That’s Gary Vadakin’s response when people ask about his formal culinary training. So how did he snag his current position as executive chef at Harry’s Grille in Bloomsburg and a previous stint as a chef-medic on private jets that carried high-level execs to every corner of the globe? Vadakin’s expertise with all things food began when he was just a tyke.
He reminisces about sitting in his family’s Bucks County kitchen while his dad, donning one of his wife’s frilly aprons, cooked up homemade meatballs and other comfort foods. “My mother wasn’t really into cooking, but the men in my family were very creative cooks,” Vadakin says.
This home-based immersion in cooking and, later, management positions in Bucks County, at a Florida resort, at several hotels and a bagel franchise all contributed to his extreme comfort level where food is concerned. He’s now on a mission to share his experiences with different cuisines and tastes, but only after they’ve been altered à la Vadakin.
Harry’s menu lists a unique spicy-sauced calamari with bleu cheese crumbles — think Buffalo wings without the chicken; tequila-lime butter, instead of tartar sauce, drizzled over lump crab cakes; and pulled pork topped with, not drowning in, barbecue sauce. He also insists on serving French-press coffee.
“Food is like fashion,” he says. “When a new fad comes into the food business, I am going to bring it in as an education.”
At Harry’s, his “brodo [broth soup] of the day” is a quintessential case in point. The brodo is ceremoniously set before the customer, who peers into the bowl and sees a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients such as roasted corn, tomatoes and wild rice — but no soup. Upon hearing the inevitable, “I thought I ordered soup,” the server pours a pitcher of steaming broth over the veggies and rice.
“With brodo, you get a different taste with every mouthful,” Vadakin says. He adds that a pistachio-encrusted goat-cheese appetizer, not a common Central PA menu item, has been enthusiastically received. “I don’t think I’ve had anyone send it back. I watch everything that goes out and everything that comes back to the kitchen.”
On the rare occasion when something is returned, Vadakin emerges from the back of the house to investigate. “I step up to the challenge,” he says. “I am here to take the compliments and the criticism. It keeps me on my toes.”
Vadakin’s eagle-eyed management style may be a result of his nearly seven-year corporate-jet stint. His well-heeled passengers expected nothing but the finest cuisine, a perennial in-flight dilemma. Vadakin had to cook beef and salmon filets in a flat-bottomed pan on a three-burner electric stove in a 12x3-foot galley kitchen, but that didn’t keep him from giving the food a pan-seared, over-an-open-flame look. “I would have the butcher [on the ground] make grill marks on the meat and fish beforehand,” he explains.
To keep on top of his high-flying diners’ food preferences, Vadakin entered their “likes, dislikes and allergies” into a database. That and a “backup plan” based on everyday ingredients such as chicken and pasta appeased even the pickiest of eaters. But while the culinary aspects of his jet-propelled job were always in check, challenges unrelated to food were also on the in-flight menu. The jets he was assigned to flew higher than commercial ones, and occasionally encountered nerve-rattling turbulence. “Sometimes I got tossed, and the plates would go flying, but I usually caught them,” he says.
As far as the medic part of his duties went, the only medically expedient task he ever had to do was to bandage a cut finger, even though his flight safety training included learning how to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Though he loved being a jet-set chef, he left the position when his flight assignments dwindled from 25 days per month to as few as five when the recession hit.
As a cook in flight, Vadakin would shop the farmers’ markets in far-flung locations such as Europe, Asia and the Middle East, incorporating indigenous ingredients into the meals served on flights back to the United States. Today he is committed to patronizing Central PA purveyors, including local vintners and farmers. The proximity of just-picked produce and wines made from regionally grown grapes are a boon to his plan to adjust Harry’s menu with the seasons.
“I’m all about local,” he says. “With summer come fresh corn and tomatoes. We’ll patronize the farmers’ market on the corner. We already buy wines from the Shade Mountain Winery store across the street and vegetables from the Briar Creek Market near Route 11.”
