Apple PodcastsAmazon MusicSpotifyiHeartRadioPlayer.fmGoogle Podcasts

Joel Kraft, a seasoned chef with over three decades of experience, joins Maureen Ballatori on this episode of Spilled Salt to share his experience in food service and the hospitality industry. 

Joel has had quite the culinary journey, from humble beginnings in the kitchen of the Oswego Country Club to becoming the executive chef at the renowned Oak Hill Country Club at the young age of 27; from culinary school in Rhode Island to eating barbecue in the Texas Panhandle to cooking internationally at the Culinary Olympics. 

Navigating the challenges and triumphs of managing a dynamic culinary team while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

The interview provides a glimpse into the evolving landscape of the food industry, offering valuable insights for fellow entrepreneurs in the food service sector. Joel emphasizes the importance of building a strong team, reflecting on his experiences at Oak Hill, where he faced the challenge of leading a kitchen filled with seasoned professionals he looked up to.

Addressing the contemporary hiring challenges in the industry, Joel shares how community outreach and partnerships, such as working with the Oasis program, which provides a broad range of lifelong education classes including culinary arts, have been instrumental in finding passionate and dedicated staff. He highlights the impact of COVID on the industry, noting a noticeable shift in hiring dynamics post-pandemic.

Now at St. John Fisher University, where he’s been Executive Chef for the past 15 years, Joel is constantly surprised by the level of innovation and passion for flavor he sees in culinary students. 

The conversation takes an interesting turn as Joel discusses the unexpected popularity of his turkey burgers among the Buffalo Bills during their training sessions at St. John Fisher University. Despite facing supply chain challenges during the avian flu outbreak, Joel’s resourcefulness and collaboration with Palmer Food Services ensured the team’s culinary needs were met.

Finally, Joel offers his perspective on the future of the food and beverage scene, emphasizing the importance of chefs reconnecting as peers to share ideas and drive innovation. He applauds the trend of concise, well-thought-out menus paired with craft beverages, envisioning a successful future for establishments that prioritize quality over quantity.

Joel’s culinary journey and industry insights provide a roadmap for aspiring chefs and business owners in the food service sector, emphasizing the significance of teamwork, community engagement, and adaptability in navigating the ever-changing culinary landscape.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: 

I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Joel Kraft. He’s the executive chef at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, New York. 

St. John Fisher ranked number one in New York State for the best campus food in 2023. They also ranked number five in the country for best campus food. Today we get a little bit of background from Joel about why that is. 

He equates a lot of it to, spoiler alert, his team. But they’ve also done some pretty remarkable things at St. John Fisher College related to the NFL as well. You’ll hear some reference to that here today. And, as always, background about Joel’s experience. What led him from a track in fine dining and country clubs to the university scene and how he feels about that change. Enjoy the conversation.

Hey Joel. Thanks so much for joining me today. I’m looking forward to the conversation. So the way that I always like to start these is a little bit of foundational understanding. So tell our listeners a little bit about your work background, right leading up to the work that you’re doing now.

Joel Kraft: Oh, wow. So I guess we’re going over the resume. Is that what we want to do? Okay. So I am the old age of 45 now, and I started in the business many moons ago, probably when I was 14 or 15. And as many chefs start in the business, I was in the dish room. My first job was at Oswego Country Club. That’s my hometown.

And I got promoted to cook a few years later, but while I was still in high school. After a while, it became more than a job to me. So I decided to go to culinary school. I went to Johnson and Wales out in Providence, Rhode Island, and spent two years there. 

Being the forever romantic, I wanted to move a little closer to home towards my high school sweetheart. We didn’t get married, but I found an externship here in Rochester.

So I had called around to some chefs and one of the chefs that was really interested in continuing education for the people in our trade was Chef Charles Carroll. And he was at Oak Hill Country Club

I did my externship there in the late nineties and, and, and we really hit it off. I got a job there after I finished my externship and graduated from Johnson and Wales. And so I decided to stay on there and was very honored to do so.

I’d worked part in the fine dining part in the casual dining. And to be honest with you, I really did anything I could because I was a young buck and wanted to just absorb everything I could. 

