Al: Todd, what I would like you to do is talk to me about how and why you got into the culinary arts.
Todd: Well, I got into it by accident. I was very artistic as a kid growing up. I worked part-time in high school. I was 15 when I started at Chaucer's Inn in Fort Wayne. I washed dishes and did odd jobs like prep work so that I could earn money to buy a car to get around. I noticed that in the course of my work that the cooks were pretty creative and watched them do some pretty creative stuff. I started helping them. Somebody called off or got fired, and I got thrown into the mix. Once I started cooking, they wouldn't let me go back to washing dishes.

I got into a vocational program in high school, which was very beneficial to me because it really opened my eyes to the professional cooking world. It also showed me much more than just what I was doing at Chaucer's Inn. It also got me hooked up with a Mike Luca who was just out of culinary school. He was reopening a hotel in Fort Wayne, the Holiday Inn, which had recently been totally renovated. This was right before I graduated from high school. Mike he took me under his wing, showed me all the ropes, and really took an interest in my development. I learned a lot from him. He had just come from Lake Placid where he was the chef at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. He cooked for the Organizing Committee-a pretty prestigious job. It was an exciting time for me. He showed me how competition worked and got me into my first one, which I won a gold medal for a nougat train.

From that point on, I absorbed everything I could about cooking and food. I didn't have the opportunity to go to culinary school; I couldn't afford it. I just continued working and fell into another good job with a really good person, Lois Rothert at a tiny French restaurant in Fort Wayne called du Jour. She taught me everything from the ground up. I started working in the cold station doing salads and appetizers, learning how to make pates, things like that. She had been trained in France. She was instrumental in me doing things the right way, the classical way. She really laid a good foundation for me in my future career.

Al: Why is it that we have a tendency to see chefs as males rather than females?

Todd: I think that's just one of those classic icons that have been pounded into everybody's head. In history, there have probably been more famous male chefs than female, and I'd say the percentage of male to female chefs over history has probably always been 80-20. Lady chefs just haven't been the dominant theme. I think that they have been there; they just haven't been as dominant as the male chefs or as visible.

Al: Is there a difference between our nations? Are the French much more sexist and Americans more liberal?
Todd: I think Europeans in general probably are, and that has probably had something to do with it. This is especially true since most of the chefs that gained any real visibility or notoriety in the U.S. early on were Europeans. Julia Child was probably one of the first female chefs to gain any real international acclaim. I think that she did a lot to further the cause of women chefs in the U.S and the world in general.

Al: How do you account for that? When we think of food, England isn't the first country we think of.

Todd: I think she had a certain amount of mystique with the way that she spoke and with her experience overseas. She was down to earth and made fun of herself. She really helped to demystify cooking-especially French cooking. She made it do-able for the average person, and she had the ability to make people laugh and made cooking a lot less scary.

Al: Do you think that she also subconsciously reminded people of their grandmothers when they were growing up?

Todd: Oh, yes I'm sure there was some of that too. She had that motherly quality.

Al: What's it like for your wife to be married to a chef? Does she cook very often?
Todd: She's Hispanic, and she does a lot of family recipes with which she grew up. She does a lot of breakfast foods huevos con chorizo, which is scrambled eggs with chorizo sausage served with tortillas. I think she's intimidated a little bit, but she's never been excited about cooking. We go out to eat a lot, just mostly because I'm not in the mood to cook when I'm home and relaxing. Occasionally, we will have a nice family meal that I've done. However, I'd rather spend time with the children than slaving behind the stove.

Al: You talked at the beginning of the interview about creativity. In addition to the being right brain, how to do account for your cooking creativity? What else is behind your psychological need to create and cooking?

Todd: I think a lot of it does stem from the fact that I like to please people. I like to make people happy-to see the look on their faces when they have eaten a really good meal or hear them say nice things about something they have had that I have had a hand in. As far as being creative, I think there is just always this urge to do something once I encounter food. I start to think about what I can do with it. It's fun for me just to walk into the coolers to see what we have and then just start drumming up ideas. It just kind of starts happening. I guess that I have been doing it for so long that I'm used to just automatically thinking about it.

