A good meal can weave its own spell, satisfying stomach and soul.
It also can catapult your dreams from small-town Ohio to the streets of Manhattan, as two area graduates know well.
Scott Schneider and Russell Ashton, who honed their cooking skills at Lorain County Joint Vocational School Culinary Academy, are now sous chefs at Ai Fiori, one of the top-rated restaurants in New York City.
“If Scott and I hadn’t gone to JVS and had chefs Timothy Michitsch and Kristian Smith on us, we wouldn’t be the people we are today,” Ashton said. “Michitsch saw what we could do and how much we wanted it. There’s not much we can do to say thank you for all he’s done for us.”
Ai Fiori, which features cuisine from the Italian and French rivieras, has received numerous accolades since opening in 2010. Its laurels include being named best new restaurant in the city in 2012 by Zagat. Co-owner and chef Michael White has been nominated four times as the best chef in the city by the James Beard Foundation. The Michelin Guide awarded it a coveted star in 2011 and 2012, and it received a three-star review in the New York Times.
The men are known as Team BrOhio on the job for their easy work relationship and skills, learned during their years at JVS, working together — or often against each other — in numerous out-of-state competitions.
Schneider, a Vermilion native who graduated in 2006, said both went on to study at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then to numerous restaurants before ending up exactly where they wanted to be: The City.
Schneider, 28, worked with well-known New York chefs Ed Brown, Carmen Quagliata and Yuhi Fuginaga before starting at Ai Fiori in 2011 and recommended the hiring of Ashton.
Amherst native and 2007 graduate Ashton, 24, was working in Westchester County, about an hour north, but dreamed of being in Manhattan. Once he got the job at Ai Fiori -— both were hired on the spot after preparing a meal from scratch in 30 minutes — Ashton camped out on Schneider’s floor until he got settled.
Ashton also credits much of his professional skill to an internship at The Chef’s Garden in Milan during his stint at JVS. Star chefs from everywhere would visit there to learn from farmer Lee Jones’s practices of “farm to table” cooking. He made contacts there with chefs he would see again professionally.
Celebrities and power brokers are frequent guests at their dinner table. Ashton casually mentions Jay-Z and Beyonce dropping by, amid the flow of New York Yankees players and, recently, NFL heavy-hitters in town for the Super Bowl.
But the guests they both talk about, the ones Team BroOhio really worked to impress, were their former teachers from JVS. Michitsch visited Ai Fiori in recent weeks and visited his former students, who prepared a special menu just for him.
“It gave us a chance to show him what we’re doing now and how far we’ve come. We showed off a little bit,” Schneider said.
Schneider, who just returned from a trip to South Korea where a team from Ai Fiori prepared meals for a days-long celebration of a hotel’s 100th anniversary, said the restaurant’s co-owner, the Altamarea Group, also operates restaurants in New Jersey, New York, London and Hong Kong, with spots to be opening in Washington, D.C., and Istanbul. But in the meantime, Ashton and Schneider will continue to represent Team BrOhio.
“Our work, and how we are, speak for itself. Obviously, we’re doing something right — the two of us are working in one of the best restaurants in New York.”