After a while, my chef, who was also a competitor in the Culinary Olympics, which is a small group of individuals in the ACF that compete overseas and in other areas of the United States, asked me if I wanted to apprentice with him. And I said, absolutely. He goes, well, I can’t pay you. And I said, well, that’s fine. So we started a great relationship there. 

I would just learn and absorb everything I could from him and the other certified master chefs that were part of that. And we traveled to different areas and we can come back to that too, if you want. But what it did is, he got a position down in Houston, Texas at River Oaks Country Club. 

So he asked me if I wanted to move down there and I really didn’t have any strings. So I and another chef moved down there and I spent the next three, four years working there. I was the fine dining chef there and actually took over the casual dining after that, which sounds kind of the opposite direction, but the casual dining at River Oaks was probably a $3 – $4 million a year operation. So it was a great management experience. 

From there, I got an offer to work in Canandaigua at Bristol Harbor as the executive chef. So it would have been my first EC job and I was honored to do so. I was a little excited to move back home, but I miss Texas, especially the barbecue.

Maureen: Oh, I thought for sure you were going to say, especially the weather, but the barbecue sure was great, too.

Joel: Oh , the weather at least nine months out of the year. It’s absolutely wonderful down there. I actually met my wife down there, so I still go down. 

I went to Bristol Harbor and was the executive chef there for a few years. And then the general manager at Oak Hill said, hey, listen, we lost our chef. I noticed you haven’t applied. His name is Eric Rule. I said, well, Mr. Rule, I said, I think I’m too young and I don’t think I’m experienced enough. I want to get some under my belt. And he goes, well, I think you should apply anyway. And he kind of did that. 

Maureen: A little wink and a nod.

Joel: So I said, okay. It was very intimidating, but I didn’t want to back away from the challenge. So I applied, did a cooking test and interviewed with the Board there. I think I was 27 years old at the time and got the job.

And from there, I spent the next four or five years there, did the senior PGA, not the full PGA, but the senior, and had an opportunity come up. 

My girls, I have two lovely girls, Sadie and Madeline, and they were, I want to say five and three at the time, six and four, the years go by fast. And decided that I wanted to try to find a little work-life balance. 

The catering manager that I had worked with at Oak Hill got me the job here as the director at St. John Fisher University. At the time we were a college, I’m sure you’re aware. I decided to apply for that job. 

At first I thought, oh, wow the cuisine I’m going to do there is going to be so much less. It’s going to be less challenging. But the work-life balance really attracted me. I’d spent so many years working through, working so many hours. There were just so many different things that I was excited for maybe the next stage of my career and I got the job here. 

And I really haven’t looked back since. And to be honest with you, the food that we do here and some of the things that the students do and the Buffalo Bills do with us here challenges me to this day. So it’s different, it’s fun. It’s a little more cutting edge, I think, learning new cultural cuisine.

A lot of the kids have access to the internet, obviously, and do a lot of research and cultural trends happen so fast that in the university sense. There are types of cuisines that fly across my desk and my cutting board faster than they would have, I think, in my previous jobs and things like that. So that is kind of the snapshot. That was a lot of words, so I hope I didn’t ramble on too much.

Maureen: No, that was great. So how long have you been at St. John Fisher University now?

Joel: Yep, so started here in January of 2009. So whatever that winds up being, 14, 15 years.

Maureen: A couple of things I want to point out for listeners based on my understanding of the industry is that, and you glossed over this a bit, is that for Joel to be able to go into and you were the executive chef at age 27 at Oak Hill, that’s a huge deal. So talk about that a little bit about like, why is that?

Joel: I mean Oak Hill obviously has a lot of prestige. They have a wonderful culinary program there. The golf is second to none, obviously, as you know.

Maureen: And Joel’s referencing for anybody who might not know, that Oak Hill hosted the PGA last year, right? Was it last year?

Joel: Yes, it was, I believe it was last year. Yes, I love cooking, I’m terrible at golf. So when everybody’s like, well, who’s your favorite to win? I’m like, I don’t even know who’s playing. So , they’ve done the senior PGA, the Ryder Cup and all of that jazz. So back to the original question, what was it like? It was very intimidating, but I refused to back away from the challenge. 

