Leonardo Maurelli III, affectionately known as Chef Leo, will take over as executive chef at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center on June 16.
Maurelli is coming from Central, where he served in the same position while building a reputation as one of Montgomery's most creative chefs.
It's also a homecoming of sorts for Maurelli, a native of Panama who has lived in Auburn since entering Auburn University's Hotel and Restaurant Management program in 1998. He's worked at numerous Auburn restaurants over the years, including at Amsterdam Cafe as the executive chef from 2003 to 2005, and at the AU Hotel from 2009 to 2012 as the Chef De Partie, Banquet Chef and Chef de Cuisine.
"I went to school at Auburn; I graduated from Auburn; and the idea was always to come back home," Maurelli said. "And so when the opportunity presented itself, I was able to come back home and take over at the hotel. It was kind of like a no-brainer.
"I’m super excited. It’s like a homecoming. I’m ready to hit the ground running. I’m ready to be back at Auburn for good."
Hans van der Reijden, managing director of the AU hotel, said Chef Leo isn't the only familiar face returning to the hotel. Maurelli will be joined by Executive Sous Chef Brandon Burleson and Paul Diaz, Chef de Cuisine Arricia & Piccolo.
"It’s almost like the famous line in the 'Blues Brothers' — bringing the band back together," van der Reijden said. "When they leave college, they work for us for a couple years to try and expand their horizons and then go and seek out opportunities for growth.
"At some point, if they want to come back, the door is always wide open, especially for three guys like these."
Van der Reijden said that he thinks Maurelli did a "phenomenal" job at Central and that he's yet to hear one person who ate there who was not blown away by the experience.
Although he admits that it's bittersweet leaving Montgomery, Maurelli said he's ready to hit the ground running "with a new team, with a new vision and a new direction."
Van der Reijden says that an executive chef needs to be somebody who is not only creative on the culinary scene, but also possesses incredible leadership skills. That's especially important at the AU Hotel, which, in addition to having Arricia and Piccolo, caters a lot of events and serves an academic purpose as well. Both the executive chef and executive sous chef teach a food-production class in the university's hospitality management program.
"There are so many different layers to the responsibilities of the executive chef for this hotel that, if I had to picture my perfect candidate, it was absolutely Leo," said van der Reijden, who added that he's excited about the team and its potential to take the AU hotel to an even higher level.
Maurelli said his immediate goal is getting the lay of the land and meeting with his team.
"It’s weird for a chef to say that the food is almost secondary because the food means everything, but it’s about the proper way to start things, and it’s in the building blocks and focusing on building a really strong foundation for the people that are there so my team can grow and be successful," Maurelli said. "That’s the kind of process I’m going to take when I return."
As far as the food is concerned, Maurelli said seasonality is important to him and that he runs a "locally-responsible" operation.
"For me, it was more about being able to support locals. What we do is we buy everything that we can that we need locally. We start that way," Maurelli said. "We move from the inside out. If you can imagine a circle — the nucleus is always local. And then as we move farther and farther, we always try to source local and regional, in state before we go out of state, and then definitely try not to use import products."
Van der Reijden says that Maurelli is another great addition to a blossoming culinary scene in Auburn.
"I think Auburn has changed so much over the years that we’ve been here, where at some point we were a food desert. I think now there is so much creativity, there’s great chefs that are doing great things, and the community really appreciates it," Van der Reijden said. "I think people had to previously drive to Birmingham or Atlanta or Montgomery to have a great meal. We’re just adding to opportunities and possibilities for people to dine in their local community at a very high level, and we are obviously excited to get someone like him in to take it to a whole new level."
Ultimately, for Maurelli, he's just excited to come back home.
"I've been looking forward to it for a long time," he said. "I’m looking forward to bringing in a little bit of what I do, my philosophy, and my food back to Auburn. I’m really just itching to hit the ground running and take the hotel in a new direction."