The support he extends to local vendors and farmers is an outgrowth of the trust Harry’s owners, Steven and Justin Hummel, have invested in him. “We want you to do everything you want with the food,” they said before opening Harry’s this past winter. The first Harry’s was located a few blocks south on the same street.
It’s not surprising that Vadakin considers his current position to be the pinnacle of his many years of experience in the food industry. He divided the spacious kitchen into three areas: grilling, sautéing and frying, and his staff includes two sous-chefs, a late-night fry cook and a dishwasher.
“Even as a teen, I always loved food and restaurants,” he says. “I’ve had jobs busing, bar tending, you name it.”
Though Vadakin has an enviably trim build, he loves to eat and never forgets anything that pleases his palate. Even so, he can’t resist giving the food just a bit of tweaking. “My heart is in the kitchen. I have put every favored dish in my memory. Then I bring it out and make it my own.”
Parmesan Fettuccine Alfredo
with Grilled Chicken and Broccoli
Chef Gary says this dish can be made in 10 minutes if pasta is cooked ahead of time.
1 grilled chicken breast, cut into 6 strips
5 small fresh steamed broccoli crowns, drained
¼ lb. cooked and drained fettuccine
1/3 stick butter
½ cup heavy cream or half-and-half
½ teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic powder (do not use garlic salt; the cheese is salty enough)
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (cheese must be shredded; it is sold in resealable cups)
Pinch of parsley
Pinch of black pepper
Sauté the cooked chicken and broccoli in butter for 1 minute over medium heat. Add the cream or half-and-half and garlic and bring to a slight boil. Turn heat to low, add ¾ of the cheese and stir; if mixture is too thick, add more cream. If it is too thin, add more cheese. Then remove the mixture from the heat. Toss in the cooked pasta; stir and pour into a large serving bowl. Sprinkle the mixture with the remaining cheese, parsley and black pepper. Enjoy with some crusty bread. Makes 1 serving.
This is one of Chef Gary’s signature appetizer dishes.
1 cup fresh calamari rings
½ cup flour
¼ cup bleu cheese crumbles
¼ cup chopped scallions
A few sticks of celery
2/3 cup melted butter
1/3 cup Tabasco or red hot sauce
3 Tablespoons white vinegar
Mix the sauce ingredients and set aside. Toss calamari rings in sifted flour and deep-fry in 170°F oil for 1½ minutes. Drain calamari and top with wing sauce, bleu cheese crumbles and scallions. Serve with the celery sticks. Makes 1 serving.
Iceberg Wedge With Homemade Bleu Cheese Dressing
This is Chef Gary’s version of a salad that was popular in the 1960s and one of his personal favorites. He designed it for a combination of tastes and color: “The apple and the bleu cheese are a nice surprise; you can add a few chilled shrimp to this plate for a light lunch that will bring back memories — to anyone over 50.”
1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 even wedges*
3 cherry tomatoes
3 cucumber slices
3 black olives, pitted
3 apple slices
3 (thinly sliced) red onion rings
A pinch of parsley (dried)
*Note: Quantities given are for 1 serving, except for the lettuce, of which only 1 of the 4 wedges is required. The remaining 3 can be put aside for other uses.
2 cups sour cream
1 cup crumbled bleu cheese
½ cup chopped scallions (green onions)
Pinch of salt and pepper
**Note: This recipe yields 2 cups of dressing. One serving requires ½ cup; reserve the remainder for another use.
Make the dressing a few hours ahead of time and store in the refrigerator. Just mix all of the ingredients together and place in a covered storage container.
Core the iceberg lettuce and cut into 4 even wedges. Place one wedge in the middle of each of four 10-inch plates so that it stands up.
Around the wedge place the following:
3 cherry tomatoes
3 cucumber slices
3 black olives
3 apple slices
Stir the dressing and spoon about ½ cup over the iceberg wedge; let it drip down onto the vegetables and apples. Place 3 thin red onion rings on top of the lettuce wedge and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 1 (with 1½ cups dressing and 3 lettuce wedges left over).
Recipes courtesy Chef Gary Vadakin, Harry’s Grille, Bloomsburg
Published in A La Carteback to top