So there was a lot of research, a lot of studying. I mean, you spend your entire career in the culinary arts continuing and furthering your education because there’s just no stop to learning and understanding different ways of doing things and things like that. So I spent a lot of time doing that. 

Maureen: As you said, the time flies.

Joel: The chef that was there before, Chef Dan Skinnell, he was a Certified Master Chef. I was following on his heels. I was familiar with Chef Dan because he was part of the culinary Olympics. So we had a rapport, but second to none chef, just the food he put out. 

I was green, I was just so green coming in there. So there was a lot of learning there. In retrospect, there were mistakes made, but it was what dedication you put behind it to make sure that you rose to that level. 

I’d like to think that I had a really good report there over the years. And I miss it to this day because it was where I did my externship and kind of learned a lot. 

It was tough. I learned a lot about managing people and finances because a lot of the individuals that work there and the chefs that worked there for decades and some of the staff that have worked there for so long. They had previously been people I looked up to and I still do to this day, but I looked up to as you know, fellow associates, fellow colleagues, and now I was their chef. So there were a lot of things to prove and in a kitchen, it can be tough.

Maureen: Yep, especially at 27, right? You know, you’re this young buck, who are you coming in here? I don’t have to listen to a word you say. I know all about it. .

Joel: It taught me a lot on how to, to earn someone’s respect. How to have somebody really stand behind you when you go into the battle of the kitchen. Every night, especially Friday night and Saturday night, there are battles to try to put out the absolute best product you can to a clientele while doing it at an extreme pace. Sometimes while a wedding is happening behind you and being plated and things like that. So it was an experience I wouldn’t give up for anything. 

Maureen: So my husband was an executive chef for a number of years. His last executive chef position was at Belhurst Castle down in Geneva. And then he was with a meal startup called Real Eats. And so he always explained it in the exact same way that what he to this day misses about line work is that going into battle on a Friday and Saturday night.

Joel: It’s the only recurring dream I have. It’s Friday night. It’s an art. It’s a dance. It really is. It’s something, it’s something we don’t do here as much because of the style of service we do at St. John Fisher University. I mean, but I miss it. I do. But I also generally have Friday night off. So I don’t miss it that much, I guess. 

Maureen: Really? Actually, that was my husband’s motivation too. Our kids were born and he wanted to get out of the lifestyle that was a battle every weekend, right? And move into something that has a better work-life balance. 

So I’m glad that he found that for us and our family and I’m glad that you were able to move in that direction, to,o and that it’s something that you enjoy so much, right? Because a lot of people make compromises in that shift of, well, it’s food that I enjoy, just as you explained, right? Or it’s work -life balance and I can’t have both. So talk a little bit about why and how you have both of those things at St. John Fisher University.

Joel: Sure. Most of my previous jobs, as your husband probably knows, I was there early morning to late at night six or seven days a week. It was mostly six days a week at Fisher and it took some time. There were a lot of hours we put in here. 

I don’t want to make it sound like it isn’t a challenge here because we have our challenges and it’s important to us to develop a team, but we’ve developed such a wonderful team here. 

I’ve got basically two executive sous chefs that we’ve worked together over 10 years now, which is just a lifetime in our business, too. A lot of the staff and management and people you work with in this business are two- to three-year associates and colleagues, but we’ve enjoyed a management team here that’s been together over 10 years. 

So with that comes a lot of growing pains, but at the same time, a lot of cohesiveness and understanding and we play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So that’s where we’ve developed a work-life balance, in my opinion, as well as some successes because I’m able to say, hey, listen, I’m not going to be here Friday and Saturday. My sous chef picks it up. 

We know each other’s standards and what type of food we put out and things like that. And that’s not to say there aren’t challenges that we still have to work through. 

I mean, we’ve got roughly 100 to 120 employees here at any one given time. We’re training 10 to 15 new students in the fall semester. So there’s some learning curve for that. 

But, in general, that work-life balance, I think really comes from having a great team that you can rely on to communicate with and to handle issues when you’re not there. 

And then vice versa, when they’re not here, you want to make sure that you’re maintaining those standards and expectations amongst the staff. 

That’s where I really find it. You know, I generally take two days off a week, which is just wonderful. You know, in the business that changes here and there. And we have our downtime, too, that I really look forward to because it’s time to kind of rebuild that personal side of what is so important in life. And then there are the breaks in the summer and the ups and downs. 

