Chef Jason Connelly is modest, humble and passionate about his cooking. He is a graduate of the Baltimore International Culinary College. His culinary journeys have included Windows restaurant at the Renaissance Harbor Place Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland, the launch of Water Table restaurant by Dean James Max in Baltimore, Maryland, banquet chef at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes in Orlando Florida, the opening of Sea Level Restaurant & Ocean Bar at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and the opening of Stonegrill Restaurant at the JW Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. In his fourteen years of experience, Jason has been involved with local organizations such as Coalition for the Homeless and Kids in Distress here in Florida. Jason also has participated in the Las Olas Wine & Food Festival, SOBE Wine & Food Festival, Taste of the Nation and as a guest celebrity chef during 2010 Fleet Week aboard the USS Halyburton. Jason has been featured on Deco Drive & Bite with Belky’s sharing some of Sea Level’s best recipes and also on Cory’s Corner on FOX 45 in Phoenix, AZ delighting guests with food offerings at the JW resort. After a successful restaurant opening on the west coast, Jason was very happy to have another opportunity at Sea Level. Jason is very excited to have fun with the Sea Level chalk board by taking advantage of our great relationships with our local farmers to ensure the most fresh and seasonal foods. Jason is looking forward to reuniting with the Harbor Beach club members who enjoy the exciting Sea Level atmosphere on a daily basis.
Congratulations Chef Jason Connelly on being our Chef of the Month for July!
It was great chatting you with in person and getting to know your flavor…
1. What is the name of the Restaurant you work with and where are you based?
Sea Level Restaurant & Ocean Bar, Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, Florida
2. What is your birthplace?
3. What made you decide to become a chef?
I am very close to my grandma and used to watch her cook. During one summer, it just clicked and I have never looked back. I worked for MBNA in an office environment and decided to leave that for the culinary profession and replaced it working for less money and 12 – 14 hours. I used to make $7.00 an hour then but I fell in love with cooking. I started with the Marriott right away after leaving MBNA 14 years ago in Baltimore and worked my way to Florida, then Phoenix and back to Florida and opened up Sea Level in 2010. They required 2 years experience on their hiring application which I did not have but applied anyway and got the job. Marriott’s culture loves to groom people from the ground up which I truly appreciated. I am fortunate to work here and under great chefs and just became a sponge and started absorbing everything.
4. What do you enjoy doing outside of being a chef?
I cannot stay away from the Beach! I play Basketball and love playing with my dogs and spending time with my family. I like to keep things simple.
5. What is your favorite social media platform?
6. What is your Must Have Kitchen Tool?
Spoons. I love my spoons like Banquet Spoons. They are versatile and can use them on fish and veggies and saucing.
7. What is your specialty dish?
I like to make simple food. That has always been my style. You only need 4 or 5 components like your starches, veggies, a great sauce that is simple and quick. When your dish has really good ingredients, you do not need to change it up.
8. What’s the strangest thing you ever ate?
Tripe – I wanted to try it as I have never eaten it but the texture really messed me up and there won’t be a next time. : )
Chef Jason Connelly’s “Super Food” Kale Salad
3 oz Kale, chopped thin
1 oz Cherry tomato
1/2 oz Carrot
1/2 oz Cucumber
1/2 oz Radish
1 oz Quinoa
1 oz Almonds, toasted
3 oz Salmon, grilled
3 oz, Mahi Mahi, blackened
2 oz Jalapeno-agave vinny
Toss kale with the jalapeno-agave vinny and place into the bowl first.
Place grilled, chopped salmon on one side and then the flaked blackened mahi mahi on the other side.
In rows as shown lay the carrot, cucumber, radish and cherry tomato.
Finish with the quinoa and toasted almonds.
9. Who would you most like to cook for?
My Grandmother. I have always remained close and she has Alzheimer’s now. I have never cooked for her and would love to do it now and do it the way she used to cook when I was a kid.
10. Do you enjoy dining out on your free time? What is your favorite type of cuisine?
I love to dine out and try anything new and any new spots too. I get recommendations from my chef friends and try them out. I like to try spots off the beaten path like Gastropub, Pubbelly and Yardbird – Southern Table & Bar.
11. What features are important to you when selecting a Chef Coat? (particular fabric, style, sleeve length, pockets)
Egyptian Cotton, Mesh Sleeves and light fabrics.
~His experience and advice~
12. How long have you been a chef and where did you study?
11 years. I studied at the Baltimore International Culinary College.
