Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cody Utzman: LBCC Graduate and "Chopped" Champion Opens Albany Restaurant

With his quaffed hair and tattooed arms, Cody Utzman, 36, is an accomplished chef and two-time winner of the cooking show "Chopped."

After a 20-year adventure Utzman returns to his roots. His sister Kasey Utzman spotted the location of his new restaurant when it was for lease. His sister Kila Swearinger is his business partner, and the new venture was named after their late father.

Frankie's Restaurant opened last August in North Albany. Customers sat comfortably in the dining room, served-up at mahogany finished tables surrounded by country-chic decor and an accent wall of pieced-together salvaged barn wood handcrafted by Utzman himself.

The space was designed to please the "line of sight" of guests. It combines class and comfort with a view looking at an outdoor seating area. Carefully placed tables shaded by umbrellas are enclosed by manicured, hand-built raised beds alive with fruits, spices, and vegetables.

"I've got so many edibles out here; eggplant, blueberries, fennel. I can come out here and get things on-the-fly," said Utzman.

The outer dining area creates an ambiance perfect for a relaxed lunch in the sun or a fine dinner under the stars.

"It makes it nice for families but respectable in the chef world too. It's important to us to serve everybody," Utzman said.

Once the owner of four restaurants in New York grossing $3-4 million a year, he traded big paydays and fast-paced city life for a chance to slow down and be with his family.

"My master plan was to operate my restaurants in New York and here but during construction I had a change of heart. New York was so much louder and crazier."

He sold two of the restaurants and transferred the others to his business partners.

As customers lounged during happy hour, Utzman and his kitchen staff were hard at work.

Every space is occupied in the attractive stainless steel kitchen. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling, knives are magnetized to the walls, steel racks are stacked with cooking tools, and surfaces are lined with tubs of spices.

It was time to decide what specials would be on the menu for Tuesday night. Swearinger took notes as they discussed the options.

Yesterday's special, fish tacos, sold out. Seafood seems to be a good option. They decide crab cakes accompanied by the chef's risotto of the day for the featured meal of the night.

"After you've been doing this as long as I have you have to change things every day," he said. "It keeps me motivated to do something different."

Customers have the choice of eight different beers on tap. Seven of the brews are a rotating selection of local beers, the eighth is always Coors Light. In a town abundant with farms and pick-up trucks, Coors sells two kegs for every one of micro brew.

Kitchen staffer Maria Torres arrived for her shift and Utzman promptly stopped what he was doing to brief her for the evening plans.

Looking in an industrial sized refrigerator he pointed out neatly stacked fresh produce she will work with. She was to start making tartar sauce, ranch dressing, and blue cheese.

Working the grills on the opposite side of the line was Cameron Anderson.

"What do you want me to set up over here Chef?" asked Anderson.

Utzman directed him to stock the condiments with local, super-sized asparagus big enough to match the length of a forearm. The asparagus was picked by a woman less than a mile away and delivered fresh that morning.

"Local organic is always the best in my book," said Utzman.

All of the salad greens are organic. Any oil used is extra virgin olive oil. Dinner rolls and tortilla chips are hand made. The pasta comes directly from Italy. The meats are local, all natural, and never frozen.

"Do I need to blanch these?" Anderson asked returning from the cooler with greens.

"No, we'll do it to order," said Utzman.

Utzman worked on potato salad for lamb ribs and coleslaw for fish and chips.

Quality is above all else for Utzman.

"People are coming for the food and ambiance. If the food isn't on par you can have the best service in the world and they're not coming back."

Utzman intentionally did not link any of his impressive resume to Frankie's Restaurant. This was a fresh start for him and he didn't want his celebrity chef status to interfere with letting the food speak for itself.

"I used to have a website, blog, Twitter and Instagram, and took down all of that. What I am to somebody on social media is completely out of my control, but when they come in and I look them in the eyes, that's what it's all about."

Indeed he's had his share of  appearances in the media, welcomed or not.

On the eve of the first night with a liquor license at Papacitos, one of his New York locations, a guest who drank his limit was escorted out by security. Utzman stood at the front door as the man tried to re-enter and told him he was not welcomed back in. The tipsy tyrant swiftly punched Utzman in the face.

"They covered that in the New York Post. It was below Derek Jeter doing something," he said.

