The title Executive Chef Meal Solutions at Roundy's Supermarkets Inc. doesn't begin to describe what Joseph O'Connor does for a living.
The morning I met up with him, he had battled blizzard conditions from his Naperville home to Lake Zurich to make sure things were running smoothly at the spankin' new Mariano's. He guided new crew members on proper pizza dough shaping technique, demonstrated pork pulling, wiped down hot food counters and sampled smoked brisket to make sure it met his standards.
In the last 3½ years, this graduate of Naperville North High School and the Culinary Institute of America has been charged with developing new menu items -- from made-to-order pizza and slow-cooked barbecued ribs to ready-made soups and items on the hot bar (like the divine mac and cheese) -- for the expanding chain of Mariano's grocery stores. He also oversees quality assurance and staff training for the new locations. Prior to that he held a similar position at Dominick's.
"Every job I've ever had has been in food," the 51-year-old said.
After culinary school he worked in restaurants including White Eagle Country Club in Naperville. He's embraced the research and development side of the culinary scene that allowed him more time with family. He lives in Naperville with his wife, Laura, daughters Shannon, 20, and Erin, 19, two dogs, a cat and a pond full of koi.
What is your culinary philosophy? I steal mine from my (culinary) school: Preparation is everything. When I train people I tell them this is how you prepare you station. We want people to see this as a restaurant: a sushi restaurant, a barbecue restaurant; it's that's mentality. But unlike a restaurant where you're hidden in back, our people are out front, we need customer service.
My personal philosophy is you've got to try everything. I find that to be an occupational responsibility ... sometimes it's an occupational hazard. It's the only way you can learn.
What advice to do you to students who might want to pursue culinary dreams? For people coming into the culinary arts there are so many different ways to go with it. When I came out of school you went to work for a restaurant or a hotel. Now it's restaurant, hotels, corporations, hospitals, and if you got a food science degree you can get very good jobs. It's not all hot sweaty kitchens. You really have to want to live that life.
What three items should home cooks have on hand? Really good olive oil; you can do lots of things with that. Sea salt. We use only kosher salt in the kitchen. And pasta. We always have some kind of pasta on hand. And you've got to have butter ... and bread.
Any favorite items from the store? The fresh-squeezed orange juice. That's my caffeine. It's always different, maybe a little tart, maybe a little sweet, but always great.
What was the last thing you cooked at home? We had three Christmases. Beef tenderloin at one dinner, shrimp fettuccine Alfredo for another dinner and barbecue, Todd's Barbecue, for our casual dinner.
What motivates you? Striving for constant improvement. Having a goal and reaching for that.
Tell us about these recipes: Roman Bruschetta and Extra-Virgin Vodka Martini. It's fun to be making things right out of the store (the new Lake Zurich store features a large oil and vinegar section and a tasting bar). Hit the hot bread with the oil and the honey and it melts right in there. The cocktail ... the oil is lighter and it's the first thing you taste. It goes across your palate and then you get the alcohol.
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