Zach Bell, former Executive Chef at Addison Reserve, Delray Beach, Florida, USA. Image courtesy Addison Reserve
Zach Bell is a deeply passionate Chef trained by culinary giants Andrew Camellini and Marc Poidavin. Zach has applied and blended his classical French training to the member owned country club Addison Reserve and excelled with many accolades from the members and guests. Zach has recently moved on to a new adventure, but he left a stamp on the industry. ~ Diana DeLucia
Gk: Where did your interest in the culinary arts begin?
I was born in Orlando and spent my formative years in Clermont, Florida; a small town about 25 miles west of Orlando. I am not sure if it was my love for food that led me into the kitchen, or my greater need for pocket change as a teenager! Washing dishes and then making sandwiches at a local restaurant in Clermont provided me with not only that spending money, but also with my newfound need for the action, debauchery and adrenaline rush that a restaurant kitchen could provide. As I moved through the kitchen and gained more experience, that original drive evolved into the satisfying feeling that hospitality provides as you connect with your peers and guests through food and good times. My first mentor, a former chef at Disney, recognized the spark in my eye and began to coach me and bring me classic and technique cookbooks to further awaken my interest. Even though I taped every episode of Great Chefs I could, and tried as many recipes as I could get my hands on, cooking never seemed an option to pursue as a career to my family. I had started on a physical therapy track in college in Orlando, and I needed to move to a job closer to school. I wanted to stay in the kitchen as I truly enjoyed going into work every day. I was hired at Marriott’s Orlando World Center near Disney, which opened me up to a whole new world of corporate and kitchen structure. As I immersed myself in the job, I discovered that I was becoming pretty competitive: I had a strong need to do my best. This need became satisfied only by learning and succeeding in the kitchen, soon overtaking any desire to continue in my Physical Therapy studies. It was spurred on by my Sous Chef at the Marriott at the time, Chef Jon. He sat me down and said, “Why are you going to school for Physical Therapy? Why don’t you go to Cooking School….it’s clearly where your passion lies?” I started to think about it seriously, there was a school in Orlando, New York, and Miami. I followed his recommendation and changed course. In 1994 I enrolled in the two-year program at Johnson and Wales in Miami.
I had to do work-study to help finance school and strategically elected to work in the Career Development Office, where I assumed I would be exposed to job opportunities. It paid off, and when Chef Marc Poidevin, formerly of Tavern on the Green and Daniel’s Sous Chef at Plaza Athénée, opened up shop in Miami, naturally I sent four of my resumes for every one of other kids’. I got the job. It was my first exposure to real French cooking and I loved it. I loved the nuance of technique, I loved the difficulty, and I loved the pursuit for perfection. I was paid peanuts, but it didn’t matter – I was learning so much. My internship was about a year later, and after it was completed – the internship site offered me more than double what I was making. I turned it down to go back for peanuts and a few months later, I found myself selling everything I had and moved with Marc to Manhattan for the opening of Le Cirque 2000.
GK: What was that experience like?
Opening Le Cirque was insane! It seemed like we started with about 70 - 80 people in the kitchen and I had flashbacks of soccer tryouts as a kid. You’d get on the train in the morning hoping that when you got to work that your name would still be on the list hanging in the kitchen. If it wasn’t; then you didn’t get the job….in a word – nerve-wracking! Thankfully my name somehow stayed on the list and although it was a very difficult learning experience, it was also a period in culinary history that will never be repeated, and I am blessed to have been a part of it.
GK: How did you come to work for Daniel Boulud?
Andrew Carmellini was the Sous Chef at Le Cirque 2000 and I was assigned to him. Andrew saw my passion and he drove me harder than anyone had. When Andrew left Le Cirque 2000 in 1998 to open Cafe Boulud on 76th street, I followed him a couple of months later. When we started – it was nuts as both teams from Restaurant Daniel and Cafe Boulud were working in the same space as the new Restaurant Daniel was being finished and a lot of the guys were competing for spots at Daniel…. It was just as nerve-racking being on the opening team at Cafe Boulud as it was at Le Cirque 2000. The first three months were crazy, it was some of the highest -pressure cooking you could think of, you never knew who was going to be in the dining room that night from Jean Louis Palladin to Gray Kunz to Micheal Guerard; you name the chef – they came through! Tasting menus were different for every person for every course for these guys - the number of notebooks I filled is amazing. I put my head down and soon became Andrew’s Sous Chef.
GK: When did you come back to Florida?
As Daniel was planning Café Boulud Palm Beach in the Spring of 2002, my hard work paid off and he offered me the opportunity to open his first restaurant outside of New York! Moving to Palm Beach in early 2003 during the final phases of construction, setting up a restaurant from the ground up and teaching Daniel’s vision to the staff was the single hardest and greatest test and experience of my career. We won over the local crowd after proving ourselves and became an active partner in the community. Working with the high caliber chefs over the years allowed me to experience ingredients, techniques and kitchen cultures that I would never have known had I not made the right choices in the pursuit of my career. I relish every minute of it – good and bad.