Maureen: Being able to work through that cycle, that’s a great opportunity. 

So you talk a lot about people and you and I both know, as do probably every single person that’s listening to this podcast, that finding great people, especially in food service and restaurants in today’s day and age is a very difficult thing. What has that been like for you? 

Have you noticed a notable change over the last couple of years since COVID or has it kind of always been challenging to find people to stick around or what are your thoughts on that?

Joel: That’s a great question. You know, it’s evolved. It certainly has. 20, 30 years ago, it wasn’t anything to have a completely different culture and a way of dealing with people in the kitchen. 

I’m sure a lot of your listeners have watched The Bear and writer Anthony Bourdain and some other great shows out there. There’s a lot of truth in how we and the restaurant business deal with each other. 

I’ve probably got a hundred stories there, I’m sure. One or two of which is appropriate for this podcast and the others might not be, but regardless of that, things have changed in the business and it’s for the better, it really is. 

There’s a lot of cultural shifts in how we deal with our staff, the professionalism and what we go through and being part of the company that I work for and having the pleasure of working at St. John Fisher has really polished and gotten us to a great way of dealing and handling and training, promoting and and on the off chance of disciplining staff. 

So the culture has really changed. So that’s kind of one part of it. But with that, it’s how do you use that environment and that culture to encourage people to come work for you. 

It really is a competition out there and making sure that you’re able to attract the best staff you can. Because at the end of the day, I may know how to cook a great tikka masala or a great chicken parmesan or whatever the dish may be. But if I’m not able to procure the staff that we need that want to continue that culture and drive that excellence, then I’m really going to be struggling. 

A few things that I do, and I believe that you’re part of the Commissary downtown, is community outreach.

I serve on the board over at the Oasis program, which is part of the Rochester City School District. They have a culinary program over there. I’ve been working with Chef Jeffrey over there who runs the program.

Maureen: Oh great, I didn’t realize that.

Joel: He’s been there for some time and he just has such a wonderful way about getting individuals ready for the industry that I think is difficult to do on your own as an employer, because I think there’s a lot of lines that Chef Jeff is able to cross, both personal and professional, to get people prepared. 

So back to the issues that are out there. So I think that anybody can put an application out on Indeed and then look through there and then you hope to get a great candidate. 

But when you have some of these partnerships in the community, working with other chefs, working with Chef Jeff over at Oasis and having these connections out there you’re really able to kind of put the, what you want out in, into the community in order to attract great staff. 

I hired five people from the Oasis program just last August and all of them are all stars. I’ve just been so excited. 

They’re varied in age, but these culinarians are getting into their next career and things like that, that there’s different teaching styles for all of these students, but what they came to be with is a passion to be in the business. And that’s not something you can teach right away. 

It can be instilled, but at the end of the day, to really have that and have some individuals that come in with that passion already, it really encourages me to play off that and move a lot of the pride and the education that we have in our kitchen forward. So that’s what I’d like to hang my hat on. That’s where I’d like to attract staff. I could put out ads and things like that. 

But back to your original question, you brought up COVID. COVID was terrible for our business. And it was terrible for a lot of people. I don’t want to play down what the wonderful first responders and hospitals and medical staff had to go through and things like that. But it was just really tough. 

In our business, as you’re aware, there were a lot of restaurants shutting down everywhere. So what did people do? I mean, people went on layoff. Luckily there were a lot of government assistance programs that helped, but it paid more than what a lot of restaurants pay. 

Not to get into too much nitty-gritty in the podcast here, but it was difficult then to attract staff that typically would be hungry for some of our entry-level positions and looking for a career. 

We’re a very hands-on trade. We tend to bring in some people that have varied levels of higher education, and I’m very supportive of everybody that comes in that wants to learn, so I’m not passing judgment there, but it certainly became difficult to attract staff.

And then, as we noticed over the past year, some of the extended benefits had passed and things like that, we started to notice a real return to people interested in applying and getting back out there. 

I would say it probably took a good 12 months past the end of the general pandemic when we were beginning to open up to really see any interest and applicants and individuals to be out there. I’m proud to say now I feel like it’s pre-COVID now.