Al: If you hadn't been a chef, what do you think you would have done?
Todd: Probably, I would have pursued some sort of artistic endeavor, and had I not been able to do that, I probably would have gotten into architecture, something like that, some sort of design thing. Maybe I would have gotten into either that or maybe a graphic arts kind of situation.

Al: You are an Executive Chef. What did you have to do to become one?

Todd: The most direct route is to go to school and get a degree in culinary arts with further on the job training. Then the most effective way is to pursue some sort of on the job experience, preferably starting out at the lowest level and working their way up. The best way to get a handle on all the jobs that are in your kitchen and really know and understand what your employees go thru, what they need to do to do the job correctly. It gives you a good perspective on the whole operation and how to run it. There's a certified body called the American Culinary Federation, which is the largest organization of cooks and chefs in the U.S. It certifies culinary arts practitioners all the way up from cook to master chef. There is a series of things that you need to accomplish in each area to gain certification for each level. I'm certified as an executive chef which is the second highest level under master chef and to get that I had to have five years experience as an executive chef and then pass a test that covers all areas of cooking from food costs and labor and supervision, sanitation, and cooking.

Al: Do you have a list of places where you would like to go to further you education?
Todd: I studied in Paris for about a month back in 1985. Lois, the woman I spoke of earlier, coaxed me into going over to Europe. I had come into some money and rather than blowing it on a stereo system or whatever, I spent about a month over there traveled around and went to school at LaVarrene where she had gone. I lived with a person while I there, who has already been in Paris for six months. He lived on a barge on the Sienne that was right across from the Louve. When we opened the hatch every morning, we looked directly at the Louve; it was exciting.

I think if I go back again any time soon, I would like to go back to Italy and see more of that country, because I really liked it. I spent several days on the coast down by Portofino, and it was incredible. I didn't get to eat enough stuff!!

Al: When you are traveling, can you eat something and replicate a recipe by merely tasting it?
Todd: It depends on how complex it is. Sometimes there are things that you don't notice right away, but for the most part, I can. The great thing about Italy is that the food is very simple, so it is not very difficult unless there is just a flavor in there that you can't understand. Sometimes in Europe, they use wild things that you don't see over in this country. Sometimes some of the fish is a little different from what we get here, but for the most part, I think I have a pretty good idea of what went into the recipe.

Al: Would you go back in the kitchen and talk to the chef at a restaurant that you were visiting?

Todd: Well, I have done that a couple of times. However, I'm very big about not letting people know that I'm a chef. I don't want any special attention; I just want to enjoy my meal and my company. Therefore, I don't unless it is something that is just really, really incredible, or I can't figure it out. Then I think I need to go talk to the chef and compliment them. I'm also afraid that it might seem that I am throwing my weight around and acting bigheaded. I don't really want to come off that way. However, it is interesting talking to chefs in other countries, because there is this instant bond that we have. Food is the common language that we all understand-barriers come down immediately.

Al: A couple weeks ago, I observed you doing a training session for some Russian chefs that was put on by National Pork Producers Council. It was obvious that creativity and culinary interests broke down all sorts of barriers.
Todd: Yes, I never really had thought about it, but now that I do, it is true. We just kind of hit it off right away and started going, even though I did not speak a word of Russian and some of those people didn't speak any English either.

A: If you were going to take one trip to one place in the next couple years to further your culinary craft where would that be? Italy? Or would you go back to Paris?
Todd: If I had the chance to go anywhere, it would probably be somewhere like Asia or maybe some parts of Latin America, South America, or Cuba. I think the food would be great in all those places, but also it would just be an interesting experience. I have always wanted to go to Australia as well.

