by Terry Baxter
The stars are continuing to drop down from the sky to populate our kitchens. I recently sat down with Chef Catalin Munteanu, our new Executive Banquet Chef. It was an inspiring visit.
A month or two ago, I reported on Catalin’s trial-by-fire audition – preparing a multi course dinner in the Ocean Room kitchen under the appraising eyes of all the Ocean Reef Chefs. The pressure was higher than any television cooking challenge I have watched. I would have been unnerved, but Catalin never showed any sign of tension. Today I learned his secret: he starts every day with ten minutes in an ice bath. He says it calms him and releases any negative thoughts. He says, “Cooking is me infusing you with my energy. No good food comes from negative people.” Fortunately for us, Catalin got the job.
Catalin was born in a picturesque mountain town, Brasov Transylvania, a part of Romania. His home was 18 miles from Vlad the Impaler’s castle (now a tourist attraction as “Dracula’s Castle”). Catalin chuckles, “We lived so close, I may even have inherited some blood from Vlad.” I asked him if he does shish kabobs, but he didn’t get the joke.
Catalin came to the United States at 18. He grew up with dreams of America. “You have the chance to do anything you are capable of,” he says (in very good English). He remembers arriving with three entire sentences of English, but “read, read, read,” to build his vocabulary. He worked in a kitchen in Boca Raton where they had a program to rotate you through all the stations (similar to our J1 Visa program I wrote about last month). He moved to Vail, Colorado to cook in Three Basil. He was Sous Chef for four years. He joined the Ritz Carlton Organization and became the Chef de Cuisine of the Beach Club at the Sarasota Ritz. He made four more moves with Ritz, building kitchens and menus, then spent three years at the JW Marriott in Traverse City, Michigan, where he initiated a farm-to-table program. He personally planted and tended the raised-bed farm.
Catalin was about to take a job in Nashville. The papers had all been prepared to hire him as Executive Chef at Nolle. Our Ocean Reef Executive Chef Jared Reardon and Tammy Adams of Human Resources rushed to intervene. They called to say, “Stop the presses.” They sent Catalin a plane ticket. As he stepped into Ocean Reef, Catalin says, “I saw a place where greatness can occur.” If you sampled the lamb stew at the Film Festival Dinner, or the succulent duck at the Cultural Center dinner before Chris Isaak’s concert, you will know how Catalin has already raised the bar.
Catalin oversees two Chefs de Cuisine, several department managers, and more than twodozen cooks. “You have to make peace with hard work and long days. You have to be as good as your people; we are true colleagues. When you have a room with hundreds of diners, you must try to make sure everyone receives a little bit of love that you put there. I know I did my job when I go into a dining room and all I hear is utensils against plates.”
Chef Catalin’s ambition matches his philosophy. “We want to make this the best banquet and catering experience in Florida. The Board gives us allthe tools, now it is up to us.”
Featured Above: Catering staff assembled in the Banquet kitchen located in the Commissary.
Upgrades and menu additions are in the works.