Bill Fitts had little culinary ambition when he uprooted his art school lifestyle in San Francisco to be closer to family in Northeast Ohio. After landing odd jobs in food service, things finally started to gel while working at Virtues restaurant in Akron.
The budding chef's next move planted him at the epicenter of Cleveland's dining scene, where he accepted a modest pantry job at Lola Bistro. He quickly climbed the ranks to sous chef, under the tutelage of Derek Clayton, corporate chef of Michael Symon Restaurants.
"I knew when I started working at Lola that this is what I was meant to do," says Fitts.
Two months ago, Fitts was named executive chef of Lolita (900 Literary Rd., 216-771-5652, lolitarestaurant.com), his longtime favorite Cleveland restaurant.
Tracing his journey from art school to artsy Tremont, Fitts describes the five dishes that inspire his work.
Mom's Spaghetti and Meatballs
Every chef has his childhood memories and growing up. My mom's fresh-made spaghetti and meatballs was one of the first dishes I ever really loved. Even when I was young and just making a mess, she would open up the dishwasher and I would help her prep on the little ledge. Now at Lolita, we do so many pastas. It's always been my favorite thing to make — and eat, too.
Carrot Course, McCrady's Restaurant
I lost count of how many courses we ate the night we visited McCrady's, but there was one that really stood out. It was just a carrot dish, but it was profound to me because it wasn't presented as a side. They poached baby carrots in carrot juice, made a sauce out of the juice, and there was a pesto made from the carrot tops. To present just the vegetables as the star, not a side dish, was really an illuminating moment.
The first time I ever tried terrific handmade sourdough bread a lightbulb went off. Having it with really good cultured butter and fresh cheese was a big moment for me. There was a good portion of time when I was trying to make my own bread. Every Sunday I'd have the day off from Lola and I was spending all day making this sourdough from the Tartine Bread book. It's amazing how much work goes into it — there's an art and magic to it. Now, living on the west side, I make regular trips to Blackbird [Bakery in Lakewood].
Oysters and Ham, The Publican
Whenever we have a free weekend, my wife and I head to Chicago. I liked oysters before trying the ones at Publican, but that was the first time I had six varieties side-by-side and could really appreciate the differences. With the country ham selection, I was able to see the slight differences and that was when I realized American country hams are really on par with the great prosciuttos and serrano hams of Europe.
Bone Marrow, Lola Bistro
At Lola, they take the marrow out of the bone, soak it for a few days, change the water, then it's breaded and pan-fried. Being so early on in my cooking career, it kind of shocked me because it was something that I hadn't seen. It was an elegant solution to a rustic dish. Clayton made it a lot more approachable for diners who don't necessarily go for that kind of thing. It really stuck with me and made me want to stay there and learn as much as I could from him. I don't think I could do this job without having him as a sounding board, to have him there to teach me and mold me as a chef. I wouldn't be where I am now.