Would you trade a comfy office job with a 40-hour workweek for long days on your feet, weekend duty and a workplace that makes the Sahara Desert seem chilly?
Ryan Repplinger did when he walked away from an insurance company job and into a commericial kitchen.
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Repplinger, now executive chef of Gold Class Cinema in South Barrington, grew up in downstate Morton and as a teen started working at busser and dishwasher for a local Bob Evans.
"It taught me that not everything in the culinary world is like the chef everyone sees on TV," he recalls. "We work long hours in jobs that most people wouldn't actually want to do -- dirty dishes, pots with milk burned into them, cleaning bathrooms, grease traps, etc."
Despite that, when he grew bored with his office job he headed to culinary school at Elgin Community College and back into that world. He put in time with Levy Restaurants cooking at Arlington Park and US Cellular Field before ending up at the luxe movie theater.
"At the end of the night there's a sense of something accomplished. You can't always see it, but it is the knowledge that the people who came in to your restaurant that night got to take a night off from cooking and washing the dishes and you did all the work for them and it made their day a little bit better." Repplinger lives in South Elgin with his wife, Lyra, three children, Scott, 13, Rayven, 8, and Gabriel, 5, and their English bulldog, Bianca.
What first drew you to restaurant work? When I started at 17, I liked working in the kitchen and cooking at home and I was interested to see what it would be like. Later, after I had worked at State Farm Insurance, it drew me back in because of the opportunity for creativity and the almost athletic nature of the work. When we are really busy it is like a big game to see who is the best prepared and who can last the longest until the rush is over.
Does your finance background help you in your current job? On a basic level, I have a good grasp of food cost, labor cost, how to read an income statement and other financial basics. In my current position I also negotiate national contracts for the entire company, which also involve many more advanced financial concepts.
How does the culinary experience at Gold Class differ from that of a traditional restaurant? Since people are eating in the cinema we do not have very many knife and fork dishes -- too noisy and hard to see what you are doing in a dark cinema.
We try to take the things that people would want to have in a traditional restaurant and modify them so that they can eat them in the cinema. You have to remember that the people you are serving want to see every second of the movie they are watching. There can't be anything that is overly complicated about eating a dish -- multiple sauces or things that need to be cut are a bad idea because then people have to concentrate on their plate instead of the screen.
We also have to think about how messy something is, a meatball marinara sandwich is out, some people try to eat partially or fully reclined, our cleaning bills would be sky high. We try to limit silverware to keep down on the noise in cinema as well.
What is your culinary philosophy? I like to keep things as simple as possible, but make sure that every ingredient is treated properly. We make sure that everything we send out is properly seasoned, bland food is the worst. Every plate should look clean and crisp. Everything should be garnished, but the garnishes should have something to do with the dish, a sprig of mint or parsley on a dish that has nothing to do with either of those ingredients drives me crazy.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? It changes often, but right now it is probably ginger. My wife is Asian and in the last few years I have been cooking more and more Asian inspired dishes. Ginger is very versatile, you can use it minced, julienne, crushed, candied, etc. If you want to get spiciness from it you can leave it in larger pieces so that when you bite it you get that spicy kick in addition to the normal ginger flavor.
What was the last meal you prepared at home? I made miso soup with green beans, mushrooms, and scallions, chicken and cilantro dumplings and jasmine rice and salted edamame.
What three ingredients should every home cook have on hand? Kosher salt, butter, and fresh garlic. Kosher salt because most people think that salt it bad for them so they either don't use it at all or very little. Kosher salt is much larger crystals than regular iodized salt, as a result, it is much easier to regulate how much you are using. One of the biggest reasons that restaurant food tastes better than food many people make at home is because we season our food properly. Butter, something else people see as bad for them. In large amounts it is, but a little bit added to a sauce can totally change the flavor profile.
I don't know exactly what that minced stuff in a jar with oil tastes like but it sure isn't fresh garlic. Garlic is another versatile flavor ingredient, mince it, slice it paper thin, crush it, use it whole, roast it, etc. Fresh garlic allows you to use it in so many different ways and to make so many different flavors that it has to be in everyone's kitchen.
You've cooked for athletes, royalty, rock stars … does any meal you've prepared for them stand above the others? There are two, one was surreal and the other was just funny.
In 2007, I served food to a Queen, Queen Elizabeth at the Kentucky Derby. Serving high tea to the Queen of England was just surreal. It was a traditional high tea, but the security was insane (only two people in my company at the time were security cleared to be in the same room as Queen Elizabeth) and it was a once-in-lifetime opportunity.
Serving backstage food to Elton John (at the opening of the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.) lunch and dinner, for seven straight days was entertaining and a little strange at times. He was a very pleasant and accommodating the whole time, but he had brought along his dog, Arthur, a cocker spaniel.
We were serving prime rib among other items for Elton and the rest of the crew. Apparently, Arthur did not eat dog food and they fed him from the chef table. On the first day, I went in to check on the chef table and when I asked Elton how everything was he said that they had a problem with prime rib. He seemed a little embarrassed, but then he asked me if we could cook some of it some more. When I asked him if it was too rare for him, he said, "No, but Arthur has a very delicate stomach and he needs the prime rib cooked well done." So I ended up cooking at least one piece meat we served well done so that his dog could eat it.
Tell us about this recipe: Winter's Bone Braised Lamb Shank with Ratatouille Lentils. I think the recent cold weather and snow inspired me to do a homey comfort food kind of item, but it's also the kind of item that many home cooks might not normally attempt.
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