Cleveland's Culinary Renaissance Leaves Diners Pleased But Restaurateurs A Bit Undernourished

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For customers, the cool, dark, and posh interior of Moxie is a nice relief from the hot and oppressive summer heat.

But for Executive Chef Jonathan Bennet, the heat is on as he oversees the lunch rush.

"At the Moxie kitchen, we have hot appetizers, our meat station and our fish station, and then on the other side of the window, is the expediter," says Bennet. "The expediter basically coordinates everything, makes sure everything comes out of the kitchen appropriately and promptly salad hits the window, as the roast chicken hits the window, so that the salad isn't dying and wilting, while the roast chicken is still being cooked."

It's timing and talent that makes an acclaimed restaurant, says Bennet. He says he's in a bind, trying to hire a general manager and a pastry chef.

And as president of Cleveland Independents - a local restaurant group - he knows he's not alone.

"In the last five years, we've had some great chefs coming along, restaurateurs coming along, opening up phenomenal restaurants. I want to say there's a dozen to 15 new restaurants that are on the books for this year. And every restaurant's going to bring another 20, 30 40 jobs to the market. We're just not producing enough to sustain that job growth."

It's a good problem to have.

Brandt Evans is among those trying to match supply and demand. He's Executive Director of the Tri-C Hospitality Management Center. It offers a two-year associate program in the culinary arts.

"Right now, we are close to 600 students, which is phenomenal. And we're hoping to get up to 1,000 within the next couple years, which I firmly believe we can."

Evans - who is also a chef and owner of the Pura Vida restaurant in downtown Cleveland -- says the biggest challenge is consistency, namely with the quality of culinary staff. It can get costly for restaurateurs if they have to hire and train staff repeatedly.

As he walks through his restaurant's kitchen, Evans is always assessing his team…whether it's a head chef creating dishes, or simply assistants who cut the onions.

"You don't always have to be an executive chef, you don't always have to be the next Food Network star. There's so many other areas of food that you can grow from."

And there are many routes to the kitchen.

Across town at Edwin's Restaurant and Leadership Institute at Shaker Square, roughly a dozen culinary students discuss fine wine.

"What color's champagne most of the time?" asks an instructor.

"White, white!" shout a few of the students.

"They take the skin out…sometimes…." offers another.

The upscale French eatery -- which happens to be staffed completely by ex-felons -- opened last October.

Its CEO, Brandon Chrostowski, says they're at 40 students now and expect to get larger.

"When moving from New York, I could already tell you that on the horizon, if there was any sort of expansion in the city, that labor would be the number one issue," says Chrostowski, cutting up bread. "You can increase with quantity, but to increase with quality, there was going to be a problem ahead."

And the city's culinary gap may need more than local talent, says Peg Furnas, of Executive Arrangements. For 34 years, her firm has helped transplant talent from outside the region, including helping a local restaurateur find a chief operating officer from North Carolina.

"Everyone in Cleveland is proud to hire their own," says Furnas. "But I believe there's a gap right now because we have so many restaurants that are expanding and doing very well, and sometimes you just need to…fill in the gap! Before the local residents are ready to fill in such a position."

As Chef Brandt Evans says, Cleveland’s culinary gap is one more sign of the region’s revitalization.

Bon appetit.

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