I’m fortunate to have made a lot of friends in the Cleveland chef community over the years and I have always found them to be such a generous, talented group. As the pandemic hit and stretched on, I’ve seen them pivot and adapt and still continue to give back too. One shining example of that is Chef John Selick.
Tell me a bit about your culinary background (where you’ve worked, studied, etc.)
Bachelors Degree from New England Culinary Institute
Certified Executive Chef
Chapter President of the American Culinary Federation Cleveland Chapter
Seven years with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel company at multiple properties before moving into healthcare for the past 16 years.
Tell me about the work you’ve been doing at the West Side Catholic Center. How did you get involved there? Who volunteers with you? What do you do?
When the State of Ohio shutdown all the restaurants last March, I was worried about the mental health of all the chefs who were suddenly unemployed. Mental health was a hot topic in the culinary industry before the pandemic, highlighted by the Anthony Bourdain tragedy. I wanted to find a way to get the chefs off the couch and keep them busy, and maybe do some good in the community. I have hundreds of chefs in my local American Culinary Federation chapter that I was worried about, so I called Jeff Jarrett and Brian Okin of Dinner in the Dark to talk about my concerns and see if there was a way our groups could work together. Brian Okin is like a grandfather to many of us and wanted to do something for the chef community as well, so we reached out to the Cleveland Food Bank and asked if they had a need for some chefs to help do some cooking. That same week, the Food Bank had to eliminate volunteers and utilize the National Guard, so they connected us with the West Side Catholic Center, who is one of their partners.
The WSCC also lost most of their volunteers as many of them were in the high risk age group for the coronavirus.
Between the ACF and DITD, we recruit chefs to come in on Tuesdays to come in and cook a meal for a hundred or more people in need from food in the WSCC’s pantry, which is mostly donated items or from the Food Bank. DITD, who traditionally hosted monthly events to raise money for charity, pivoted by inviting chefs to cook at the WSCC on the last Tuesday of the month and also started selling T Shirts to help raise money for the WSCC and have raised nearly $2,000. The other weeks, chefs from the ACF step in and help. The executive chef from Progressive Field, Paul Molnar, has been there every week. We’ve also had the team from Marriott and Wasserstrom come in and cook. Ky-Wai Wong is a chef instructor at Tri-C and helped out a few weeks ago, and then he brought one of his classes in to cook. He wanted to teach them that every meal you prepare is important, even if it’s working with donated items and served in a Styrofoam container. Sanson Produce Company has started donating any kind of produce the chefs would like to help create delicious and dignified meals.
What has been the most meaningful part of your work at the WSCC?
I’ve supported the Cleveland Food Bank for years with their annual fundraisers that helps feed our community, but this opportunity to makes an immediate and direct impact to people in need. We have literally taken our community work to the streets. One day I overheard one of the people in line say, “I love when the “cooks” come on Tuesdays, I’ve been waiting all week for this.” I thought about how hard this person’s life must be right now, and we gave them something to look forward to. I was never more proud to be called a “cook” in my life.
You’re a chef who’s always given a lot of your talent back to the community. Tell me about any other community organizations that you work with and why they’re meaningful to you.
I’ve worked with the Cleveland Food Bank, as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lorain and the Akron Food Bank for many years. It seems like of an obvious cause for a chef to want to support; we have a desire to want to feed people and our skills are an obvious fit. I am also a supporter of Autism Speaks, I do it for my son as he is on the spectrum. I have been a guest chef for events in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City. I’ve had a lot of my chef friends join me at these events and they always turn out to be the best event of the year. I’m incredibly proud to be able to support them.
Why do you think Cleveland chefs are such a civic-minded group?
Isn’t it interesting how Cleveland chefs are that way? I know so many of them personally, and they are great people. I’m lucky they’re my friends. I think if they were plumbers, they’d still be great people and would be doing things for the community.
How have you seen Cleveland chefs pull together particularly in the midst of all the chaos of 2020?
They are all working so hard just to survive and get through this. That being said, all of them reached out to me asking about the Autism Speaks event that was supposed to happen last month. When I told them it was rescheduled for next March, they said count them in.