistry.

Foundation Scholarships

For nine years, the For the Love of Chocolate Foundation has held an annual fundraiser, “For the Love of Chocolate Gala”, to help supply future scholarships to students who would not otherwise be able to afford a prestigious education in the pastry arts.

Over 800 people attended thisFLOC2 9th Annual Gala held at the historic 130 year old Union League Club of Chicago, which was transformed into a roaring twenties speakeasy for the event.  Attendees got to experience new pastry artistic themes, innovative pastry creations, entertainment and delectable bites from the best in SABRAGE-GARBINChicago.

The five course dinner was presented by Chef Michael Garbin, featuring a menu inspired by the decadence of the jazz age. Chef Garbin opened dinner by performing a Sabrage, (opening champagne with a saber), it was delightful.

After dinner, guests were treated to the, “Movable Feast and Dessert Dance Party”. There were a myriad of desserts and specialty drinks offered from over 100 event sponsors, including some of Chicago’s best known food service companies, chefs and restaurants. Musical entertainment was presented by The Betty’s, a jazz age trio, absolutely the Bee’s Knees, and by DJ Anacron who Hit on all Sixes. Eva Grandeur’s burlesque show, was definitely the Cat’s Pajamas. 

Ultimate Cake Walk

One of the highlights of the evening was The Great Gâteau Cake Parade, where a showcase of cakes made by twenty local pastry professionals and students from Chicago’s After School Matters program, was preFLOCsented.

Cake designs were inspired by the architecture of the ‘20’s that shaped the Chicago skyline. There were scores of beautifully decorated art deco stylized cakes in vibrant colors capturing the spirit of the era’s architecture, art and the Industrial Age. (See our Flipagram from the event here.)

Paying it Forward

This year’s event raised over $180,000, with all proceeds going to the funding of student scholarships for the school’s two primary programs:

L’Art de la Pâtisserie – a 24-week program in pastry, baking, and confectionery arts education. This intensive program is designed to give students a broad and thorough foundation in the art of pastry and baking, from bread to chocolate to ice cream, and everythinglogo in between.

L’Art du Gâteau – a 16-week program dedicated to the art of cake baking and decorating. Students receive a unique, hands-on training focused on all aspects involving the creation of wedding, celebration, and specialty cakes.

The French Pastry School is dedicated to the art of pastry and to producing the best-prepared professionals entering the industry. Their alumni are changing the face of pastry across the nation while continuing to preserve the traditions of the French masters.

The scholarships raised will be awarded later this year in advance of the next semester. There are over 1,000 students who attend the school each year. Learn more at www.frenchpastryschool.com.

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Meat Picks | 2.21.14

Bearded Chicago

The semi-finalists for the 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards were announced this week. Whittled down fromjames-beard-award-2011-media-2 over 38,000 national entries, being named as a semi-finalist is indeed a big deal, and Chicago is well represented.

Congratulations to all who made the cut and a special shout out to our Chi-town nominees! Here’s the Windy City recap:

Best New Restaurant: Nico Osteria and Brindille

Outstanding Restaurant: Spiaggia

Outstanding Chef: Carrie Nahabedian, Naha

Outstanding Restaurateur: Donnie Madia, One Off Hospitality Group: Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, The Violet Hour, Nico Osterio and Big Star

Outstanding Service: Topolobampo

Outstanding Wine Program: Sepia

Rising Start Chef of the Year: Jimmy Banos Jr., Purple Pig, Matthew Kirkley, L20 and David Posey, Blackbird

Best Chef – Great Lakes: Dave Beran, Next, Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo, Fat Rice, Curtis Duffy, Grace, Paul Fehribach, Big Jones, Phillip Foss, EL Ideas, Ryan McCaskey, Acadia, Iliana Regan, Elizabeth, Jason Vincent, Nightwood, Paul Virant, Vie Restaurant, Erling Wu-Bower, Nico Osteria, Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia

Find the complete Best Chef’s list by region at this link; read the full press release here.

