JWU Alums Recognized with StarChefs Awards

Star fever is sweeping the culinary world after the recent announcement of the 2024 James Beard Awards semifinalists, which include several Johnson & Wales University alumni.  This follows multiple JWU alums receiving Rising Stars Awards from StarChefs, a culinary magazine celebrating industry professionals representing “the vanguard of the contemporary American dining scene.”

For only the second time in its 28-year history, StarChefs presented the best of Coastal New England. With the magazine tending to highlight big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, this was an overdue look at talented artistans calling various corners of New England their home. In each selected city or region, StarChefs tastes and interviews with over 150 chefs, pastry chefs, bartenders and sommeliers, selecting just 18-24 professionals based on national standards for creativity, ambition, presentation, philosophy and taste.

We profile five StarChefs award winners (in order of young to — pardon the pun — seasoned alums) to discover a bit more about their paths to ascension.

Luke Mersfelder ’16

photo of Luke Mersfelder '16 pausing and smiling at the restaurant where he works as chef de cuisine
 "Learn how to really absorb all the things being thrown your way," advises Luke Mersfelder '16

Culinary Path

Mersfelder had always loved food and his mom’s cooking, but he hadn’t considered that part of his identity when he graduated high school. At first, he struggled to feel engaged at a community college in his home state of New York. When he learned that a cousin who worked in restaurants had chosen to attend Johnson & Wales, that opened a whole new door.

“I came to visit JWU and really loved everything,” says Mersfelder. “It was super exciting to see the school, the kitchens and lab and equipment. I said, ‘let’s do it,’ and now it’s been almost 10 years.”

After earning his B.S. in Culinary Arts & Food Service Management with a concentration in Wellness & Sustainability, Mersfelder worked in restaurants around Providence, including at Al Forno. A brief stint working in country clubs back in Syracuse revealed a passion in the creativity fostered at independent restaurants, so he returned to Rhode Island for several more years, further honing his skills at Persimmon and at Birch. Then for three years Mersfelder and his wife lived in Chicago, where he worked at Blackbird and at Smith.

When the pandemic hit, they returned to Rhode Island, just as a small, upscale restaurant in Warren needed a chef. After finding co-owner Katie O’Donnell to be a great person, Mersfelder jumped in to help.

“I’ve been happy there ever since,” he reports.

Current Status

As chef de cuisine at Bywater, Mersfelder’s day starts early with finding and sourcing food at farms and at the docks, then heading to Bywater to set up and prep the kitchen, all while handling managerial tasks. When his team arrives in early afternoon, they plan the menu together, going over what they have and what has changed. Bywater’s dinner service starts at 5pm, and Luke usually closes most nights between 11pm-1am.

“It’s a long day, but it’s what we believe in — and it’s in line with what the team is interested in working with,” states Mersfelder. He also enjoys tapping into his creative side: “I always find it fun to keep seeing where we can take things.”

He loves working with the people in his community, especially learning about struggles and successes of farmers, fishermen and other food sources. “They’re the people that make this all happen,” he says.

JWU’s Impact

Teaching Bywater’s staff, who include several JWU grads, the craft and tools makes the job particularly rewarding for Mersfelder. “The networking aspect that you develop at JWU never really ends,” he says. “My JWU education set the foundation for understanding how much this industry is dependent on everyone working together. We rely on those communication skills to connect with our guests.”

Mersfelder also appreciates JWU’s chefs, particularly TJ Delle Donne, for their advice and mentorship. “Delle Donne helped me get through some tough times in my career, as small, independent restaurants are particularly challenging,” Mersfelder reveals. “Both in and outside of JWU, he helped me weigh options to stay on my culinary path.”

As for his Rising Stars award, Mersfelder is thrilled. “Usually only cities like Providence and Portland get culinary attention, so it was amazing that StarChefs came to Warren,” he states. “I credit the determination from the team to do as well as we can and hold true to that. It was fun to see their hard work pay off.”

Now Mersfelder has another reason to be proud: Bywater is a semifinalist for a 2024 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant.

Advice to Future Chefs

Now that he has been a chef for a few years and is running a program, Mersfelder says he’s grateful for the time he spent at JWU and beyond developing his skills as a cook.

“Be patient,” he advises. “Learn how to really absorb all the things being thrown your way, live in the moment and soak up everything you can.”

