LHS Alumnus to Prepare Fine Dining Dish At Table to Table’s Chef’s Gala September 27
Cliff Crooks, a 1995 graduate of Livingston High School, is one of the star chefs who will prepare a course, which will be paired with wine, at the Table to Table food rescue program’s Chef’s Gala next week, on Wednesday, September 27. Table to Table collects prepared and perishable food that would otherwise be wasted and delivers it to organizations serving the hungry in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Passaic Counties. Crooks, culinary director of BLT Restaurant Group, joined BLT in 2010 as executive chef of BLT Steak New York. He has worked at Salute, the Blue Water Grill, and Gramercy Tavern; competed on “Top Chef;” and was a judge on “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Chopped Junior.”
“I am the best dishwasher, cook, manager, GM, chef, executive chef, prep cook in the company. I am the therapist, psychologist, motivator. Somewhere in there, I get to create the menus. If I am lucky, I get to cook.” He and his mother, Judith, younger brother, Nicholas, and father, Calvin, made their home on Wingate Drive in Livingston after living in Taiwan for five years thanks to his father’s position at American Express. “While I, as a seven or eight year old, wasn’t keen to leave my friends, the experience was awesome and I actually didn’t want to move back to the U.S.,” Crooks said. He attended the Taipei American School, and took a lot of Mandarin classes. “The first thing I had to learn was my address!” he said. At Livingston High School, Crooks said, “I was a good student, maybe with a touch of an attention issue.” He fondly recalled faculty members such as Don Schwartz and Anthony La Femina, who were “great teachers and human beings,” and various sports and clubs. While attending LHS, Crooks dipped his toe into the culinary world as a host at Panevino Ristorante in Livingston. “I loved it because I got to see my friends and people I went to school with,” he said. “And there was excitement on a day-to-day basis. It could be chaotic. There was always something going on.” At the time, Crooks had no interest in the kitchen of that, or any other, restaurant. “I enjoyed the people-facing aspect, it was entertaining, and I could be entertaining,” he said. But somewhere along the line, he found himself wanting to learn what Cliff Crooks, culinary director of BLT Restaurant Group, is shown here in the dining room of BLT Prime on the Upper East Side of New York City. The 1995 Livingston High School graduate is one of the chefs selected to prepare a course at the Table to Table Chef’s Gala on September 27. LHS Alumnus to Prepare Fine Dining Dish At Table to Table’s Chef’s Gala September 27 was going on “in the back of the house.”
He left Panevino and he got his first taste of cooking at Marada Blue in Caldwell while waiting tables in the restaurant across the street. “The chef was young, maybe he partied too much on a Saturday night, and we needed to get things done on Sunday service,” Crooks said. “He would just show me how to do it. I got a bar shift right away, and the office was right off the cooking line. I would make something, bring it over for his approval.” The owner, Adolfo Marisi, found out, and asked Crooks to work with him. “I trained with him and family, making pasta with his mother, doing the laundry for both restaurants, picking up things, and so forth.” Rather than attend culinary school, Crooks chose to work for free in order to learn. “You keep learning and soaking in as much information as possible. You’re there to put your head down,” he said. While working for free at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center, its executive banquet chef, Barry D’Onofrio, told Crooks that the senior chefs felt that those who worked for free were ahead of the ones who went to school and were getting paid their first couple of months. “The more you learn and start putting the pieces of your own puzzle together for yourself, make your own decisions, the better,” Crooks said.
Despite being called a celebrity chef, Crooks is reluctant to use the term. “I think we coined the phrase because you are given the opportunity to be on a larger platform,” he said. “And as cool as you may be today, there is tomorrow, that’s how the world works. What can’t be taken away is that you have this knowledge that you should be passing on.” The September 27 gala will feature “what comfort food and culinary expertise” is to each participating chef. Without providing any hints about what Crooks will prepare, he acknowledged that his comfort food is pasta. “There’s something very satisfying about a chew. If I’m looking for comfort, I’m fat and carbohydrate driven.” Crooks will be cooking at the Gala along with fellow chefs Melba Wilson, the gala’s honoree; David Burke; Peter Kelly; Bobbie Lloyd; David Lopez; Ardian Skenderi; and Alex Tubero. The event will take place at Edgewood Country Club in River Vale. It has been held every year since 1999, when the organization was founded.
“The Chefs Gala is our most vital event of the year,” said Julie Kinner, vice president of operations for Table to Table. “Proceeds from this event allow us to reach deeper into the community to feed even more hungry neighbors.” For more information about attending, contact Amanda Bullock, director of special events, at ABullock@tabletotable.org
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