They’re teammates by day, working to take your orders and cook you a delicious meal. But when they go home, they’re plotting how to put their own stamp on the menu.
Gecko’s Grill & Pub has been holding its annual Iron Chef competition for the past few weeks, inspiring its back-of-kitchen staff to flex their creative muscles and transform the regular menu.
There’s more on the line this year than most; the competition hasn’t been held since 2019, and four-time defending champion James Veldhouse has moved out of the competitive fire.
That means that the competition is wide open, and three-time winner Dana McCormack, the kitchen manager at Hillview Gecko’s, is excited about the opportunity to shine.
“This is a time where you want to try and step it up and do something a little fancier, show some skills you may have,” he says. “You also try and do something that’s feasible for the restaurant. What if you want them to take your recipe and put it on the menu? You try and use stuff you already have in house.”
McCormack, known for his skill at cultivating spicy peppers, is always looking to add some heat to the menu. And that’s what’s fun about the Iron Chef competition: All the Gecko’s employees are encouraged to take the existing menu and add their own flavor.
The competition has already gone through four weeks, and the staff at each Gecko’s location is primarily competing against each other. Six location champions will be crowned next week, and then the final will be held amongst the champions from June 27 through July 3.
Courtney Hancock, the assistant kitchen manager at Fruitville Gecko’s, says that the best part of Iron Chef is the camaraderie between employees who want to make an impact.
“I like it just for the fun,” she says of Iron Chef. “I like creating new dishes and seeing what my back-of-house staff can do as far as being creative. And I love the way my team works together to make these dishes great. In week one, my guy was a dishwasher, but he wanted to jump in and help.
“And he did. I was so proud of him and glad he did it. He’s really talented.”
Veldhouse, formerly the kitchen manager at Fruitville Gecko’s, has used the Iron Chef as a springboard to move up in the world. He’s now the chain’s director of culinary operations, and he says that Gecko’s absolutely likes to see its staffers take a bit of initiative.
“We like to see creativity,” he says. “A lot of our menu items and specials are derivatives of things people have done from these competitions. We find things that work well. Not everything that works in a special menu will always work on your core menu. Sometimes people order more of it when they can’t have it as often.”
Veldhouse said his past winning dishes have included a blackjack grouper reuben, a country-fried steak and a shrimp-and-scallops dish plated with risotto. And what are the secrets to winning consistently?
Veldhouse says you have to work cooperatively; he would frequently tell his servers that he would share his winning proceeds if they helped push his plates.
Interestingly, though, it’s not just about finding a winning taste. The kitchen managers have to work within Gecko’s normal price points, and they have to choose ingredients that are readily available.
Not only that, but they also have to stay late sometimes to make sure things are prepared.
“You’re going to have your product ready or it’s not going to get sold,” says McCormack. “It’s on them to make sure that their stuff is prepared, and then to be able to work with the other cooks on the line. It’s a competition, but at the same time you’ve got to be a team because you’ve got to be there to help each other.”
There are salary bonuses on the line and bragging rights to boot. There’s also a trophy, but more importantly, there’s the opportunity to improve their skills and make a statement.
For some competitors, it’s a year-round obsession. They’re looking at sales trends in their kitchens, and they’re plotting how to tweak them the next time Iron Chef rolls around.
McCormack jokes that you don’t have to outsell everyone; only the people in the kitchen you don’t like. But in a more serious moment, he echoes Hancock in saying that it’s an important team-building exercise in that the Iron Chef clues you into skills you didn’t know that your teammates have.
“It’s a great way to find new people for your kitchen,” says McCormack. “You have somebody who’s been working on dishes for a year and all of a sudden they put out dinners and you’re like, ‘You’re no longer a dishwasher. Now you’re going to be on the line.’
“That’s a great way to move up. We have a kitchen manager now who I hired as a dishwasher and over the years moved up. You apply yourself and the opportunity is there.”
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