He adds that students should be patient; becoming a chef isn’t a race. “Learn as much as you can and you’ll be fine,” he says.

Bethany Caliaro ’15

photo of Bethany Caliaro '15 smiling and posing in front of a brick wall
"Being eager to learn opens so many doors and made every class more enjoyable," says Bethany Caliaro '15

Culinary Path

“I had always been interested in foods from around the world and traveling, and Johnson & Wales was the first step in that direction,” recalls Caliaro about her decision to study at what was then JWU’s North Miami Campus. “I wanted to experience a new part of the country and expand my palate, learning about food through a more diverse cultural lens than I was exposed to growing up.”

After earning her JWU degree in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management with a concentration in Wellness and Sustainability, which included interning at Empire State South in Atlanta, Georgia, Caliaro worked in various positions around Providence, from Trinity Brewhouse to Durks BBQ. She was approached by Adam Baffoni to manage a restaurant he planned to open, serving as front of house (FOH) manager. When she agreed, Pastaio was born, drawing diners to Providence’s West End with its Italian and Mediterranean fare.

“While we only made it a year, it helped me to realize that I was interested in managing and staying in the small business side of restaurants,” Caliaro shares of the experience. She then set her sights on Oberlin, which offers local seafood and handmade pasta in downtown Providence. As Oberlin’s assistant general manager and sommelier/wine buyer, Caliaro notes, “I really came into my own over the course of the next few years.”

Current Status

When Oberlin’s owner opened his newest culinary venture, raw bar Gift Horse, in June 2023, Caliaro was there as his partner, managing FOH operations and the restaurant’s beverage program.

Between running a brand-new restaurant and expanding Oberlin, Caliaro notes, “My life is a bit jam-packed, but really exciting.”

Caliaro describes her day-to day-routine: “I put out fires, work alongside managers for each team, work with the kitchen to make sure menus are correct, develop the beverage program with managers and handle private events when they arise.” She also manages some of the restaurants’ social media.

But Caliaro isn’t in this alone, and her appreciation of her colleagues is clear: “I try to close each restaurant at least one night a week so I can be present and connected to the team.”

She adds, “I love getting to know Providence through the team and the guests! Making connections with people is so fulfilling to me.”

JWU’s Impact

It’s worth noting how connected Johnson & Wales graduates are with each other. The person who asked Caliaro to co-open Pastaio was a fellow JWU alum, Adam Baffoni ’14. The owner of both Oberlin and Gift Horse is JWU alum (and fellow StarChefs awardee) Ben Sukle ’08.

But Caliaro can credit her JWU education with something else as well.

“I learned to ask questions and admit when you don't know something,” Caliaro says. “Being eager to learn opens so many doors and made every class more enjoyable.”

Advice to Future Chefs

“Utilize the resources you have at your fingertips,” advises Caliaro. “JWU is well connected to the industry and a great starting point for your career.”

“Stage everywhere, try everything,” she continues. “Explore the community around your campus. If you have a little time and a little money, it's worth learning what your new city is all about!”

Eric V. Brown ’15

photo of Eric Brown '15 smiling for the camera
"Take advantage of the opportunities you have as a young cook to learn where you want to end up," advises Eric V. Brown '15.

Culinary Path

“I didn’t really look too far as far as schools,” Brown recalls of his college search as a high schooler in Massachusetts. He knew one thing for sure — that he would be cooking for a career — so he and his parents looked at JWU as one of two New England schools with developed culinary programs. “As soon as we walked through the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence (CCCE) at JWU Providence, I knew that was it,” Brown recalls. “I said, ‘As long as I get in, I’m going here.’”

Get in he did, and Brown earned both an associate degree in Culinary Arts and a bachelor’s in Food Service Management with a concentration in Wellness and Sustainability. He worked at Gracie’s in Providence for five years, starting while a sophomore at JWU, and as the restaurant’s sous chef he wrote menus on a biweekly basis and seasonally rotated the restaurant’s à la carte menu. Then Brown needed a change.

“I felt time was of the essence to check out a new dining scene and city,” he explains. “I was interested in exploring Michelin-level dining — the North Star of choosing where to go.”