Working with the Pork Council, they asked us to identify three major food trends in 2000 and beyond. I listed them as an influx of Latin flavors, everything Australian, and reinterpreted "comfort food" (an updated version of classical comfort home-based recipes). I really think the whole Latin influence is a very strong thing. This is largely due to travel. We vacation there now much more frequently than we ever did. Also, the huge influx of the Hispanic population to this country. We have more Hispanics here now that work in the kitchen. These guys are going to start becoming chefs and running kitchens. They are going to start cooking recipes from their homeland. Their food is very visually exciting, orally stimulating to the mouth with very lively flavors from chilies and spices. I think the American palate is ready for it, and very much craving it. We witnessed the popularity of hot sauces and things like that the last few years; it's really become a craze.

Australia is really an enigma to me. Thinking about identifying these trends, I started looking through my book collection of over 2000 cookbooks, and I had only one book that had anything at all to say about Australia. However, there is really a culinary revolution going on down there with very young, forward thinking, creative chefs that are really doing some phenomenal things with flavor because of the influences of Thailand, India, and Asian Pacific areas. They are building their own cuisine down there based on all these different influences; it is very exciting They have some indigenous ingredients that we don't see here-different kinds of berries, fruits, and vegetables. I would like to go there to experience it all.

Al: My impression of Australian cooking is BBQ, and beyond that it is just kind of voided in my mind. However, you make me think about whether you could generalize about a country by their food. Can you make understand a society by what it eats?

Todd: I think to some extent you can. You know, the French people eat pretty wild things, they eat very daring kinds of foods to most Americans' minds, and that shows in their lifestyle. They have bravado in their lifestyle and attitude. You look at England, and their food is very stodgy, very basic, and that kind of fits with the British persona of a mild-mannered and quiet. The same thing with Germany. You look at German food, and it is very straightforward, common, and very peasant like hearty food, and that's pretty much descriptive of the German character. It's interesting, the more you look at it.

Al: You were talking about the three trends of 2000 and beyond, I thought about the three trends in food nutritional values: calories, fats, and carbohydrates. How has our interest in health and diets impacted your business? Do people that come to a fine restaurant like Park Avenue Café care about those issues or are they here to celebrate?
Todd: I think it's about 50/50. I think many people like to say that they are watching their figure and watching their health, but desserts have never been more popular in restaurants. I think in large part this is due to so many talented pastry chefs out there now. Pastry has really become an art form. Basically, it is hard to resist when you see something go through the dining room to another table. In Park Avenue Cafe, our pastry kitchen is open. People have to sit there throughout the meal and watch these desserts come up in the window and go by their table. It must be very enticing to them and make them want dessert. Nevertheless, I think that we have changed the way we cook professionally. There are much lighter things on the menu just because people demand that. It has become an unconscious way of cooking for me. My cooking is just lighter; it's less heavy than it was five years ago or even two years ago.

Al: Todd, are there general rules or models that all dishes should possess?
Todd: I think so, at least based on the way I cook upon the classical foundations. For instance, with soups, I like to have some sort of a garnish whether it is the addition of an herb, crouton, or something-even a chip. I like something fried, crispy, diced, or crunchy to lend another texture and flavor note to the soup whether it's creamy or broth-based.

Salads: I like to have something crunchy whether it's crisp like a chip or crunchy like a raw vegetable. Then there should be something creamy like cheese or something of a soft texture. There also should something green, tender, and leafy. Then you've the basic building blocks there that you plug things into.

The same thing is true with entrées. I like to have something firm, crisp, soft, and tender. For example, you could have a soft component like mashed potatoes, a firm component like a meat item and something crispy like a chip or a fried item of some kind just to lend balance to the whole plate. I think that the crisp texture is very important and is something that I learned indirectly from David Burke, the chef, who is my boss now. He started that whole craze in the U.S. with crisp, texture, and crunch components on hot food and most dishes. It is something they have been doing in France and in Europe for a long time. It wakes up the mouth a little bit. As you are eating, all of a sudden, you get something that is crisp and crunchy, and it's like oooooooooo. That's a different texture as you are eating something. If you are not constantly stimulated, it becomes old and flat. It is something to think about when you are building dishes.