13. What education or experience would you recommend for aspiring chefs?
School is nice to have the paper but I would have started with the Marriott right away if I had to go back in time. I learnt so little in school and in this business, everything is on the job training. I recommend that chefs should work with experienced chefs and get themselves in an experienced kitchen or hotel and just learn, learn, learn.
14. What would you recommend as far as on-the-job training?
Be hands on. From a cook to an executive chef, get yourself dirty and work the long hours. As a Senior Sous Chef, I feel people out so if they came from a restaurant like the Cheesecake factory where the environment is hectic, I know they have experience and can work cold-side. If they are green, I will have them working on salads and then rotate them. I also don’t want to put someone in a position where they can fail. I always ask them before assigning them to different areas.
15. Can you offer some advice for aspiring chefs?
Be patient. I see a lot of kids wanting everything now and you need to experience different areas in the kitchen like working cold-side, fried, sautéed and the grill. You have to earn the position.
16. What is your greatest challenge in getting the ingredients you need?
Weather. Sometimes, too much rain can wipe a crop out and also due to seasons, it is harder to get specific ingredients. When I was in Arizona, there was no pales cactus for my grilled cactus salad. Due to the success of it over there, when I came to Florida, I wanted to cook it here but it took us several weeks to get it but when we did eventually serve it, my customers loved it here in Florida.
17. Do you try to experience your competitors’ food? Do you ever get ideas from them?
All the time. I am always googling things, and my chef friends would recommend me to try specific places and I also research places similar to hotels on the beach like the Marriott. When I was in Arizona, I would always think of ideas to try for Florida. I experimented with making an edamame hummus and due to the success, it is it is now going to be included in our spa menu as well as included as a staple at the Sea Level restaurant.
18. Do you think it is important to visit the markets rather than just have standard orders?
For sure. I do 3 – 4 farm tours and bring my cooks with me and we build relationships with the farmers. As they get to know my style, they come to me and I collaborate with them to grow specific items for me. We also have our own garden growing herbs as well.
19. How do you test a new recipe without putting it on the permanent menu?
I have a chalkboard which is my testing ground and canvas. I display choices for our guests that they can eat during the day and for dinner. Guests see it and are always happy to try them. The Banh Mi Burger and Super Food Salad are very popular dishes. Based on the popularity levels, they will then go on the menu.
20. How do chefs use technology in their day to day operations?
They use computers and different software to develop recipes, plan menus, email suppliers and also use a point of sale system that helps with nutrition analysis and managing inventory. All of this helps in keeping food costs down and tracking schedules.
~2014 and The Future~
21. What dining trends do you see taking place for 2014?
The economy is improving and people are spending more at hotels now. They are interested in high priced items like good quality cuts of beef and chicken. There are a lot of Mexican restaurants opening up as well as asian restaurants like noodle bars, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Baby Boomers are playing a major role in the dining scenes especially the mature boomers and they are eating healthier like eating less carbs, more salads, less butter and more olive oil based foods and sometimes only fish more than the red meat or chicken. People are also using a lot of discount sites like Groupon too. They are leaving reviews about what they eat and where they went to eat. Fine dining is also coming back and its a lot more casual from the décor to the dresscode.
22. How has the revolution to eat healthy influenced you as a Chef?
Anything I do, I cook for my guests in mind. Most of them want gluten free dishes and I am always thinking of where I can leave butter out and use olive oil instead. As the health revolution evolves, at the Marriott, where we do 1,000 covers or guests in a night or day, when we do an audit, the tickets used to show all the changes guests are making to the meals so I plan ahead and keep those changes in mind so nothing needs to be modified and give our guests what they want. A great example is a kid had Celiac disease and was staying with his family here for a week. I customized his meals and it was so appreciative by his mom.
23. What do you think of “Green Kitchens?” Is it realistic to outfit your kitchens to be environmentally friendly?
Not 100%. At the Marriott, we use stainless steel and cast iron which are green friendly. We use high quality knives that last so they wear well with time. We use cloth instead of paper towels to cut down on wastage. We use induction banners so no gas is being used. We grown our own herbs in our garden and buy in bulk. We use veggie scraps for our sauces. Marriott also has a Corporate Green program.
24. How does Social Media play a role for Chefs today?
It allows us connect with people like we never did before and share recipes and you can see what restaurants people are enjoying and not as well.