GoodFoodFestGood Food Volunteer

The Good Food Festival will mark its 10th anniversary next month on March 13-15. Festival organizers are looking for volunteers NOW. If you’d like to help out and drink in the atmosphere of good food and local inspiration, click on this link for more info.

Last Minute Picks

Tap the Keg with former Blackhawk, Adrian Aucoin, at Hofbrauhaus tonight at 7:30! (Great way to celebrate the Olympic US hockey teams!)

Sample seafood, local produmercatce and Spanish wines in a “Boqueria” atmosphere at Mercat a la Planxa’s newly renovated Barcelona Room this Saturday at 7 pm. ($45 per ticket. RSVP required: 312-765-0524)

Looking to get a little exercise? Walk the Chicago Golf Show at the Stephens Convention Center this weekend in Rosemont (Jeff Sluman & Robbie Gould will be there on Saturday), or the IKC Dog Show at McCormick Place.

Have a great weekend!

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Puerto Rican Palate: Culture & Cuisine

I recently had the opportunity to escape to San Juan on business. We left Chicago on a cold, snowy February morning and landed a mere four hours later in a sunny tropical Caribbean climate – the juxtaposition of which became one of weather, culture and food.

Photo Feb 07, 11 10 31 AMCulinary Cultures

Originally settled between 3000 – 2000 BC by the Taíno people, Puerto Rico became part of the Spanish Empire after the discovery of the “New World” by Columbus in 1492.  The country was colonized by Spain and remained under Spanish rule for the next 400 years.

In the early 19th century, the Puerto Rican culture was further diversified upon the arrival of people from non-Hispanic countries such as Africa, Ireland, France and Germany. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the United States took over colonial control of Puerto Rico in 1898. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the U.S. today. The evolution of Puerto Rico set the stage for a rich and interesting blend of cultures and cuisines.

Locals refer to Island cuisine as, “cocina criolla” (Creole cooking), which is a unique blend of old and new Island influences. Tropical roots and tubers such as, yautía (taro), and Yuca (cassava), hot peppers and fruits came from Taíno influences. Cilantro, capers, olives, beef, pork and cheese were brought in from Spanish and European influences and coffee, yams, sweet bananas, plantains and Guinea hen are attributed to African influence.

The U.S. coTradtional PR Dishesntribution to Puerto Rican cuisine rests in cooking. Olive oil from Spain was used for cooking and frying, but as it was very expensive to import, locally produced lard was commonly used instead. When U.S. influence introduced corn oil, it changed the way Puerto Rican cooks fried food.

Much of Puerto Rico’s contemporary cuisine is fried today. Some of the Island’s most popular dishes are:

Mofongo: (the most popular dish): Fried mashed plantains mixed with garlic and olive oil filled with vegetables, shrimp, steak, pork, seafood or any combination thereof.

Bacalaítos: (a traditional snack): Deep-fried codfish fritters garnished with cilantro, garlic (mojito) and onions.

Tostones: Double-fried smashed green plantain slices served like French Fries or Potato Chips.

Alcapurria: A doughy mixture of mashed yuca or green plantains filled with heavily seasoned meat and deep fried.

Two Chefs & Their Cuisines

I had the opportunity to experience the best of old and new world Puerto Rican cuisines by spending time with two of the Island’s standout chefs at their restaurants.

One of Puerto Rico’s trendiest restaurants, Marmalade, by Owner/Executive Chef Peter Schintler, is located in Old San Juan. Passionate about vegetarian gastronomy, Chef Schintler emphasizes sophisticated vegetarian and vegan dishes derived from Taíno influences. Carpaccio-style candy stripe beets with shaved fennel and moro blood orange vinaigrette is just one example.