Al: What about my favorite entrée...desserts?
Todd: In desserts, classically I think you need to have certain components on the plate to make it balanced. You need to have something creamy, crunchy, something fruit based, or something with acid to balance the whole plate off. That's pretty much it; those three things are pretty much constant in most good desserts.

Al: What is the function of wine at a meal?
Todd: I think a large part of what wine contributes to the experience is acid for the mouth both with digesting the food and processing the flavors on the tongue. It helps to cleanse the palate and helps to clear off the other components that may already be in your mouth. If you have something creamy and rich, a swish of Chardonnay is really good to help balance it.

I think wine contributes a lot also from a communal standpoint, from a celebratory and heartwarming standpoint. Wine brings "a warm fire to the table." It brings a communal aspect to eating. It lends a lot to the meal-just having it on the table. I try to bring character, a lot of sharing and love. For me, there's also a lot of love in a bottle of wine...somebody has worked really hard to make that wine what it is-from the people who planted and tended the grapevines through harvesting, mixing, and aging it. There is just a lot that goes into it. I think it shows when you have a nice glass of wine at the table with a good meal, it all just comes together. You've got the love on the plate and the love in the glass.

Al: Can you give me a day in the life of a chef? After this interview, you are going to start your day. What's the day look like?
Todd: The time itself really flies. Before I know it, I have worked twelve hours. It's just kind of the way it is. It's just a constant stream of things going on. There's a lot of thinking on your feet, constant decision-making right and left, phones ringing, dozens of voice mails and e-mails. It's getting to the point where a large part of the chef's day in some operations that was based on ordering food, and nowadays you can do a lot of that online. You can do it as a direct link to your purveyor; I've ordered food and looked at their entire catalog. It goes one-step beyond sales people in that, you know, they really waste your time. But online, I was able to place an order and then instantly see if I was going to be shorted something which is a big thing for most chefs. When you place an order, you want to get that item the next day, and a lot of times if you are placing it through a sales person there can often be days of delay. However, when I am online, I am instantly able to find out if something is in stock or if not can, I get a substitution? I've got a purchasing agent at the hotel, so I don't have to worry about of that. Fortunately, I don't have to deal with any of the ordering trauma, salespeople, and all that; it's great. It's a huge headache that's lifted off my shoulders. But most chefs have to worry about it in smaller places. They have to balance the ordering, scheduling, composition of menus, special things you are going to do for the day.

I know that when I start today I am going to have three lunch parties going on, a couple of all day meetings that have lunches involved, probably 30-50 people. Downstairs my dining room will just be gearing up for lunch. We will probably do another 80-100 people for lunch. The weather being like it is today, the patio will be open. Just the patio being open attracts people, so it will be busy. I will be getting ready for the evening shift upstairs in the dining room. Both of my chefs are going to a baseball game tonight, so I'm watching both restaurants. It's constantly something like that.

Al: I watched you demonstrate your culinary art with the Russians several weeks ago. I was struck by the chaos in the kitchen, at least it seemed like chaos from an outsider's point of view. When I am cooking at home, I want everybody out. I don't want anybody around me; I don't want any distractions. However, you just seem to thrive on it.
Todd: Well, I think I have just gotten used to it. I have built up a tolerance to it because that's just the way kitchens are. There is always bustling and somebody is always doing something, walking behind you, coming around the corner with something hot or something heavy. You get used to it. However, that was a particularly cramped kitchen, my kitchen is much bigger than that.