Maureen: It sounds like you felt the faucet turn off and you felt it turn back on. And that’s something that I haven’t heard because so many restaurants and food service folks are still having trouble attracting people, but they’re not doing what you’re doing in terms of the community outreach and your work with the Oasis program. 

You mentioned the Rochester Commissary. Joel and I are both entrepreneurs and residents in that incubator kitchen in downtown Rochester.

And those are some things that really make a difference in your ability to find right fit people, right? To come into the organization.

Joel:Absolutely. It’s so much easier to hire somebody that has a personal connection with your employment already. I love getting referrals from current staff, especially ones that I just absolutely trust to run the kitchen without me. So yes, being out in the community, having people you can talk to, people you can bounce ideas off of and things like that, it’s crucial in today’s day and age. It really is. 

I’m happy to say that I feel comfortable with our ability to employ at the moment, but I still hear some struggles from some of my colleagues out there. That’s my personal experience, but yes, the faucet turning on and off was a great reference. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. 

Maureen: I’m glad to hear that it turned back on. 

What is the connection that St. John Fisher University has to the NFL?

Joel: Well, as hopefully most of your listeners know, we host the Buffalo Bills training table. What is the Buffalo Bills training table? That is when the team coaches and support staff come to our campus from Buffalo. 

Again, if many of your listeners are probably aware, within our main dining hall here is our Ward-Haffey Dining Hall. The Buffalo Bills are hosted by us and they basically sleep above us in the dorms next to us and above us. And then they eat about five meals a day with us while they’re here on campus. Their schedules are predetermined by the coaching staff. 

Then we cater most of the food that happens besides concessions at the practice down here in the fields that are here. So we have the pleasure of working with them, even though I’m a New York Giants fan, but I don’t want to get into that. So I’ve had a few years, but they’re wonderful.

I could think back through a few coaches – wish I could remember all their names – but over the years, Coach Sean and his team, they’re just ladies and gentlemen. They’re just wonderful to have here. And I hope it happens for many more years.

Maureen: Your turkey burger has become famous with the Bills team, I understand.

Joel: The tradition of doing turkey burgers here predates me. When I first started in 2009, there was one nutritionist and head strength training coach. I believe his name was Jay again many moons ago, and he was very regimented. 

The players would always have a late night snack and the late night snack would wind up being turkey burgers and baked potatoes every night. And I was like, wow, this is so boring. 

So it became tradition. So the late night meal was just that. And it was that way for years. And then as you know, the NFL doesn’t stand for the National Football League, as I’ve learned from the Buffalo Bills, it stands for “Not For Long”.

Many, many of the staff have come and gone and I’ve had the pleasure of working with most of them. But the current regime really shook things up from a food perspective, which was so wonderful to see. So many of their menu itemswere kind  of blase, they really were, but hey, listen, they were hitting their nutritional needs. They were eating some leaner proteins and they were getting what the coaching staff wanted. 

So now they’re like, well, why don’t we do a fish fry night? Why don’t we do po’ boys this night? Why don’t we do a Mexican style dinner? 

It all got shook up, but what didn’t change is we would do some excellent lunches and dinners. We would always bring in some nice steaks. We’d do a lobster night, and we just had a lot of fun with it. 

I think it was on the night we were doing tenderloin and lobster. All of a sudden, I believe the Communications Director here at Fisher, Josh, reached out or somebody sent me something. I don’t know, it was all a blur. 

They said your turkey burgers are trending. I was confused – we’re doing lobster tonight. I said, what’s happening?

I started reading some of the social media posts and as Josh had said they took off. It’s a simple ground turkey recipe that we seasoned lightly. And if I have the right guy or gal on it, they don’t overcook. So we’re good. But the players were flocking towards them. 

In the end, I was cutting up tenderloin to put in soup the next day because all the guys were eating turkey burgers. 

So I walked up to Josh the next day and asked, what are you doing to me, bud? He’s like, what are you talking about? I’m like, you don’t even know, do you? Obviously, he’s aware. 

Here’s the other funny thing, when that happened, the reality was that there was an avian flu outbreak. I was still facing headwinds from the procurement of goods and food because of COVID and things that shut down. 

