From Chef to CHEF

Mandi note:  I met Sean Ragusa on Match.com in 2010 while living in Chicago. We’ve been great friends ever since!  We would cook together, visit local restaurants and I can definitely say that Chef is solely responsible for my love and appreciation of craft beer.  I think we even cooked our first Boeuf Bourginon together!  Soon,  I gave him the nickname ‘Chef’ and he responded with ‘Cupcake’ and the nicknames have always stuck.  🙂

Chef and Cupcake at the opening of Magnolia Bakery in downtown, Chicago. A few years later, I would be the General Manager there.

Chef and Cupcake at the opening of Magnolia Bakery in downtown, Chicago. A few years later, in a weird twist of fate, I would be the General Manager there.

I’m so happy to share Chef’s story with all of you because:  A) It’s his birthday today!!!  Give him lots of love!!!  And B) It is so rare in our society to hear about a major career change so late in life.  Fear is such a driving factor that keeps us from risking anything.  We play it safe in the name of our families, in the name of financial security… While Chef didn’t have children to worry about, he still had a lot at stake to pursue his dream.  But he did!  And in the meantime, he found a new career, a new passion for life and a new and beautiful love.  I couldn’t be happier for him!!  🙂

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My name is Sean, and I am a career changer.
Here is a brief history about who I am and how I got here.

I was born in a decade where ‘men were men’ and women drank scotch while they were pregnant. A decade that introduced us to music’s worst genre, disco, and all of the awful fashion trends and dance moves that went along with it. I mean let’s face it, I had to get past that to move forward into the greatest decade of Bachrach sweatshirts, tight rolled acid wash jeans, and mullets.

The ethnic make up of my family contributed to my love of food, although my taste buds were still typical of my young age. My Father’s side was Sicilian and Milanese. My Mother’s side was a melting pot of culture, Southern (first and foremost), then Dutch, Welsh, and Scottish. But the aromas and food that came out of the kitchens of our house as well as other family members were very memorable, comforting, and pleasant, for the most part. Everything from stuffed peppers and braciole to fried chicken and sweet potato pie.

I can remember visiting my Grandmother on the west side of Chicago, and when we walked into her kitchen there was always a pot of stuffed peppers ready for us to eat. The smell of garlic filled the air. Her simple sauce and a loaf of Milano bread from Butera to go along with it. Oh, and I can not forget her iceburg, tomato, and cucumber salad.

Getting past the 70’s and moving into the 80’s brought musical changes, fashion changes, and taste bud changes. We listened to the Cure, Motley Crue, and Run DMC. We wore college sweatshirts, MC Hammer pants, one white glove, and Reeboks. Foods of convenience took over our lives, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Rax, Taco John’s, Arby’s, and KFC. We were fed Hungry Man, Fox Deluxe, Gino’s, and Banquet. But there was still home cooking going on. I remember quite a bit of grilling at our house. And late into the 80’s, I started to dabble, just a bit, but couldn’t quite live up to the standards of Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet) or Justin Wilson (The Cajun Cook).

And then there was the 90’s and college, albeit short lived, but I did go. It was a year of boxed mac and cheese, hamburger helper, frozen pizza, ramen and cheap cuts of meat, cooked on a hibachi and marinated in beer. It was bad, but an experience that I had to have. I longed for my visits home, for good home cooking.

It was in the 90’s that things began to change for me. On what was supposed to be my Summer break, I decided, thanks to some family friends, that maybe college wasn’t for me. I was meant to do more with my life than to be radio air talent. That’s when I enrolled in EMT classes and joined the Volunteer Fire Department. With less than one year as a volunteer firefighter/emt, I left the VFD to pursue a career as a firefighter/emt.

Sean Ragusa as a bad ass Central Illinois firefighter.

Sean Ragusa as a bad ass Central Illinois firefighter.

This decision spanned a period of 23 years, starting in Central Illinois and slowly moved my way north, ending in Chicago. It was during that 23 years I immersed myself in a culture unknown to civilians. It was a Brotherhood like no other. And what keeps a Brotherhood happy and healthy? Good food! Yes, during my 23 years, I was able to hone my culinary skills. This was in between running calls and watching the Food Network (when they actually had cooking programs).

Long before my time and his nickname 'Chef.'

Long before my time and his nickname ‘Chef.’

 

Every shift, even after taking a position as a Lieutenant, after doing our busy work and training, I manned the kitchen. The guys were my guinea pigs and they didn’t mind because it was food, it was better than ordering out, and they didn’t have to cook it. And we dined on everything from comfort food (roasts, stews, etc) to some not so successful meals. One that still haunts me to this day was a lemon chicken incident that tasted very much like Pledge furniture polish.

During the last 10 years of my career, I toyed around with the idea of attending culinary school, but did not want to commit to a daily regimen. Arranging that with my job, seemed impossible. So, instead I took some cooking classes at Sur La Table and The Wooden Spoon. They were fun, interesting, and I did learn a few things. Then I met a girl, Mindy, and she mentioned something about attending culinary school. Once again, I tossed around the idea, but that’s about it. We then took a vacation, where we spent some time in Tuscany. We also took a cooking class together there, and I made the decision that when I got home, I would figure out a way to go to school.

The next thing I knew, I found myself at Le Cordon Bleu, learning knife cuts, braising, breaking down whole animals, and making croissants (not by popping open a can). That year was a whirlwind, until it was time for my externship. That’s when it got real, because I was going to spend 3 months cooking, in Italy!

Chef: The nickname, the real deal and the legend. This is Chef in Italy. My favorite picture of him, EVERRRRR!!!!

Nickname Chef becomes the real Chef!  Sean in Italy. My favorite picture of him, EVERRRRR!!!!

Two years later, I find myself writing this bio for Mandi, whom by the way, I met in Chicago, but that will also come out later. Sitting here, in my office, at home, in Nashville. My days off are different now, working at a restaurant will do that to a person. And since my move here, I’ve worked at three different restaurants, as well as started my own personal/private chef business.

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Who knows what the future will bring, however I think part of my future will include guest blogging for Mandicakes.

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Mandi Note: HELLS YEAH!!!!!  🙂 🙂 🙂  Also, that ‘Mindy chick’ is now his beautiful wife!!!  You can find this husband and wife duo hard at work on their business:  Let Us Feed You, Nashville.   I think a visit might be in order… I’m suddenly hungry. 

The happy couple in Nashville.

The happy couple in Nashville.

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