The use of locPhoto Feb 05, 10 17 58 PMal farm to table ingredients coupled with sustainably raised all natural proteins are standard fare at Marmalade. Dishes such as Morrocan-French Style braised Lamb Tagíne and Jardiniére Style Beef Tenderloin are prepared with all natural, sustainably raised lamb and grass fed beef.  The combination is a delightful blend of Puerto Rican aromas and complex flavors.

Chef Schintler is an Iowa native who first came to Puerto Rico as a consultant. A protégé of Master Chef Peter Timmins, Schinlter  has worked at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world such as Le Cirque in New York, Le Manior Aux Quat Saisons in England, and La Contea in Italy.

Outside of old San Juan nePhoto Feb 15, 11 24 22 AMar Santurce’s Plaza del Mercado, a Puerto Rican farmer’s market is where one of the Island’s trendiest chefs, Jose Enrique, has his eponymous restaurant. It is an unpretentious casual restaurant known for serving culinary delights with masterful creativity. 

A personalized menu is created and prepared from scratch daily at Jose Enrique. Natural and organic products are incorporated into the menu with a focus on fresh Puerto Rican produce; climate derived and fresh ingredients direct the day’s menu choices. The menu includes main courses such as, Red Snapper, All Natural Skirt Steak, Rib Eye, Short Ribs and Berkshire Pork and Minutas, the Puerto Rican version of fast foods: Alcapurria stuff crab, Deep Fried Swordfish and Baby Snappers.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Chef Enrique graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1998 and went on to work in restaurants in New York, Florida and Louisiana. He was chosen as a semi-finalist for the 2013 James Beard Foundation award in the category of “Best Chef South”. This was the first time in history a Puerto Rican chef had participated in this award.

Last Stop

Photo Feb 07, 7 16 40 PMPuerto Rico offers a wonderful variety of cuisine, rich with tradition, historical influence and modern gastronomy. Culinary delights can be enjoyed anywhere on the island, from roadside food trucks to elegant restaurants and everything in between. (See the Flipagram here.)

It was a treat to get away from the Midwest winter for a couple of days. People on the Island were laid back – they enjoyed taking in all that life had to offer. Commenting on the relaxed atmosphere one day, someone described the difference between the U.S. and Puerto Rico to us like this: we live to work and you work to live. I couldn’t help but think, ‘exactamundo!’

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Meat Picks | 2.14.14

Upward Trends

dinner-in-the-skyHave you heard that Dinner in the Sky is coming to Las Vegas and other warm weather US towns in the near future?

The concept of elevating diners 180 feet up in the air (to the tune of $500/head) was first developed abroad seven years ago after a marketer and a “bungee jumping impresario” put dinner-in-the-sky-israeltogether an aerial dining event. The response was so great the duo was inspired to franchise the idea.

The US Franchisee says she has 3,500 names on a waiting list and 1,000 corporations with expressed interest in doing events. The Vegas franchise will no doubt debut to high acclaim.

Culinary Controversy

Last month, all H-E-double-toothpicks broke out over a crying 8 month old baby at Alinea. At $200+ a person, Chef/Owner Grant Achatz was compelled to tweet about the situation in real time citing angry diners and wondering if he needs to have a no kid policy – that set the perpetual spinning wheels of the media into overdrive.

Local and national coverage was dense, Huffington, Fox, CNN and Good Morning America, to name a few, then on to the UK, Australia and beyond. Search “Alinea Crying Baby” and you’ll get 28,000+ hits on Google today.AlineaBaby

In addition to igniting a global debate over whether kids belong at upscale restaurants, one other little gem popped up in result: @AlineaBaby. Born of (comic) necessity, @AlineaBaby has over 1,000 Twitter followers and an opinion on everything from, “what’s more annoying than me in a restaurant”, (pretty funny), to commentary on the “boring” opening ceremony of the Olympics.

