Life moved fast for Zachary Ladner after moving to Cleveland. After just four months on the job, nobody should expect to helm a restaurant kitchen like that of the 40-year-old Giovanni's (25550 Chagrin Blvd., 216-831-8625, giovanniscleveland.com). But big ambition isn't a surprise when it's coming from a young chef from Texas. After two cooks moved on shortly after his hire, owner Carl Quagliata had a decision to make about the future of his upscale Beachwood institution.
"I wasn't sure if he was going to hire another chef or promote me," says Ladner, who originally hired in as a line cook, training to move to sous. "I told him I'd really like the opportunity to run the kitchen and he let me. I started in February and by June I was head chef."
Ladner almost didn't become a chef at all. As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, he was a math major who began hosting dinner parties for friends that eventually turned into multi-course affairs. He decided to try his hand at restaurant work and ended up at the Culinary Institute of America. It was there he met his future wife Alyssa, a fellow student who happened to be a Cleveland native. After moving to Cleveland, Ladner joined Giovanni's in 2010 and Alyssa soon followed as pastry chef.
Though Ladner may have quickly planted his feet firmly in Ohio, his next great undertaking speaks clearly to his San Antonio upbringing. Recently, Scene broke the news that he and Quagliata will be opening a barbeque restaurant in Mayfield Village. While it might seem a departure from Giovanni's, it's familiar fare to Ladner. Living in Texas, he says, eateries infused with Mexican and barbeque flavors were plentiful, giving him an early affinity for the likes of chiles and limes. In fact, he did his externship at Hudson's on the Bend, a rustic steakhouse in Austin where live-fire cooking was prevalent.
"It was an old fine-dining restaurant, but we had a big smoker and cooked everything on a wood-burning grill," says Ladner. "Even at that level, those influences were pervasive."
Born to a military family, Ladner moved throughout Texas, and later Massachusetts, before attending culinary school. Growing up he would fish with his grandfather and uncle in the Gulf of Mexico. His appreciation for seafood grew while spending three summers on Cape Cod and eventually carried on to culinary school, where he developed an interest in meat and seafood butchery as a way to guarantee freshness.
"We do a tremendous amount of butchery for a small restaurant," he says. "I think that's missing from a lot of places. You lose connection."
Lambs are bought in whole at Giovanni's, for example, then broken down in the kitchen and turned into daily specials. One of the most popular is the lamb shoulder chop, prepared sous vide, a method Ladner has long championed. Transitioning to new techniques is never without its challenges, especially when coming on board at a restaurant with Giovanni's history.
"We've had customers who've been here since day one," he says. "Coming in, there are expectations. You have to be sure that when you change chefs there's a consistency."
Working with Quagliata has been a big part of that. More than a restaurateur, he became a mentor, guiding Ladner through pleasing longtime guests while adding his own flair, something that will no doubt carry on to their forthcoming venture.
"We have to keep the traditions intact but evolve the menu and concept," he explains. "The food scene 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago, was substantially different than it is now. You have to keep up with the times."