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North Huntingdon chef wins Stanley Cup of culinary arts

Friday, July 3, 2009

A lifetime of cooking brought North Huntingdon chef Regis Holden top accolades from a nationally recognized culinary institution.

The Laurel Highlands Chapter of the American Culinary Federation named Holden, a corporate chef at Eat'n Park, as the 2008 Chef of the Year.

It's the Stanley Cup of the culinary arts -- an oversized trophy that boasts the name of each honoree. Holden, 47, has the trophy near his desk and eventually will give it back to the chapter so it can be passed to the next top chef.

"It's really humbling, because I never thought I'd deserve it," he said. "I joined when I was 16, and when you're in an organization and you see people you admire, you aspire to be like them."

Holden is a certified executive chef and certified culinary administrator. His time working with the chain, chapter and at Westmoreland County Community College helped him snag the award. He is a certified food service instructor and is a part-time instructor at Westmoreland County Community College.

"He contributes a great deal of time and expertise to the chapter and students," Cindy Komarinski, president of American Culinary Federation Laurel Highlands Chapter.

Holden has been a chef with Eat'n Park for about 25 years.

"It only seems like a long time when you look back at it," he said.

Holden, along with Chef John Frick, also of North Huntingdon, oversees the menu for all 80 restaurants.

Frick, 42, has known Holden most of his life and worked with him for eight years.

"He's really passionate about what he does," Frick said. "Cooking isn't just a job to him. He wants to do it well and learn more about it and share with others how to do it, especially people just getting into the job."

Frick spends most of his time in the test kitchen developing recipes. Holden spends more time traveling to each restaurant to make sure cooks are properly executing recipes.

Holden got his culinary start as a teenager, when his parents opened a pub in Manor. He worked in the kitchen on weekends and eventually went on to culinary school. Holden worked at several places, then opened La Mirage in Dravosburg and worked at the Sheraton in McKeesport.

The profession comes with long hours, which leaves little time for family life, Holden said. His desire to start a family with his wife, Sarah, left him looking for more flexibility.

They now have two children, Victoria and Vincent.

"I was looking through the want ads and found one for Eat'n Park," he said. "They were looking for management and said 'one weekend per month off.'

"I'd never had a weekend off in my life and thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I wanted to see what it was like to have a weekend to myself."

He landed the job, rose through the ranks, and ran Eat'n Park locations in Homestead and East Liberty. Then he moved into the purchasing department. His culinary background led him to menu development.

"I've touched everything on this menu," Holden said, leafing through its oversized pages.

Since becoming a corporate chef for the chain, his plan remains simple -- keep it fresh.

When planning a menu item, Holden said he and Frick consider several factors, such as using fresh baked breads and produce and creating identifiable flavor profiles with seasoning or sauces.

Holden said it's important that his cooks marinate or bread their own meats and prepare each item individually. It not only gives it a home-cooked feel, but it keeps the preservatives out.

About 20 percent of the chain's produce is purchased locally and hand-sliced, diced and julienned to keep things as fresh as possible.

"Not a lot of our guests realize how much we actually do in-house," Holden said. "I think they appreciate the quality, but they're generally surprised to learn we do it all by hand."

When he started, Holden said the restaurants came with three seasonings - chili, fish and home fries.

"There were no real spices," he said. "Now we try to incorporate them anywhere we can."

Holden's proudest menu item was his first, the Black Angus American Grill Burger.

The burger, served on Texas toast with grilled onions, green peppers, mushrooms and melted American cheese with mustard, won first place for the best creative burger at last year's National Hamburger Festival in Akron, Ohio.

"I actually stole this idea from my parents' restaurant," he said. "It was the burger -- they called it the Pub Burger -- that came from a family recipe. When you see a billboard with your food on it, it makes you feel pretty good."

Setting a menu for 80 restaurants requires a lot of planning ahead. It usually takes two to three months of experimenting in the kitchen and testing food with both customers and Eat'n Park employees before dishes earn a place on the menu.

Holden said they try to stay eight to nine months ahead and are already planning a menu for next year's Lenten season.

"There's a lot of good competition out there, so there's not much time to sit back and enjoy the successes," Holden said. "You always have to develop, change and reinvent things just to keep it fresh."




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