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Chef Tommy

Rick Coates - April 26th, 2010
Meet Chef Tommy Making his mark in Petoskey at an early age
By Rick Coates
Chef Tommy Kaszubowski corporate chef with Symons General Store (including Chandler’s, Cava, and Pierson’s dining spots) learned his culinary craft spending hours in the kitchen as a young boy. Not from any certified master chef but from his two Polish grandmothers. Despite having a few chefs “chew his ass” and throw a few pots and pans his way, Chef Tommy has loved every moment of his 16-year culinary career.
Not quite 30, Chef Tommy has trained under some of the best chefs in the country while working at some of the best restaurants in the Midwest. He worked under the legendary Chef Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Chef Takashi was so impressed with Chef Tommy’s skills that he asked the young chef to go to Chicago and open his famed Takashi restaurant.
Pete Peterson recruited Chef Tommy back to Michigan to be his executive chef at Tapawingo. A year after Chef Tommy started, Peterson decided to retire and closed Tapawingo. He quickly landed at Symon’s in Petoskey and he took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to share some thoughts.

Northern Express: What inspired you to become a chef?
Chef Tommy: I grew up in a Polish family where big family dinners were important. Both of my grandmothers love to cook and I spent time in the kitchen with them making pirogues, golabkis and other Polish dishes. So as a kid I did a lot of cooking growing up and at an early age learned the importance of a good meal.
My first job was at the age of 14 and it was a dishwasher and I loved it. I liked the camaraderie of the kitchen, so my only jobs over the past 16 years have been in the kitchen.

NE: So much is written about the culinary scene in Traverse City; how do you see the scene in Petoskey by comparison?
Chef Tommy: Traverse City has been receiving some well-deserved recognition of late. There are a lot of great restaurants and talented chefs; it is impressive that James Beard Foundation has recognized chefs from Traverse City. Petoskey is a much smaller town and more seasonal than Traverse City so we have some different challenges, but I think the scene here is equally as impressive. Everyone from Andante and City Park has their niche, and because we attract so many visitors to the area, we have a lot of diversity on the menus in the region. We are also fortunate to have a lot of local food sources.

NE: Yes, “the farm to table” is a concept that has really taken off. Do you incorporate that?
Chef Tommy: Yes, Chandler Symon (proprietor) has been using that concept from day one. It is the only reason why I came back to Michigan. I was at Fire, Food & Drink in Cleveland and they were really big into the sustainability concept. When I had the opportunity to come back to Northern Michigan as the executive chef at Tapawingo it was the first thing I asked. They were on board, but unfortunately Pete Peterson decided to close Tapawingo. So I was excited that this opportunity with Chandler’s presented itself for me to become the corporate chef here and the fact that they work with so many local farms. I jumped at it.

NE: Explain what your role as corporate chef is all about.
Chef Tommy: We have three operations, four if you count Symon’s General Store. There is Chandler’s right next to Symon’s, we have Cava in Bay Harbor, that used to be Latitudes and we have Pierson’s Grille & Spirits at Boyne Mountain.
Each place has its own identity. Chandler’s is our flagship restaurant. Because we have so many visitors to Petoskey our menu approach is more global. At Cava we have a very Mediterranean theme, and since it is at Bay Harbor and the world travelers that visit, we also offer sushi. Cava is also where I make all of the charcuterie for our operations. Pierson’s is very casual; it has resort flair to it. We fly in fresh fish there and Boyne is a four season resort so it does well.
I am both a hands-on and hands-off chef. I meet with my chefs weekly. We review menus, talk about upcoming events, share ideas, and I turn them loose. I am not a yelling and screaming, pots and pans throwing chef. I have worked for those and I vowed never to be like that. I am hands-off with my chefs in that I don’t like to micro manage, but I also am not an office chef; I like to prepare food.

NE: Explain to our readers what charcuterie is, and how you learned it?
Chef Tommy: To put it simply, it is a process of preserving meats that dates back to ancient times. I was fortunate to learn from two of the best in this country: Brian Polcyn at Five Lakes Grill and certified master chef Dan Hugelier at Schoolcraft College.
Charcuterie has become quite popular in this country in recent years, people are drawn to the complex flavors that come forward through the process. We are seeing more and more people interested in it. For exampl,e at Cava we have Farmer’s Plate on the menu and this appetizer plate has our house-cured charcuterie along with artisanal cheese and it has really taken off with our guests.

NE: Let’s go back to this point you made about coming back to Northern Michigan because the farm-to-table concept is being embraced here. One of the challenges for restaurants is the cost-of-sales line item on the financials. Does using local make this even more of a challenge?
Chef Tommy: No not at all. We are fortunate to have a lot of local farms raising and growing some wonderful things and prices are very competitive with the major suppliers.
Large restaurants have to rely on major providers for some items, so we are never totally free of them, but we are able to source so much of what’s local here. What I like is the farmers come to me; they deliver and they keep me informed on what they have available. They are also creative in what they are growing so it offers a lot of diversity.
The secret to making the farm-to-table concept work in a restaurant is to develop your menu based on what is available in each season. In the summers I work 16 hour days and half of each day is spent sourcing product, and I love it. These farmers are so passionate and so committed to growing and raising quality product. I don’t want to ship stuff in from other countries; you literally are able to taste the difference when something is fresh. I am also very pleased about all the local meats that are available.

NE: What are your favorite dishes to eat?
Chef Tommy: I will eat anything if it is prepared properly. I think that is the real key to this business and the difference between something average like a chicken wing becoming a great meal or just being another chicken wing. Look, I don’t care what you serve me to eat as long as you have taken the time to prepare it right. You have to take the approach in the kitchen and ask yourself “is this really as good as I can make this?”

NE: What is the secret to your success?
Chef Tommy: Great help, I have a great staff. Chandler Symon is also great to work for, he has a great vision, I understand it and he motivates me and others to achieve it. The secret to this business ,and I know it sounds cliché, but it is really about hiring good people. I learn from my cook’s every day. I believe that it is important to keep learning as a chef. I feel I am able to learn as much from those that work for me as I am able to teach them. Everyone has something to offer, including dishwashers.”

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