The new executive chef of the Grand Geneva Resort learned on the job in the restaurants

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Kristine M. Kierzek

Stepping into his new role as Executive Chef at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, Dustin Urbanik will oversee all of the resort’s restaurants, cafes and lounges, including Geneva ChopHouse, Grand Cafe and Ristorante Brissago.

Working in restaurant kitchens, Urbanik credits his time under Chef Mark Weber at the Mason Street Grill as a major influence. Cooking in the Midwest has also increased his appreciation for local farmers, and his goals as executive chef include building relationships with local farmers and producers, including Pinn Oak Farms, Yuppie Hill and nearby Simple Bakery, and the supply of microgreens from Creator Farms in Bristol.

This summer, it will update menus, refresh brunch at the Geneva ChopHouse, and add Low Country seafood porridge at the Grand Cafe.

Urbanik, a father of three, lives in Lindenhurst, Illinois, with his wife and family.

Question: How did you start your culinary career?

Answer: I started in the restaurant business when I was 18 because I wanted to earn money to go to college and become a firefighter. I was serving and going to college. Naturally, I would just drift into the kitchen and watch the cooks.

I didn’t have the funds to continue going to school, so I thought I would try cooking. I’ve been cooking since I was 20.

Q: Did you attend a cooking school or did you learn on the job?

A: Strictly at work. Whatever you put into a task, discipline or hobby, I believe you will get through it. I wanted to go to culinary school. It was not in the cards for me financially.

I knew I wanted to be an executive chef and open a restaurant one day. … I tell the young cooks who come under me that it’s all in the mindset. If you have the right attitude and know what you want, and put the energy into it, it will happen. I knew I had to work harder and put more time and research and development into myself personally to get where I wanted in this industry.

Q: Now that you’re at the executive chef stage, what else do you want to master?

A: I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do in the hospitality industry. Sometimes there is a lot of stigma as a hotel chef versus a restaurant chef.

This summer, we are really focusing on local suppliers. We get our microgreens from a farm in Burlington. I want to continue things like this. I think that’s an underutilized aspect for us. As a large format resort, that doesn’t mean we can’t use local farms for a specific product. We may not be able to have local organic tomatoes for all our restaurants all year round, but we can have local in season.

Q: Every chef has a lesson learned the hard way, something that sticks with them in the kitchen. What is your?

A: I landed my very first job as a cook in a restaurant in Antioch, Illinois at David’s Bistro. I prepared and placed salads and desserts. I was making a creme brulee. I was burning the sugar and just couldn’t get it to work like I had in the past. For some reason it didn’t work, and I kept going until I scabbed over.

He turns off, next thing I know the chef/restaurant owner comes back with creme brulee in hand and says what is it? Creme brulee. No. What did you put on it? Sugar. In fact, I had put salt on it. That’s why it wouldn’t easily form the crust. Not only did I put salt on it, but I served it to the chef/owner’s dentist.

I have never forgotten it and use it as a tool for young cooks. It taught me that it’s important to have your set up so you can perform at a high level.

Q: Tell us about your progression in professional kitchens. Who did you consider as mentors?

A: One of my biggest mentors was chef Mark Weber, who at the time was at the Mason Street Grill at the Pfister Hotel. I learned professionalism, discipline, a lot of the whys of cooking. I learned a lot of basic techniques not only in cooking, but also what it takes to be a chef. I spent four years working there for him. I left because my wife and I had just started a family. I was commuting to Milwaukee. I wanted to be closer to home, and there was an opportunity closer…

I came back to the Marcus family because Chief Weber contacted me and asked if I was interested in returning. I was. I missed the culture I had in Milwaukee. So I went to Le Grand Genève, working for three years under Chef Nelly Buleje. There are so many ways to learn, so much knowledge passed down from chef to chef.

Q: Hotels and the hospitality industry have been hit hard in recent years. What do you see for the future?

A: During COVID we closed for three months, but I will always remember our first day of reopening. We reopened the ChopHouse on a Tuesday. After three months of closure, we have made 225 seats. We haven’t slowed down since.

Q: What do you like to highlight in a menu?

A: One of the things I like to use the most, because I think it’s special and you can’t have it everywhere, is foie gras. I like to use it as an appetizer or as a mousse to garnish a steak.

Q: Where do you find inspiration for menus and ingredients?

A: I’m definitely more of a cookbook type. He also goes to different restaurants that are doing something new and unique. … My wife and I have a child-focused life right now, but when we go out, our favorite restaurant is Rosemary, that Joe Flamm has just opened in Chicago.

Q: What was the first cookbook you bought for yourself?

A: The first one that I still have to this day and use a lot is “The bible of flavors” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.

The other one I like is “Taste and technique” by Naomi Pomeroya chef in Portland, Oregon.

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Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or native Wisconsinites, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or guest chefs. To suggest people to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com

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