With New York and San Francisco being too expensive, Brown set his sights on Chicago as an affordable-enough city with a variety of restaurants. During his years there, Brown worked at Elke, started a seasonally inspired pop-up called Pinky Ring and served as executive chef at Saint Emeric, a secret restaurant located in a 19th-century church. He also met his wife, Sarah Watts, and in September 2022 they moved together back to Providence.

Brown was quickly offered restaurant space formerly occupied by North in Providence’s Dean Hotel, where he and Watts now operate Thick Neck, introducing diners to high-quality meals sourced as locally as possible.

Current Status

During the four days a week that Thick Neck operates, Brown works hard to prep, tweaking and changing the menu each week to rotate options and keep things fresh. “On Wednesdays I do a narrow scope of new dishes and see how they’ll work,” Brown shares. “Then I’m in there Thursday, Friday and Saturday all day.”

Sourcing ingredients locally keeps Brown constantly creative. “The farmers that we work with in Rhode Island do a really great job of keeping a diverse range of produce available at all times,” he reports. “Every time I talk to them there’s something different; I’ll get to see first-of-the-season sunchokes or a new type of pepper. These rotating ingredients are the catalyst to shape a new dish, put it on the menu and work with our team to get it there.”

On his days off, when not taking his dog exploring, Brown has no end of improvements to make as a first-time homeowner — which have helped him prepare for his next adventure. He and Watts are close to opening a casual breakfast and lunch restaurant in Providence, sourced locally and with daily specials in addition to regular favorites, and they have been updating and preparing the space. They’ll soon sunset Thick Neck and debut their new venture, Frank & Laurie’s, at 110 Doyle Street (former home of Rebelle Bagels).

“Frank & Laurie’s is shifting our energy to organizing what we need to do to get it off the ground,” reports Brown. “For instance, tomorrow will be spent smashing up a tile floor.”

JWU’s Impact

Brown admits that although he appreciated his time at JWU, he may not always stick to his learnings. “We were taking a senior-level desserts class, and our chef said under no circumstance should a dessert be plated in a wine or martini glass,” he recalls. “That’s funny because I’ve grown to have an affinity for antiques (Brown thrift shops for antique cookware and service ware all around New England), and I find all these really cool glasses — and I love to plate desserts in them! It always makes me think of that class and chef.”

He did find it both fulfilling and validating to join other JWU alumni on StarChef’s Rising Stars list. “We were asked not to share that we got it, then later found out who would be on that list with us,” Brown reveals. “I graduated with, like, half of them!”

Advice to Future Chefs

“It’s smart to take advantage of the opportunities you have as a young cook to learn where you want to end up,” explains Brown, who started staging in fine dining restaurants around Boston while still in school. While his work experience solidified his choice to be in upscale restaurants, he has met other students who want to cook but aren’t sure if they’re meant for restaurants, corporate production or other environments.

“Get out and immerse yourself in what you think you’ll be interested in as soon as possible,” Brown urges. “It shapes your perspective on where you’ll be in this career so you won’t turn 30 and suddenly realize you don’t like it all that much.”

“And read as many cookbooks as you can!”

Robert Andreozzi ’12

photo of Robert Andreozzi '12 smiling at the business he owns, Pizza Marvin
"If you’re serious about being creative, go get real experience with a company," advises Robert Andreozzi '12

Culinary Path

Andreozzi initially received his undergraduate degree from Roger Williams University in pre-law and political science, but he’d always felt that culinary was his calling. He chose JWU for a purely practical reason: how quickly he could earn a culinary degree.

Starting at Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York for his JWU externship, Andreozzi branched out after graduating from JWU. “I worked at a lot of great restaurants including Del Posto in New York, Cividale del Fruili UD in Italy and Frasca Food and Wine in Colorado because I wanted to challenge myself continuously,” he shares. “Then I wanted to come back to Rhode Island and did so in 2017, when I helped open Sarto.” The restaurant still serves modern Italian fare just yards from JWU’s Providence Campus.

When the pandemic hit, Andreozzi encountered a great business opportunity: owner of Pizza Marvin. “Now I’m excited about opportunities for a much larger restaurant group,” he says.

Current Status

“Every day I’m running a great restaurant,” Andreozzi shares of his modern house of pizza on Wickenden Street in Providence. The restaurant also serves seafood, salads and rotating flavors of frozen custard, as well as offering cocktails, wine and beer. His business has grown from opening with five people to now having 17 on staff, including Andreozzi and his business partner, and Andreozzi is looking to grow the Pizza Marvin brand.

