Food Fight

How Cleveland Chefs Rise Above the Fray to Build a Better Culinary Scene

Spend a little time among Cleveland chefs and you begin to hear familiar anecdotes of how supportive the culinary community is. New, old, and somewhere in between, chefs here really do seem to look after one another for the collective good.

When Juan Vergara first opened Barroco Grill in Lakewood, he had little experience in the restaurant business and next to zero connections with other chefs. But that didn’t last long, he recalls with fondness. “The other chefs came into my restaurant and ate my food and then they invited me to their restaurant and I ate their food.”

Anna Harouvis of Anna in the Raw had a similar experience getting started. “When I started my juice line, Rocco [Whalen] and Jonathan [Sawyer] reached out and offered their help to build my flavor profiles. It was great! They supported me and were happy to see me come into my own.”

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That’s precisely the inclusive system that legacy chefs like Karen Small of Flying Fig have cultivated for decades. “I feel like the exchange is open and honest,” she says. “It’s there for the taking.”

John Selick has worked in other cities, and he knows how competitive and jealous chefs can be to one another. But since coming back to Cleveland, that malicious behavior just doesn’t seem to exist, he says. “I’ve worked in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, and in Cleveland, the chef community is supportive in ways other towns aren’t,” says Selick, executive chef at University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center. “We all really support each other.”

As just one example, Selick describes planning a large charity event at the hospital. Having previously relied on talent from within his own organization, he decided to put a call out to some chef friends to see if he could boost the fundraiser’s awareness. “Not only did they all say yes, but they rolled in with truckfuls of intricate food,” he says. “They made my event over-the-top and didn’t ask for anything in return. I was really touched.”

It isn’t just the chefs who benefit, says Momocho and El Carnicero chef-owner Eric Williams, the dining public wins big, too. “All of this community support affects the local diner in big ways. We’re setting the tone. If as chefs and restaurateurs we were all super-competitive and not united it would show in our restaurants, it would show in our food, and it would show in our service.”

Williams adds that special events and fundraisers are another benefit for the average diner. “What if we all said no to those events because we didn’t like each other?” Williams asks. “The diners benefit by getting top-quality food and entertainment for their dollar.”

When a fire ravaged The Katz Club Diner in October, owner Doug Katz couldn’t count how many calls he received from concerned colleagues eager to help rebuild the Cleveland Heights staple.

So, the next time a new restaurant opens, take a look at who’s first in line, tweeting out his or her support. It likely will be Williams, or Rocco Whalen, or Ben Bebenroth, or Heather Haviland, or any other of our notable operators.

“I think we’re all after the same goal—to get people to eat at our independent restaurants and away from the chains,” Williams says. “We all grew up in Cleveland kitchens, and we know how hard it can be. We’re there to support each other.”