Al: Do you ever do recipes over and over again and you just think if I have to make this again that you are going to scream?
Todd: Yes, there's definitely a point where you have to change things. It is especially true with certain dishes for which you become known. I'm almost at that point now with this pork shank dish that I created. It was named Meat Dish of the Year for the whole U.S. a couple years ago by a very prestigious trade magazine in our industry called Restaurant News Magazine. It has become my trademark dish and is featured here at the restaurant. I am almost to the point where if I see another pork shank go out, I'm just going to scream! But, I had a review on Friday last week and it was featured prominently in the review. They came and took pictures of it's like...damn! Now, I will be stuck cooking it for who knows how much longer!!

Al: You have talked about comfort food several times in this interview, and that's a term my wife and I use a lot. What's your spin of the derivation of that term and what does it mean to you?
Todd: I think it is becoming more and more viable term simply because of the way society is. Some people have never had homemade mashed potatoes; some of them have never had homemade meatloaf. I came from a generation where I remember those kinds of food: pot roast, baked chicken on Sunday night, the meatloaf my mom used to make. It brings back kind of maternal memories and comforting feelings. It's kind of a "feel good food."

Al: It's related to the feelings you had when you were a child with food or is there something indigenous to those types of food?

Todd: I think it's just the characteristics-the simplicity and basic-ness of it. Comfort food is something with which you are very familiar.

Al: So, in twenty years from now will a Big Mac be comfort food?

Todd: Probably will be.... Isn't that scary?!!

Al: Another thing that I want to talk about are your dreams that are still on the horizon. What are some of your personal or professional goals that you haven't realized yet?

Todd: I have some tumbling around in my mind; I'm still kind of polishing them. Definitely, probably for better or worse, I would like to have my own place-a small place. Ideally, it would be somewhere on the coast, maybe California. I want to be somewhere like that where I have access to the fresh food, seafood, and produce. I would like to be in a situation where I am growing some of my own food. I like to garden and tend the earth and grow things. That's something that I haven't done for awhile. I also would like to do something with TV or possibly attain master chef status. For a long time, it was a driving force to get a gold medal in Germany, which I did in October 2000. Now that I 've done that, I need to move on to the next goal.

Al: You mentioned television. Do you want your own show? What's the draw?
Todd: It's just kind of something that is lucrative and has gained a lot of popularity recently. It also garners a lot of respect. People are really excited about television chefs and meeting them. I seem to have a knack for it and a natural ability dealing with people. I have done some work on TV, and it has gone pretty well. I would give it a crack and see what happens if the opportunity ever arose.

Al: Would you do some one-liners on some famous chefs?

Todd: I have met most of them, so I definitely have an insight into them.

Al: What's Graham Kerr's strength?

Todd: Approachability. I think that he also has a little bit of intrigue. He's got a bit of the European mystique about him. He also de-mystified food to a large extent the way Julia Child did. He is also able to make fun of himself and makes fun of cooking in general. He has made cooking in reach of most people. I really respect his ability to make things taste good and what he has done for the profession.

Al: Paul Prudhomme?

Todd: He is the master of flavor. He has one of the most developed and sensitive palates in the world. He is a master of blending flavors and got all those spice blends that are just incredible. He's kind of an idol to some extent because he went from very humble means from a very large family down in the bayou country of New Orleans to being a multi-millionaire. He was totally self-made. Aside from all of that, I have had the opportunity to spend some time with him and have gotten some advice from him about marketing products. I have products that I would like to put on the market, and he was perfectly fine with spending time with me. He is a very busy guy. I got some very good insight and good information from him.

Al: What kind of marketing things are you thinking about?
Todd: Sauces and marinades.

Al: After you hang up your apron for the last time, what do you want written on your epitaph?
Todd: Hmmm...I will have to think about that one.... Maybe, just that he cared...something simple. Something short and sweet, "He cooked with love." I'd want something that would communicate my love for nurturing people and making them happy. I would want to get something said about family also and how much they made my life what it was.

Todd has now started his own restaurant consulting company, FSInsights and can be reached at or at 219.928.1640.

Todd and some of his friends.