When asked to describe his "chef behind the chef," Iron Chef Michael Symon doesn't mince words.
"He has the best hands for charcuterie in Cleveland; as good as I have had in Italy," Symon boasts. "Brad is a tireless worker with an incredible thirst for knowledge."
He's talking about Brad Ball, sous chef and charcuterie pro at Lolita in Tremont. Though he's been working there for the past two years, the 26-year-old chef's quest to become the best first began in the suburbs of Detroit.
"I started my cooking career in a bar and catering facility called Bakers of Milford in Michigan," says Ball. "There, I learned about pressure, and I started to develop my cooking chops."
While enrolled in the culinary arts program at Oakland Community College in Southfield, Mich., one of Ball's chef instructors suggested that he try to land a job at Five Lakes Grill. "He told me I needed to get in there," he recalls. "The chef was Brian Polcyn. He authored the book Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing."
That bit of advice turned out to be a life-changer for Ball, who ended up getting the job at Five Lakes Grill after all. "This was the most influential job I had as a young cook. That kitchen taught me so much about technique and honest cooking. Most importantly, during my time at Five Lakes, I learned the craft of charcuterie."
Then, in 2008, Ball got wind that Michael Symon was opening Roast in downtown Detroit. He quickly sent in his resume and was soon hired as a cook at the widely acclaimed steakhouse.
For two and a half years, Ball worked day and night butchering and managing the dry-aged beef program. That was until he heard of a sous chef opening that was coming available in one of Symon's signature Cleveland restaurants: Lolita in Tremont. "I heard of the opportunity and sprung on it," says Ball.
Now living in Ohio City, the recent transplant loves both his new home and his new boss. "Working with chef James Mowcomber has done so much to round out my skill set," says Ball. "Being here has given me the ability to focus on what I enjoy most: the craft of butchery and charcuterie."
Working tirelessly in Lolita's curing room, Ball set out to raise the quality of the restaurant's charcuterie program, which is on display daily through the Big Board, a rotating canvas of eight to 10 meats. "I have ownership of all the items on our Big Board," he says. "I try to make it as varied as possible by including smoked, dried, cooked and raw preparations."
Some of his proudest results to date include duck basturma, sweet red jagerwurst and his Ghost chile coppa. Ball also creates a life-altering mortadella, a smooth pork sausage studded with pistachios and back fat.
Beyond the board, Ball collaborates with chef Mowcomber on menu items like crispy pig tails and ears with fennel-onion agrodolce, pickled chile and cilantro, and the grilled trumpet mushroom with six-month cured lardo.
While his food speaks for itself, Lolita's GM Michael Boland recognizes a rising-star chef when he sees one.
"He's very talented, plain and simple," says Boland. "With him and Chef Mowcomber as a team, the food at Lolita has never been better."
The Big Boss wholeheartedly concurs.
"Ball is one of the true young talents," says Symon.