Johnny Curiel

Johnny Curiel

“Becoming a chef was all I ever wanted to do,” says Johnny Curiel, the new executive chef at Pescara in downtown Rochester. He is the son of parents who owned a restaurant. A brother is also a chef. “It’s part of our DNA,” he said.

So many things going on all around our town — buildings going up, others coming down, new restaurants opening and others making changes.

Count Pescara among the latter. That popular fine dining spot in the Doubletree Hotel not only has a new updated look, but an exciting new executive chef, Johnny Curiel.

His enthusiasm for his new job and for Rochester itself is both refreshing and encouraging. Chefs are known for moving around, but this young man — he’s 28 — fell in love with the town and Pescara when he arrived in January.

“When I first visited Rochester I was so impressed — even though it was January,” he said. “The people, the atmosphere, all the things going on, everything. It felt like home.”

That is really a compliment, since in spite of his youth he has worked in kitchens with top chefs all around the country. He comes to Rochester from Charleston, S.C.

Curiel has an interesting background. Of Mexican heritage, he was raised in the Denver area, where his parents were chef/owners of a restaurant.

“My earliest memories are of being in their kitchen, even doing homework at restaurant tables,” he said. “As a young boy I watched, and then helped. Becoming a chef was all I ever wanted to do. My older brother is also a chef. It’s part of our DNA. “

Curiel also found time between restaurant stints to enroll in the Escoffier Culinary School in Denver. “I wanted to sharpen my skills and techniques,” he said.

So what does he bring to Pescara? “I focus on local, seasonal and sustainability with ingredients I use, which is important to most chefs today.”

He is especially pleased with his suppliers. Fresh fish arrives every day, many swimming in waters the day before. Though the restaurant is known for its fish selections, the beef is among the best available. It comes from a cattle company in Olivia, Minn.

Curiel has pretty much stayed with the original fish and beef selections, but has added several new dishes. A new menu was introduced in April and customers are very pleased with the additions, which include a shrimp gambas al ajillo, which has quickly become a best seller.

Other new favorites include a tuna tataki and a duck breast with farro. (Delicious, I’ve had it.) The menu still has those Pescara classics like the lobster bisque, crabcakes and cioppino.

“I’m offering more composed dishes, more continental,” Curiel said.

There have been changes in the kitchen staff as well. Curiel has hired two new sous chefs to his staff of 21. Too many cooks in the kitchen? “No, some are part-time and we never have that many at one time.”

It was interesting to learn that there is not a pastry chef. Curiel explained that the staff is working together on some new offerings but will still have the favorites, including bread pudding, crème brulee and in-house made ice cream. Panna cotta may join the lineup soon.

As important as what comes out of the kitchen, Curiel’s goal is to make customers feel comfortable when they come in, “like it’s home. I want them to feel the hospitality and the ambiance, that they are welcome. I want this to be the very best restaurant with the best staff, both in and out of the kitchen,” he said.

Also new is the extensive remodel recently completed. The entry is what you’ll notice first. There is a dedicated spot for the hostess to stand inside the restaurant, as well as an area to sit in.

The bar has been extended, and there is new lighting throughout. With the new fixtures and lighter colors on the walls, the whole space feels more open, bright and airy, yet still intimate.

Don’t worry — in spite of all the newness with the décor and the chef, it’s still the Pescara we have known and loved for the last 10 years.

You won’t be disappointed.

Food writer Holly Ebel knows what's cookin' Send comments and story tips to life@postbulletin.com.

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