As you can well imagine, beef and cattle and things like that have a longer life. And that supply chain wasn’t as interrupted as something as simple as poultry was. So the country was completely decimated. I couldn’t buy turkey to save my life. And he comes out with the, “it’s turkey burger time”. 

I was like, I can’t buy turkey right now, but I’m calling Palmer. Luckily, I’ve got a great relationship with Palmer Food Services here in town and the management staff over there just did a wonderful job. They switched all of their allocations on what little poultry they had to make sure that I had the product I needed to, to get through camp. 

Maureen: The turkey burgers are the best, yep.

Joel: Dan Walsh over there and his team are Bills fans. So I was like, hey, listen, I said, you don’t have to do it for me. You gotta do it for the team.

Maureen: The Palmer’s team. Great people over there. They have an excellent reputation for really coming through with a lot of people. 

Joel: They do, they do. And they came through that season. We scraped by, I mean, I wasn’t going to tell anybody how close it was. 

Then I had people call me, asking where do you get these? And what do you do? And what’s your recipe? I’m like, I’m not going to tell you now. I didn’t want them to buy turkey. So, they were literally my competition for procurement at that time. 

Maureen: Right, these are world famous now.

Joel: It was stressful for all the weird reasons. 

Maureen: Afriend of mine, Meg Fuller, runs the marketing for Bristol Mountain, the ski resort here in the Finger Lakes. And she was mentioning one day that she accidentally made some of her content go viral. It was either on TikTok or Instagram. And they had way more people flock there than they planned. And they couldn’t couldn’t house them all. 

It’s one of the double edged swords of having something get super popular like that, right? 

Joel: Yes. . . Oh, it was stressful, but our team made it work. Palmers made it work and it was good. I had to start rationing turkey. I’ve never done it in my life, my entire career, never heard of it. 

Maureen: All right. I’ve got one more question for you. I’d love your thoughts on the larger food and beverage scene in general. And so that can either mean as it relates to the Greater Rochester region and down into the Finger Lakes or just the food scene in general across the United States. 

What are some of the things that you think could be changing or you’d love to see coming down the pike, new innovations or you know, kind of practices in the restaurant industry and food scene. What are your thoughts on that?

Joel: That’s a big question. I’ll probably stay to the Finger Lakes. I travel a bit, but I don’t get out there as much as I’d like to. 

Maybe I’ll speak to the University Dining, because I really feel like I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I’ve done a lot of traveling with our company, mostly in the Northeast region. I’ve been to Northeastern, to Sacred Heart, to Hofstra University, and done a lot of wonderful things there.

I mean, the food is just so cultural now and it’s so fast and it’s changing at such a rapid rate that it’s almost hard to keep up, but it’s what excites me now. 

Seeing a lot of those trends and what’s funny, too, is we’re part of a pretty big company called Chartwells Higher Ed. You know, we have the pleasure of having the contract here at Fisher, that’s why I’m able to work at some of these other universities. 

We took over Carnegie Mellon a few years ago, had that opening and things like that. So having the ability to network and pull from other chefs right now is just really encouraging to me. And I would say that it almost feels like it went away during COVID. 

if I was to say that there’s one thing out there that I think us chefs should really take the time and kind of reinvest into. I think it brings great ideas to the industry. It’s just reconnecting as peers. Share ideas, recipes, and different types of food and management styles with each other because there’s just so much out there for us. It’s almost like we’re rebuilding a lot of what momentum we had before COVID.

To see us really take the time and play those ideas off each other and really do it humbly, too. There are so many chefs out there that believe it’s my way, and things like that. It’s such an arrogant and ignorant way to get through what I consider a lifelong education in our business. 

When you could really partner up with a group of individuals and just play ideas off, you don’t have to be the best chef, to be at a great place. What makes you a great chef and what I think drives a lot of trends in the industry is when we listen to each other. 

I would say seeing that happening and kind of reinventing and reinvigorating that would be wonderful. 

In the university world, we do it really well when we visit other accounts and we go through ideas and things like that. So it’s, but let’s stay focused in on mastering classical cooking while playing great ideas off each other and really pushing a lot of these niche foods and niche cultural offerings that are now out there into the industry and really spilling it over. 

