In the early 20th century, John D. Rockefeller became the world's richest man by being a ruthless competitor who never settled on second place. In the kitchen of Rockefeller's restaurant, located in a building once owned by that famed industrialist, executive chef Jill Vedaa seems to be channeling some of that self-assured behavior. "I am super-competitive," admits Vedaa.
The chef recalls how her mother made cooking fun by blending the work with music. "We would cook together and dance around the kitchen to Motown," she says. "I still love to blast some Aretha when I'm prepping."
When they weren't toiling in the kitchen, they were out exploring the city's awakening restaurant scene. "I remember having a burger and a chocolate Coke at Heck's Café," she recalls. "It just felt like a different world."
After high school, Vedaa enrolled at Cleveland State University, but soon realized that sorority life was not for her. What was the right fit, she quickly discovered, was the hospitality industry. "I started working at Bohemia (now Lolita), making lots of money and having fun," she says. "It was a better career choice for me."
At Bohemia, Vedaa worked every position in the front of the house. "This is where I fell in love with the business," she says. From there, she expanded her knowledge base by accepting a kitchen position at the legendary KeKa in Ohio City, where she soaked up the skills of chef-owner Mark Shary like a sponge. "He helped me gain the confidence and the desire to keep learning and move up."
Through a friend, Vedaa met an aspiring young chef named Michael Symon, who at the time was cooking at the Caxton Café in downtown Cleveland. Symon invited her to work at a new restaurant he was opening called Lola, coincidentally the same place where she started. "This job blew my mind," she says. "It was non-stop busy, and you either kept up or drowned." From there, Vedaa went back to another old stomping ground—Flying Fig, which was in the former home of KeKa. She worked alongside chef and owner Karen Small for four years as the executive sous chef. "The way she thinks about food inspired me to discover the chef I am today," Vedaa says of Small.
Following a relatively brief stint as executive chef at Wine Bar in Rocky River, where the chef felt creatively restrained, and a brief tenure as a wine rep for Wine Trends, Vedaa finally found a more permanent home. A friend alerted Vedaa that a soon-to-open restaurant had lost its chef before opening day. That restaurant was Rockefeller's in Cleveland Heights.
"I met with [owner] Michael [Adams] and just loved the space," Vedaa explains. "He had never opened a restaurant before, and he offered me carte blanche. I soon signed on." And it's a great fit, she adds. "Michael takes care of the finances and I take care of everything else."
Unlike previous positions where the chef was bound by somebody else's rules, here Adams gives her unfettered freedom to do as she sees fit. That autonomy translates into a menu that changes quarterly, with just a handful of staple items that stay put. "One thing that never comes off my menu is the calamari with coconut milk glaze," she says. "I love this dish and it has a pretty big fan base."
The chef also pens the restaurant's "music friendly" bar menu that's served in the lounge.
Chef Small's farm-to-table lessons continue to guide Vedaa and shape the menus at Rockefeller's. "Knowing where your food comes from and how it's been handled is so important," explains Vedaa.
All these components are beginning to click for the 3-year-old restaurant. But like the restaurant's namesake patron, Vedaa won't settle until she has accomplished the ultimate goal. "Success! I want Rockefeller's to be the go-to place on the East Side."
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