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Montgomery County Community College culinary instructor wins on CNBC “Restaurant Startup”

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STORY BY BRIAN BINGAMAN 
bbingaman@thereporteronline.com
@brianbingaman on Twitter

What would you do with $125,000?
A Wynnewood chef, who is an instructor at The Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College, will get to realize his dream of launching a farm-to-table, wood-smoked rotisserie chicken restaurant on the Main Line with that money, thanks to the CNBC show “Restaurant Startup.”
On the Feb. 24 “Ultimate Cockfight” episode, Steve Latona and business partner Mark Bellini persevered through a business pitch competition, criticism from their potential financial backers, and mishaps while running a prototype pop-up version of their Smoke Kitchen restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
Tim Love, a celebrity chef and urban western cuisine restaurant mogul that co-hosts the show, not only made a $125,000 commitment to Latona and Bellini’s developing business, but he also said he would lend them money for a liquor license, according to Latona.
“We’re looking to open a restaurant in Malvern, Berwyn or Paoli. Licenses aren’t cheap out there,” he said in a phone interview. “Hopefully (the liquor license) will pay for itself.”
The duo added the wine and artisanal cocktail component to their restaurant idea only after Love and Joe Bastianich urged them to serve liquor.

Latona.  Photo provided by Montgomery County Community College

Steve Latona.
Photo provided by Montgomery County Community College

The outpouring of congratulations was so intense after the “Restaurant Startup” episode aired, Latona said, that “I took the Facebook off my phone. I couldn’t handle it.” Projected to open toward the end of 2015, Smoke Kitchen’s Facebook page is www.facebook.com/pages/smoke-kitchen.
When asked what he wished CNBC would’ve shown more of, he said their food production. Latona said that it took a year and half for he and Bellini — who have a combined 60 years of culinary experience between them — to perfect their chicken recipe, which features a Moroccan-influenced lemon, parsley and brine sauce.
“It’s not high-heat roasted like barbecue. It’s healthier because it’s cooked faster,” he said.
Even with his experience and education, Latona learned much. For instance, he relearned the importance of details related to the “front of the house” guest service and hospitality elements of running a restaurant.
“On the West Coast, they really want very fresh food. (The climate is) always warm; they don’t want heavy food. Everybody’s working out. The East Coast is catching up to the West Coast,” he noted.
He also noticed how much, especially in the age of Food Network, a chef’s personality sells the food. “He kept nudging me to loosen up,” Latona said of Bellini. “I was crazy nervous for that first round.”
Yet during the episode, the duo had to shrug off insinuations by Bastianich and Love that they were too old to be getting into the restaurant game. “We were a little like: ‘Hey, come on,” not just because we’re older guys. We’re seasoned professionals. We teach night classes; we teach weekends; we coordinate restaurants and all kinds of stuff,” Latona said, adding that he and Bellini have catered together.

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