It’s astounding to think, one infant could stir up such a conundrum. Will Whole Foods’ snow day snafu surpass the reach of Baby Gate? Stay tuned…

Upsell Rough Times

Winter is notoriously slow for hospitality – especially in cold and snowy markets. Find solace in the 80/20 Rule for sales: 80% of revenues come from 20% of the existing customer base. Upselling the customers you do have, can be a vital tool in rough times.

ihopInspiring Reads:

20 Upselling Tactics That Work from Restaurant News – No.14 is particularly intriguing, “Try downselling”.

How I HOP’s New Menu Design Gets Customers to Spend More from Bloomberg Businessweek – layout is king.

Upselling Techniques for Restaurants at SmallBusinessChron.com – offers a list of numerous articles on the subject.

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Chef Ricky Hatfield | Working the Independent Market

Google Peterson’s Restaurant and you’ll see a first page return of four and five star reviews.The Indianapolis steak and seafood hotspot is well known for their ambiance, premium service and “superb” food.

chef in the kitchenPeterson’s Executive Chef, Ricky Hatfield, credits part of their success to the strong team they have in place. Hatfield is a young looking 35 year old pro who did his first cook at the ripe old age of 8.

How did you get your start?

I started off with a small independent, working on the line and going to school while I got my degree.

I worked at Bone Fish, worked under Tony Hanslits, (now Culinary Director at the Chef’s Academy in Indy), for McCormick & Schmick’s and then had the opportunity to be part of an open for a Weber Grill as Sous-chef.

When I finished school, I went to Pennsylvania and worked at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. At that time, the plans were to move my family there, but we couldn’t sell our home. Just as the distance was becoming too hard on my family, the opportunity with Peterson’s came about. I came here for the Sous-chef position about two and half years agIMG_1480o and then was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to become their Executive Chef.

We are in the top 25 restaurants in the City now. My day starts at 10, and I take Sundays off – except for inventory once a month. I think it’s really important for families to understand the time involved, but you also have to manage your time to be with them too.

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I started in industrial sales after high school, but I always had a part-time restaurant job on the side – always had my foot in it. I didn’t want to sell nuts and bolts the rest of my life.

We lived far outside of the metropolitan area when I was growing up. We always had a garden and family meals at home. We didn’t go out for dinner. After school, I’d watch shows like, The Galloping Gourmet, Frugal Chefs, Great Chefs of the World. I never watched cartoons.

What was the first thing you remember cooking as a kid?

I was in the second grade when I first started making food for other people– it was potato leek soup. That’s still my go to favorite soup today.

What do you like most about being an Executive Chef?

Having the respect – finaChef2lly, after 15 years of being in the business – and the ability to create food for people to enjoy and be remembered for it. Along with that, it’s always about the food and camaraderie in the kitchen.

I built a team around myself that I love to work with, so it’s not stressful. It takes time [to build a team]. Sometimes you get lucky with the first hire. You have to test people out, find the right personality. We’re at a level where you have to have the skill level to be accepted.

You’ve worked both sides of the fence, what are the differences between corporate and independent kitchens?

Kitchens are more regimented in the corporate environment. You have less creative influence, unless you’re developing for the company. You’re also always putting fires out. There are Chef/General Managers – I’m lucky to work with a general manager.

The owner of the restaurant, Joe Peterson, is a highly successful businessman outside of the hospitality industry. Your website says it was his dream to build this restaurant.

1011191_630817690310590_55395698_nYes, it was his dream. His company, Crown Technology, is right across the street. We take care of the restaurant for him. I have gardens over there too. I’d love to help keep this restaurant going for the next 15 years…

What type of community work is Peterson’s involved in?

We are currently putting together a Peterson’s team to work for Habitat for Humanity in Hamilton County, and we do event fund raisers every year for organizations like Cystic Fibrosis, and others. I’ve always been actively involved with Second Helpings too – they serve over 3,000 meals daily [to those in need].

How does the Indianapolis market compare to a market like Chicago or New York?