GK: How did you get the position at Addison Reserve?
I was tricked. I wasn’t looking for a job at all. A “friend of a friend of a friend” called me and wanted a reservation. I remember, they told me who he was – and I had no clue. I set them up with a nice table, put a good waiter on them, and then gave instruction to the kitchen to throw down a middle course. I was tied up on a VIP tasting dinner in the private room and had no idea what they had. Michael McCarthy introduces himself later as I was in the dining room and asked me to come to see his construction project. I always loved kitchen design, and it was slow, so I said sure. Of course, being from a small town in Central Florida, I had never set foot inside a country club before, so I threw on the off-duty chef uniform of jeans and a casual shirt and road on down to check it out. Apparently, I should have dressed for an interview, as the next day a headhunter called me to follow up and mentioned so….seems like I found myself in the middle of a job offer. Anyway, after a little dancing around – I found myself in a new adventure. I was excited at the prospect of doing something I had not experienced before, I had done a lot of openings, building teams and I really enjoyed teaching the old school brigade style of operating under Daniel but I was looking forward to a new experience.
GK: So how did you adjust to being here?
The first year was rough! Fortunately, we were closed when I started and I was able to build the team and structure the environmental style that I was used to. If I was walking into a fully functional operation and trying to change systems – I would have had a very different experience. Once construction was completed and we opened in the height of the season, I realized how much of a monster this operation really was…so many moving parts, tough members, very different expectations than I was used to, a real challenge….not the cushy country club job I always thought it was from the outside looking in! I had nightmares of being shitcanned or storming out after continuous orders of burnt broccoli wore me down. But….. I’m a line cook…so I adjust quickly.
I began to readjust and fine tune everything. The members were vocal, and they were not afraid to say what they wanted or to tell me how they felt. Having the feedback, good or bad, enabled me to fine-tune the menu to their needs. I wanted to succeed in making them happy. I tweak things every day, week, month and year. The members here are residents and don’t cook at home and we must make them happy. There is no escaping if I screw up their dinner at night as I am going to see them the next day!
GK: How do you feel now that you have recreated the culinary culture here at Addison Reserve?
Now that I have established myself here, on a club level, I feel that I am very fortunate to work with Michael McCarthy and the supportive membership here. They have full faith in me that I will do my best to provide the best culinary program that I can, and to that end am allowed to work quite autonomously. Their approach is to hire the best people to do the job and then let them perform unhindered.
Addison Reserve is a residential private golf club. From my perspective, the private club business is by far THE truest expression of ‘hospitality’ that there is within the many genres one could choose from in the culinary world. You are in their house…cooking for their family, their friends, and neighbors daily. The pursuit of perfection is constant and omnipresent, and this is what makes me thrive.
GK: In addition to being a finalist four times for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, your list of awards is long and impressive. Which has meant the most to you?
Well, just being on that shortlist four times was a win for me – to be among the amazing chefs we have in the South was an honor. I do appreciate recognition when it comes, but truly it is the whole team that earns and deserves those credits as well. The greatest reward for me is seeing the many guys and gals that have worked for me succeed and do well, hoping that I was able to contribute to that in some small way.
GK: In 2010, Share Our Strength honored you with a National Community Leadership Award. How did you become involved in this organization, and what about it do you find most rewarding?
I became a host for the Tasteful Pursuit Dinner in Palm Beach (now No Kid Hungry Dinners) at Café Boulud. It started there, hosting annually, then traveling to other cities to participate at other chefs’ dinners. When I left Café Boulud, I knew I wanted to stay involved and had the opportunity to breathe life back into the Palm Beach Taste of the Nation which had long gone defunct. I gathered together a great group of chef and community chairs – and we’ve been off to the races ever since, growing the event each year and making it more special as we evolve. Working around guests that can afford to eat out several times a week, we all feel there is a huge disparity looming over our area when kids are going to bed and to school hungry on a daily basis. In an area such as ours, with such vast resources, we don’t feel that this is acceptable and frankly is downright embarrassing. Our goal is to help our local organizations get the tools and outreach they desperately need to be effective in combatting childhood hunger.
Note: Zach is a dedicated member of the Palm Beach community participating in several local charitable culinary events. His work with No Kid Hungry takes him to Capitol Hill several times lobbying for Child Nutrition. In 2010, Share our Strength recognized Zach with a National Community Leadership Award for his work with the No Kid hungry campaign. Zach continues his work with Share our Strength as Chair of Palm Beach’s Taste of the Nation event and No Kid Hungry dinners.
We all wish Zach all the best in his new adventures.
Pappadelle with Manilla Clams and Porcini