In the Finger Lakes region, well, I probably don’t go out to eat as much as I should. And if my wife ever watches this, she’ll confirm that. I’m kind of a creature of habits.

But when I get out there and I try new things, I just love it. When I go out to eat, what I look for, and I know you didn’t ask this question, but I’m going to put it out there anyway, it’s just, is “simple done well”. 

The first thing I look at is the menu. And when I look at a complicated menu or a menu that doesn’t have, themes is the wrong word, but like a specific genre or a complete thought, I’m usually automatically turned off, even though I’m really not a picky eater. 

People say, when you go out to eat, you must be so picky and you critique them. I really don’t. I’m just happy that someone else is cooking for me, to be honest with you. 

What I like to see the trend being and what I admire when I see it out there is, and this is people playing ideas off each other, is a really cohesive, small, well thought out menu.

You know, I’ve got nothing against the Cheesecake Factory. I haven’t been there in 15 years, but like when a menu is that large to me, nothing’s done well. And I’m not saying they don’t and I’m not obviously calling anything out, but…

Maureen: . Yep. Nope. I get the principle that you’re looking for there.

Joel: The trend, and it kind of goes back to your question is, the trend that I like to see and where I am drawn towards and what I do see is small, concise, well thought out menus with great beverage pairings. I think a lot of the cocktails and craft beers out there in the Finger Lakes region are, bar none, some of the best in the world.

And when those are paired with well thought out menus and just great ideas with a comfortable ambiance or a commensurate atmosphere, those are the things that I’d like to see. And I think that are going to be successful in the future.

Then, with that in the university setting as well, we’re seeing a lot of investment into dining programs because the students, it attracts students, it keeps students. 

We’re investing a lot in ambiance, millions at all these universities and colleges that we manage to have the ambiance and the cooking that are made to order with small, concise menus, not large, all you can eat type things. So I think it goes between the several industries that I hold dear. 

Maureen: I think that’s true in a lot of industries, but in particular food, bev, and ag, because it’s such a connection driven industry, all three, right? 

I think people are hungry, pun intended for that connection. in many aspects of it. And so that’s sort of what you’re referring to in terms of, I want that collaboration back where we can kind of bounce ideas back and forth with each other. And I’m hearing that.

I’m feeling that personally and I’m hearing it from a lot of folks in the industry, too. That there’s a hunger for – let’s get back out to the conferences and the trade shows and let’s get a standing meeting on the calendar to connect and just see what’s happening in our like-minded industry. 

I know I said last question, but this is my real last question. What’s your favorite place to go out to eat with a simple menu and a beautiful pairing?

Joel: I met my wife in Houston, right? So she and I share an affinity for Tex-Mex and Mexican food. And it’s my simple guilty pleasure. 

I want to shout out to Guacamole. It’s a restaurant here in the Penfield area, which is near the university that I go to. The owner is just a wonderful individual. And every time I go in, it’s a simple menu. It’s a great tequila selection. The drinks are done really well and the food is just so incredibly simply made and well done. Like the rice is triple quadruple washed. It flakes apart nicely. All the meats are fresh and done the right way. Everything’s just done classically. So that’s my wife and I’s little go-to that we enjoy generally every Saturday afternoon.

I think I’m getting old now because we try to get there around five o’clock. So I think I’m told that’s early. But the place fills up so fast that I just kind of make it an excuse to run out of work early on Saturday when we can. 

That’s kind of been our go-to lately, but everything is just done so perfectly and consistently. But I’ve had great meals at so many places. That right now happens to be the one area that we love going to. 

Maureen: Got it. Well, we’re all set. I think this was a great conversation. Thanks so much for taking the time, Joel. Really wonderful to hear about your background. 

I think also to have you emphasize your rise through fine dining and then to go into a university scenario and be at such a happy place there, right? That you clearly enjoy the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re working with and the university as a whole. And so it’s great to hear such joy in your work.

Joel Kraft (38:00.744)

I appreciate it. I appreciate you. And I appreciate all the support that Fisher gives us here as well, because they really are supportive of the program. And without that, I don’t think I would be able to build the team that we have here. 

Maureen: It all goes hand in hand. Thank you.