Indy is a really changing market. A lot of independents had been pushed out because they didn’t have the marketing to compete with large chains. That attitude is changing now, and there’s a new independent trend emerging here.

Across the street is Indianapolis, we are Fishers, on this side. We’ve grown from a population of 7,000 to 78,000 in the last twelve years. It can be tough with a lot of openings popping up around you; we’re lucky to be on the north side of Indy.

What other challenges do you face?

People don’t havindex01e the expense accounts they used to; now it’s more like, “I’ll pay for it IF it’s done well”.  It’s a hurdle for independents to remain competitive with pricing because they don’t have the buying power. We are only open for dinner and closed on Sundays.

How valuable are reservations to your business?

It used to be more consistent, we could expect more reservations coming in on a certain day. We average, 75 % reserved and 25% walk-ins. We also do special occasions. There are usually no kids at night, except when we do Easter and Mother’s Day brunch.

That brings to mind a recent issue in the news; what do think about the “Alinea Baby Scandal”?

The question of justifying price relates to the demographic you’re going for. You have to have guidelines for carrying it out. You have to learn where to pick the battle, but if it were me, I think I would have eaten the no cancel policy.

Has Peterson’s ever had a crying baby problem?

We opened up for SunIMG_1292day brunch last Spring and never had a problem with kids. Everyone knew that kids were going to be there, you kind of take that into consideration because you know they’ll act up. Brunch is not a higher level experience – very different than the Alinea situation and spending that much.

What happened with brunch?

It didn’t work out for us. On a weekly basis, there was too much cost involved putting that out – 1,000’s of dollars just to open up – you need at least 150 people to break even. We’ll stick with special occasions, fund raising events and Monday/Thursday specials.

Right now, is a bad time for most restaurants. People don’t want to go out in the cold weather. We work with Order In, a restaurant service website that delivers meals. It’s a good alternative for times like this. 

What’s it like there over the 500 weekend?

There’s a big spike then – it also depends on how good of a relationship you have with the hotels. The volume has definitely gone down in recent years and spread out across a bigger area.

If you could change anything at Peterson’s, what would it be?

There are always new things in the industry that you may want to add to improve upon. There are little nuances we are always working on but, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

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For the Love of Grace

If you’ve been to Grace, you absolutely get why they won big at the Jean Banchet awards gala in Chicago. Grace took five of the top awards: Restaurant of the Year, Best Service, Chef of the Year (Curtis Duffy), Best Chef de Cuisine (Nicolas Romero) and Best Sommelier (Valerie Cao) .

Buedel President, David Shannon, and Chef/Account Manager, James Melnychuk, recently had the opportunity to dine with Chef Tai Dang (Embaya) and his wife (Danielle Pizzitillo) at Grace.

GroupPic3This was the first time David and James had actually dined at Grace and their experience was superb. For those of you who have yet to do the same, here is a firsthand look at the type of experience you can expect:

amuseDavid Shannon couldn’t say enough about the ambiance and comfort of their experience, “you feel a warm fondness being there – like a happy childhood memory that comes over you. The cedar smell [from the Amuse] made you feel like you were at an old fashioned inn.”

From the Chef perspective, James was taken back by the “refined brilliance” of the food. He described the freshness, number and combination of ingredients as a, “craftsmanship of the chefs bringing across their talents.”

Menu1

Both menus were enjoyed over a dining experience that lasted four hours. The group enjoyed a total of 10 courses in 20 minute intervals with a variety of beverage pairings throughout. James describes Grace as, “high class cuisine without the lab equipment”, and offers that, “taste is visual, by the nose and by the tongue.”

foodsquareOne might think there would have been ample room for a stumble or two in such a long service cycle, but to Grace’s credit, David and James mutually agreed their experience was nothing short of a perfect performance.

dessertstrip“The service at Grace makes you feel like you’re on Iron Chef,” ascribes James, “…you feel like you’re the President.”

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