Fernando Cruz, the new Executive Chef at The Hotel at Auburn University, brings a breath of fresh air to this quarter century old establishment.
Puerto Rico born, Chef Cruz worked as a dish washer and any other jobs available in the dining industry as a means to earn spending money during his teen years. As he worked his way up, he knew he wanted to become a chef and eventually an executive chef — preferbly before he celebrated his 30th birthday.
He achieved his goal with time to spare.
The Hotel at Auburn University is his second executive chef position at prestigious restaurants. He comes to his current position from Ernie's Restaurant in La Quinta Resort-Waldorf Astoria Collection Resort in California. Prior to that, he worked in various esteemed restaurants throughout the United States, Europe and Puerto Rico.
The result of his career choice led him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. There he met the love of his life, who just happens also to be a trained chef. They have three children.
His wife, a stay-at-home mom, is actually "chef mom." When asked if he cooks at home, he laughs and shakes his head no, leaving the culinary choices to his very capable wife.
Chef Cruz is responsible for overseeing all culinary concepts and operations for Ariccia, Piccolo and the hotel, including hiring and training all members of the culinary team.
Talking with him and seeing his passion for excellence in every component of the dining experience — from buying quality food to presentation to customer service — I can understand the reasons behind his success.
The first order of business for Chef Cruz at The Hotel at Auburn University was to transform the main menu into one offering fresh Italian inspired cuisine using fresh, local ingredients to create seasonal items.
When asked about his favorite dish to prepare at work, his answer is the Garlic and Pecorino Chard Market Oysters, with lemon drops. I have to admit everything on the menu looks and sounds delicious. Check out their web site to see more (www.auhcc.com/d/auburn/media/Ariccia_Menus/).
His hands-on approach coupled with his respect of and appreciation for the loyalty of his staff seems to be a winning combination.
Getting veteran staffers to endorse new ideas can prove a challenge just as changing old menu favorites can be risky, but Chef Cruz seems to have a handle on both. He believes in training as the approach for both introducing newly added menu items and updating old customer favorites in his vision for the restaurant.
When asked about his goal for Ariccia, without hesitation, Chef Cruz said he wanted his restaurant to become the favorite in the area for locals and visitors alike.
Expanding on that, he sees Ariccia as being the restaurant that pops into everyone's mind first when considering going out for a meal, any meal, or a glass of wine mid-afternoon.
And yes, Ariccia serves three full meals each day, plus offers a bar menu, making for very busy and long days for this energetic and personable chef.
I asked Chef Cruz about his philosophy on accommodating special dietary needs. If he had not already won my full support, his answer to this question captured my heart.
I was so pleased he was very knowledgeable about potential food allergies and cross contamination, taking medically mandated dietary constraints very seriously. He seemed to be impressed with Rick's chef's card that we give to every server we encounter. He promised we can trust him to keep Rick safe.
Without a doubt, Chef Fernando Cruz greatly exceeded our expectations. No question in my mind that this young, ambitious chef knows exactly what he is doing, and is doing it very well. We look forward to dining with him, and I have no reservations at all about recommending Ariccia and Piccolo to you.