He admits he was loud and proud. His restaurants in the Green Point neighborhood served thousands a day and started creating local buzz.

The Food Network show "Chopped" was new and in the neighborhood. They had scouts looking for contestants and contacted Utzman in 2009. The popularity of his restaurants had got their attention.

"It was a fun experience. I loved it."

After his success on the show and the build of four restaurants in the span of five years, Utzman admits he got farther from the kitchen than he wanted. He managed over 100 people, had two personal assistants and started doing more in the public eye.

"That was the speed in which I moved there. I don't miss it at all."

But life was not always so glamorous.

He has a checkered past of teenage trouble, school suspensions, and trips to the police station. He completed middle school but was kicked out of high school freshman year. He admits he was hanging out with the wrong crowd.

"I was going nowhere and doing nothing."

After getting fired from a BP gas station, Shari's restaurant in Corvallis was opening and he applied for the graveyard shift.  Figuring that was the only position they would consider him for since he had no formal training, he took a shot in the dark and they hired him.

"What that job kind of showed me was I really enjoyed the cooking part and the customers. It was the first time I was really ever good at anything."

He decided to enroll in the Culinary Arts Program at Linn-Benton Community College.

"I started when I was 17 years old and had to get special permissions to start there for insurance purposes."

He saw culinary school as a way to get a job anywhere he wanted because everywhere in the world people have to eat.

"A lot of what I learned [at LBCC] was the names of stuff I already knew how to do."

His cooking experience stemmed from getting suspended from school and going home to cook for his family. His dad had a rotation of two meals he cooked in a crock pot; spaghetti and ham hocks with lima beans. Utzman wanted something different thus began doing the cooking.

"I have a lot good memories of him being at our dad's and him cooking," said Swearinger.

On his first summer break from college he started looking for seasonal employment. A job fair came to Eugene and he saw a listing for a cook in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. He got the job.

"It was adventure living. I was living out of a '77 VW bus."

After graduation he took a job at a fishing resort 250 miles in the bush of Alaska.

"No cars, no women, it was fishing and fighting off bears," he joked.

He found his next adventure on a plane. He sparked up friendly conversation with a lady seated next to him who ran spiritual retreats for women. Conversation paid off, and she hired then 19-year-old Utzman on the spot to cook.

He packed up and started work the following week on Widby Island outside of Seattle. Another retreat took him to a Buddhist monastery in Hawaii. For the next few years he followed her around the country cooking for retreats.

"Service please!" he yelled to the wait staff on the other side of the wall.

Swearinger burst through the swinging stainless steel door and whisked away two plates ready for guests.

"Maria, can you get some fresh parsley out?" Utzman asked as he grabbed the remaining two plates.

Utzman scurried back into the kitchen, and with a deep breathe said "What's next?" as he grabbed a clipboard and started checking off his list.

"We need to make hummus."

The dinner rush had begun.

The kitchen swarmed with staff moving briskly in a maze around each other. The quiet murmur of the walk-in cooler and clanking of dishes getting washed was drowned by pots, chops, and chatter.

Days in the kitchen may be hectic, but life at home is slow and simple, just the way he wanted it. Utzman lives on two acres of land and spends his free time in the garden.

"I enjoy that more than anything, being in the garden. For the last three weeks I've been tilling the gardens and preparing them."

Tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and potatoes are a few of the many crops he grows for the restaurant. His mom helps him harvest, and in the summer will have more produce then he knows what to do with.

"We didn't purchase any side veggies all summer last year," he said. "Sometimes you have to get creative in order to use it all."

For someone who admits he was once on the wrong path in life, Utzman has paved a road of his own and it's taken him from his hometown to headlines and back again.

Welcome home.

-At a Glance-

Who: Cody Utzman
Claim to Fame: Three-time contestant, two-time winner of "Chopped"
Favorite Ingredients: Local Organics
Hometown: Albany, Ore.
Education: Linn-Benton Community College, Culinary Arts
Owner: Frankie's Restaurant
Address:  641 N.W. Hickory St. #160, North Albany 
Phone: (541) 248-3671

1 comment:

  1. Quaffed? I am laughing so hard. Check out definitions of Quaffed and coiffed in the dictionary, Allison Lamplugh, and brush up your vocabulary if you want to be a writer! 😉