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Life Happens: Making it in the restaurant world: Young local chefs explain how it's done

Chef Jessie Csuha
HAMBURGn — If we believe what we see on TV, to be a chef is to live a glamorous life. This seems like an exclusive club consisting of food geniuses who can lead a restaurant to greatness based solely on their creativity and brilliance in the kitchen.

It may look easy on TV, but how hard is it to break into the restaurant business? How challenging is it to grab that brass ring and own the title of chef in a successful establishment?

The Hamburg area is embracing a new kind of attitude in dining. Going out to eat has become an adventure, with more options than ever before. We know where we love to eat and where to get a great meal, but we seldom see behind the swinging doors.

Meet five dedicated, young chefs, who work tirelessly and endlessly to break into the restaurant scene and create the food that we enjoy.

Jesse Csuha is the executive chef at August Bistro, a new restaurant on Main Street in Hamburg.

At the age of 30, he has now been cooking professionally for 10 years. He studied music management in college, but paid his way through school by working as a fry cook.

Instead of pursuing a career in music, he said he became hooked on restaurant cooking and worked as a sous chef for approximately six years. He worked under two local chefs at Remington Tavern in North Tonawanda, and said they inspired him to make his mark in the culinary world.

Csuha said that, at August Bistro, he prides himself on the fact that everything on the menu is made from scratch, even the ketchup. He also uses local products as much as possible, such as produce from Weiss Farms and Braymiller’s Market. “I like to support anything local,” he said.

The chef described his cooking style as “casual food at a high end caliber” and said he works to elevate foods the community likes into something special.

When giving advice to others who would like to enter the business, Csuha said, “Start at a family-owned restaurant and get to know the family, because they can teach you the most, instead of trying to glamorize it, because it’s not the way it is at all.”

He advocated getting experience on the job, rather than in a classroom, and also advised learning by doing. He recommended that anyone who enters the business should be ready to work hard.

“I haven’t sat down for a break in six or seven years,” he said. “That’s the reality of this business. There is always something to do in the kitchen. It’s fast-paced, long hours, but to me that’s fun, when we’re cooking great food and making people happy.”

Chef Deidra Taylor
Deidra Taylor, one of several chefs at Orchard Fresh, located at 4050 N. Buffalo Road in Orchard Park, got her love of cooking from her grandmother.

Her earliest memories involved helping her grandmother in the kitchen and being surrounded by good food and family. Taylor said that she grew up knowing that she wanted to work in the food industry, someday.

“I’ve always had that passion for cooking; for food,” she said. “The kitchen is my home. I’ve always had that in me.”

Her earliest cooking memory is of teaching herself how to make scrambled eggs when she was a child. She said she remembers using two dozen eggs trying to perfect her technique, much to her grandmother’s dismay.

She attended the Erie Community College culinary arts program. She said that, while working her way through school as a Wegman’s employee, she was often encouraged to develop her cooking skills there.

She has been cooking professionally for approximately 10 years.

“I like to make comfort food,” she said. “Food that sticks to your ribs. Just that good, old-fashioned homestyle food. I was raised with comfort food; just the family around the table.”

Combining that experience with a modern twist is what Taylor said she loves to do.

She has some creative control with the dishes she prepares at Orchard Fresh. This past fall, she created a pumpkin lasagna, which she said became an instant hit with customers.

“It’s hard work,” she said, to aspiring chefs. “[You are] on your feet all day, sometimes with no break, but as long as you love it and love what you do, you will do it forever.”

ZJ’s Family Restaurant, located at 140 Pine St. in Hamburg, is a busy place with the constant sounds of clinking china, conversations and bustling waitresses. It offers diner food at its most delicious and the atmosphere is friendly, homegrown and welcoming.

Chef Michael Picard
John Mahon has been manning the grill at this restaurant for almost 20 years.

Mahon has been in the food business since he was 9 years old, helping his mother with her catering jobs. He said that he feels like he has been cooking all his life. He has an accounting degree, but he started out as a dishwasher when he was in school and worked his way up to a cook.

He explained his style as taking diner favorites to another level. “A lot of people just put diner food out there,” he said. “You can’t just put it out there; you have to put your heart in it, too.”

Mahon said that it takes talent to create simple, good food that people want to come back for, again and again. “The diner world is different than the fancier restaurants,” he explained. “The customers keep me going. They inspire me. And some of the staff has been here forever. It’s like family.”

[photo5]Michael Picard is the new executive chef at Mason’s Grille, located at 52 Main St. in Hamburg. He has been in the business since he was a teenager. He started as a dishwasher, but worked his way up to his first executive chef job 14 years ago, when he was 27 years old.

“I was a chef before most of the guys my age were chefs,” he said. “I didn’t do any culinary school; just worked my way through the trenches. I worked in a lot of places; in a lot of states. I worked in Las Vegas.”


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