By day, they are teammates, working to take your orders and cook delicious food for you. But when they get home, they contemplate putting their own stamp on the menu.
Gecko’s Grill & Pub has been running their annual Iron Chef competition for weeks now, inspiring their chefs to get creative and change up the usual menu.
There is more at stake this year than most; the competition has not been held since 2019, and four-time defending champion James Veldhaus has come under fire from competitors.
That means the competition is wide open and three-time winner Dana McCormack, Kitchen Manager at Hillview Gecko’s, is thrilled to have the opportunity to shine.
“This is the time when you want to try and do something more unusual, show some of the skills that you might have,” he says. “You are also trying to do something that is possible for a restaurant. What if you want them to take your recipe and put it on the menu? You’re trying to use what you already have at home.”
Known for his ability to grow hot peppers, McCormack is always looking to spice up the menu. And here’s the cool thing about the Iron Chef competition: all Gecko employees are encouraged to take an existing menu and add their own flavor.
The competition has been going on for four weeks now and the employees of each Gecko office are basically competing against each other. Six location champions will be determined next week, followed by a champion final from June 27 to July 3.
Courtney Hancock, assistant kitchen manager at Fruitville Gecko’s, says the best part of Iron Chef is the camaraderie between employees who want to make an impact.
“I like it just for fun,” she says of Iron Chef. “I love creating new dishes and seeing what my staff can do in terms of creativity. And I love how my team works together to make these dishes great. My boyfriend was the dishwasher the first week, but he wanted to step in and help.
“And he did it. I was so proud of him and glad he did it. He’s really talented.”
Veldhaus, former kitchen manager at Fruitville Gecko’s, used the Iron Chef as a springboard to promote himself in the world. He is now director of the chain’s culinary department and says Gecko’s really likes when its employees take the initiative.
“We like to see creativity,” he says. “Many of our menu items and special offers are derived from what people have done at these competitions. We find things that work well. Not everything that works in the special menu will always work in your main menu. Sometimes people order more when they can’t eat as often.”
Veldhaus said his past winning dishes have included snapper ruben in blackjack, country-style fried steak, and a shrimp and scallop platter topped with risotto. And what are the secrets of a stable victory?
Veldhaus says you must work together; he often told his waiters that he would share his winnings if they helped push his plates.
Interestingly, though, it’s not just about finding the winning flavor. Kitchen managers must work within regular Gecko prices, and they must select ingredients that are readily available.
Not only that, they also sometimes have to stay up late to make sure everything is ready.
“Your product will either be ready or it won’t sell,” says McCormack. “They have to make sure their food is cooked and then be able to work with other chefs on the line. It’s a competition, but at the same time you have to be a team because you have to be there to help each other.”
There are pay raises at stake and the right to brag to boot. There is also a trophy, but more importantly, there is an opportunity to improve your skills and make yourself known.
For some members, this is a year-round obsession. They keep an eye on sales trends in their kitchens and plan how to change them the next time Iron Chef comes out.
McCormack jokes that you don’t have to be the best seller; only you don’t like the people in the kitchen. But on a more serious note, he echoes Hancock by saying that this is an important team-building exercise, as Iron Chef tips you on skills you didn’t know your teammates had.
“It’s a great way to find new people for your kitchen,” says McCormack. “You have someone who does the dishes for a year and all of a sudden he cooks dinners and you say, ‘You’re not a dishwasher anymore. Now you will be on the line.
“This is a great way to move up the career ladder. We now have a kitchen manager who I hired as a dishwasher and has risen above the years. You apply and you have the opportunity.”
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