Top chef has local roots
OUT OF THE BLUES
by Maggie Judi
It’s fair to say that one of Monticello’s most venerable eating establishments is Wagon Wheel Pizza. The perfect thickness of crust, tomato sauce with just the right balance of acidic savoriness and sweet tomato-ie hints. Lots of creamy cheese, fresh toppings.
Are you dialing 587-2766 yet? Back in the day, a perk of working a rare double shift at the Shake Shack for me, was ordering take-out calzones and salad from Suzy Peebles’ pizza joint.
And for her great nephew, Andrew Corrao, working his first job amidst the flour and pizza ovens was equal parts delicious and fascinating.
Andrew describes dipping his toe into the culinary pool for the first time this way, “It was fascinating to put flour and water and sugar and salt and yeast in a bowl and mix it together and it became a pizza crust. It was like ‘what is happening!?’ It just seemed like magic to me. I wanted to know what I was doing and I wanted to make people happy by doing it.”
The seeds of Andrew’s culinary passion were sown at Wagon Wheel and also in his home with his family.
“Cooking was always a big part of the Corrao household. As Italians, it’s what we do really good together,” recalls the light-hearted pastry chef. “My parents always made sure that in high school we sat down every night and had dinner together. I loved that!”
Andrew Corrao, who graduated from Monticello High School in 2007, has established himself as the best pastry chef, not only in Utah, but in the Western United States. He recently completed competition in a year-long endeavor.
The first step was being named Pastry Chef of the Year for Utah, and then advancing to the Western States competition, where he won a gold medal and title of Pastry Chef of the Year for the Western United States.
In both competitions, Chef Andrew is allotted only two hours – and one apprentice – to create at least a two-foot high chocolate sculpture, four portions of a plated cold desert, and 24 servings of a mini desert.
Two hours!! Most of us take that long to eat breakfast, brush our teeth and comb our hair! You can bet with that small amount of time, the Chef must practice, practice, practice.
So what motivates a guy to spend nearly 90 hours a week honing a craft that will soon be picked apart by judges and diners alike?
What began in the culinary arts institute at Utah Valley University has turned into huge success. Chef Andrew first studied to become a savory chef.
“When I was in culinary school, I detested everything pastry,” explained Andrew. “It was too tedious, too much math, too much work.
“It wasn’t until I got into the industry and became a chef that I obtained some kind of discipline to truly learn the craft, and in doing so, I fell in love with it.”
Chef Andrew has an inner competitive nature that drives his work ethic. “If I am weak at something, I HAVE to be better at it,” he explains. “Competitive not so much with other people but I have to be better than I was yesterday.”
Andrew says his first job after culinary school provided him with inspiration that has never left. His first boss told him these words of wisdom, “A chef should never be consistent, a chef should be consistently better.”
He continues, “You have to learn what an egg does to cookies, and once you know that, you can manipulate how to really make cookies. So, everyday I make the recipe and then tweek it.
“I take five percent of the sugar out, and I add three percent egg and I subtract six percent of the flour. I’m constantly tweeking things because it’s chemistry!”
As you can see, and as I’m sure you wish you could taste, Chef Andrew’s pastry creations are also works of art. He says he finds inpiration everywhere, from his walks to work, to his childhood in San Juan County, to seasonal and local foods he is passionate to work with.
In Andrew’s words, he loves to create “sugar garnishes that are flying off the plate. There is just so much more freedom and creativity.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing for Chef Andrew is chocolate sculpture, a subject which isn’t taught in culinary school, but something he needed desperately to learn in order to compete.
“I am entirely self taught with show pieces,” he states. “I taught myself building showpieces and all the techniques; I researched and learned it myself. It’s a challenge for me.”
Plated desserts are what comes naturally. “I have a lot of creativity, and it flows easily on a dessert plate for me,” said Andrew. “But chocolate doesn’t come naturally for me; it’s a challenge.”
Andrew recalls his unusual chocolate learning curve, “My first chocolate showpiece competition I did horribly, but I wanted to learn and I had to start somewhere. In two years, I went from doing horribly to being one of the best in the country. I accept it as one of my weaknesses but I love that challenge.
“If I feel like I am not proud of something, I refuse to let that be the norm. I will never settle for mediocrity; I won’t.”
Chef Andrew says that a lot of the drive and inspiration he uses now has roots in his formative years at Monticello High School, where he was a part of many activities, including drama, debate club, Savvy, stunting for the cheerleaders, and two years on the student council.
He remembers with fondness the teachers who believed in him, adding, “Growing up in Monticello in such a small school, I wasn’t just another face to teachers, I was an individual.
“I was a person that they felt they wanted to personally invest their time into. I was able to build relationships that were so much deeper which allowed me to feel like I could do anything and be anyone.”
And boy has he become someone. Chef Andrew recently returned from competing for National Pastry Chef of the year. He did not win, something he said, is “a huge let down and sad, to say the least.”
However, Andrew received an invitation from one of the judges to try out for the United States Culinary Olympic team!
Until those tryouts, Chef Andrew will continue his job as Banquet Chef and Pastry Chef of Bambara Restaurant at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Salt Lake City. Along the way, he will continue to hone his competition skills after hours to make the team.
If Andrew succeeds (my money is on the kid from Wagon Wheel), he will spend four years with his teammates practicing their craft and compete in Luxembourg and Germany in the Culinary Olympics!! Who knew that pizza crust could be such propulsion!
All of this experience has inspired and motivated Chef Andrew, but his most inspiring moment happened at the most stressful moment of the recent National Competition. He recalls with some emotion,
“In the middle of the competition, I had to walk my 3.5 foot tall chocolate showpiece out to the judges table. I’m slowly bringing it out, making sure it’s not going to fall or shatter. I set it on my presentation table and in the background, I can hear my dad cheering me on.
“Clapping screaming, it was probably the most rewarding thing that ever happened to me. Even though I lost, the support of my dad and my family meant the world to me.”
And that, my friends, is Chef Andrew in a nutshell. Hardworking, competitive, and, driving it all, a guy who just really loves his family.
Occasionally, Chef Andrew carves out some time from his 90-hour work week to come home to visit. And like most of us ex-SJCers, he heads right for something good to eat. Wagon Wheel Pizza
“It’s on my priority list,” he chuckles, “I just roll into town and I’m like ‘Suzy, I’m coming over!’”
Now that sounds like a delicious plan.