“I’m excited to contribute in a small way to adding value to our neighborhood and to Providence,” he says of his business. “We’re building a community and moving the culinary scene of Rhode Island a little more forward and doing it together; that’s what pushes and drives us.”

However, there’s more to Andreozzi’s story than his business’ success. “I’m considering other projects to fulfill creative needs that Pizza Marvin doesn’t really fulfill,” he shares.

When Andreozzi learned of his Rising Chefs award, he felt affirmation of the work he and his team are doing on a day-to-day basis. “Being included with a lot of people I really respect was very rewarding,” he reports. “It felt good to be recognized for the work and to confirm that we’re on the right track.”

Advice to Future Chefs

Speaking candidly, Andreozzi has observed a disconnect between the realities of what’s expected in the industry and what students think they’re going to experience. His advice for culinary success is frank and concise: work.

“If you’re serious about being creative, go get real experience with a company,” he advises. “And always work at the best restaurant you can.”

Ben Sukle ’08

photo of Ben Sukle '08 smiling while posing against a brick wall
"The combination of patience and financial acumen, instilled during my JWU days, has been pivotal in shaping my approach to leadership and entrepreneurship in the culinary world," says Ben Sukle '08

Culinary Path

Sukle’s love of cooking and eating led him to Johnson & Wales, where he earned his bachelor’s in Culinary Arts. While at JWU, he worked in kitchens in Savannah, Georgia and Washington, D.C. on summer breaks and at La Laiterie at Farmstead in Providence during the academic year, eventually becoming La Laiterie’s executive chef. After briefly staging at Noma in Copenhagen, Sukle moved back to Rhode Island, becoming executive chef at The Dorrance and earning a spot on the James Beard Best New Chef list. Then Sukle turned his culinary skills into enterprise, opening intimate fine dining restaurant Birch in 2013.

Current Status

This isn’t Sukle’s first time earning recognition; he was awarded a Rising Stars Chef during StarChef’s only other coverage of coastal New England a decade ago, and he was profiled by the New York Times in 2017 for the connections he forges with fishing captains and other local food producers. This time, StarChefs recognizes him as a StarChefs Mentor Chef winner for his guidance and support to emerging chefs. Sukle has certainly had opportunities to mentor others, with his existing restaurant Oberlin and his newest restaurant, Gift Horse, both operating in Providence and informally serving as training grounds. Both are locally and regionally acclaimed, and Gift Horse chef Sky Haneul Kim is a semifinalist for the 2024 James Beard Award for Emerging Chef.

JWU’s Impact

“Reflecting on my JWU days, I've come to appreciate the depth of the impact of patience on my career as a restaurateur and leader,” says Sukle. “The culinary world, with its high-pressure environments and intricate processes, demands a level of patience that goes beyond the ordinary.”

Another valuable lesson he carries from his JWU experience: breaking down a restaurant's costs to the minutiae. “Understanding the intricacies of financial management is a skill that extends well beyond the kitchen,” he notes. “Learning to analyze and control costs has proven essential in my role as an entrepreneur. It has allowed me to make informed decisions that contribute to the sustainability and profitability of my ventures.”

He credits scrutinizing costs for his comprehensive understanding of the business side of running a restaurant. “This insight has been instrumental in maintaining a balance between delivering a high-quality dining experience and ensuring the financial health of the establishment,” Sukle notes. “The ability to manage costs effectively has not only contributed to the success of my ventures but has also equipped me with a valuable skill set that extends to various aspects of my professional life.”

“The combination of patience and financial acumen, instilled during my JWU days, has been pivotal in shaping my approach to leadership and entrepreneurship in the culinary world.”

Advice to Future Chefs

Sukle drives home how patience as a virtue can translate into running a successful business. “In the fast-paced setting of a kitchen, patience becomes a tool for fostering a positive and supportive work environment,” he shares. “I've found that being patient and forgiving with my team, especially with younger, aspiring cooks, creates a culture where they feel empowered to learn and grow.”

He continues: “Mistakes are inevitable in the kitchen, and it's through patience and forgiveness that we cultivate a space where creativity can flourish, and individuals can develop their skills without fear of reprisal.”

JWU congratulates all of the StarChefs award winners — and can’t wait to see what they each accomplish next.


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