By Lou and Wendell René
Photos: Jason McNamara
For Dave Petrynka, the road to success started in Ottawa with a 50-minute trek to work a 12-hour shift cooking in a hot kitchen. Life back then was not easy, but Petrynka, now 36, knows that all of it was worth the trouble. Today he is the proud award-winning owner and head chef of Eight Zero Zero in Cornwall, Ontario.
The first thing you notice upon meeting Petrynka is as sense of calmness. It was about 3 p.m., three hours away from the dinner service and he was relax and composed. The restaurant’s phone kept ringing throughout our conversation with guests calling to make reservations, but Petrynka was unfazed although his kitchen would soon be running on full cylinders churning out dozens of meals for hungry customers. The level of work and preparation needed to run a restaurant is not for the faint of heart, but Petrynka was ready to face the challenge of another busy dinner service at Eight Zero Zero. How does one achieve that level of success and confidence? We spent the next two hours with Petrynka trying to figure it out.
“I had a great childhood. I had everything I needed, but I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. Not by any means,” Petrynka explains as we sit in a corner booth of the beautiful dining room of Eight Zero Zero. He swirls his glass of Merlot as he tells us about himself, the restaurant and how he got his start. “I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was fourteen, but my first opportunity happened in Cornwall working at the Clansman Pub and Restaurant.”
Petrynka started as a dishwasher observing the various aspects of the kitchen and slowly pulled away from his dishwashing duties to take over the frying station. At one point, the entire kitchen staff left, and Petrynka was the only employee left to serve the loyal patrons. Eventually the restaurant hired a new head chef, which provided Petrynka an opportunity to leave the dishes behind and assist the new hire since he knew the kitchen inside out. “That’s where the ‘cooking thing’ began,” says Petrynka.
In his new position, he learned about soups, stews and sauces. When other cooks and staff members would go out after work to let loose, Petrynka would usually head home to relax and save money in the process. He was never really into the late night party scene, preferring to focus on his work.
Petrynka knew early on that hard work, persistence and devotion were necessary in order to have a successful culinary career, but he still had a lot to learn by way of formal education. At the age of twenty, he moved to Ottawa and enrolled in Algonquin College’s Chef Training program. After graduating from the school, he embarked on his professional career by working at various restaurants at the ByWard Market.
THE PEOPLE’S CHEF
One song comes to mind when thinking about Mr. Petrynka’s cooking philosophy, “Give the People What They Want” by The O’Jay’s. It always comes back to the people. And every time he mentions them, it feels genuine. His passion for cooking is not about ego, it’s about making people happy.
“The people. The people did it every time. Positive feedback from the people, any compliment always makes you want to drive for something harder, or something better, every time. You always want to better yourself, always. And especially in the kitchen. There is no time to become stagnant. You definitely have to keep going, keep on keepin’ on. Learning new things, learning new trades.”
When he first started as a chef, the compliments and feedback were important motivational tools for him to keep working to get better. He recounts one particular night.
“This was the best. Empire Grill. Drew Barrymore came in and ordered the tuna.Once the kitchen closed, the other cook and I were having a glass of wine at the bar when Ms. Barrymore comes over to talk to us. She says, ‘You guys cooked dinner, and it was excellent. Everything was great.’ Getting positive feedback from Drew Barrymore, you know, it kind of helped out a little bit.” Perhaps Petrynka had a crush on Ms. Barrymore at the time? “Well you know, she’s been around our whole lives. Since E.T.! It was awesome!”
Living and working in Ottawa, home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators was also an opportunity to cook for hockey stars.
“We had a lot of visiting hockey teams that would come in and they were always a lot of fun to cook for because they would have these huge steak dinners and then they’d want big plates of pasta and all that. I mean they were really eating for the game. And you’re under a lot pressure because, God forbid anything would happen and they couldn’t perform (laughter). It was a lot of fun.”
Despite his early successes in Ottawa, Petrynka decided to return to Cornwall eager to share his talent with the local community. An opportunity presented itself while managing a small restaurant. He would create dishes for his regular customers to taste. Their positive feedback pushed him to innovate and incorporate new ingredients in his recipes, but most importantly it persuaded him to strike out on his own.
In 2012, Eight Zero Zero was up for sale. For many years it had been an established restaurant in Cornwall, but Petrynka knew that he needed to overhaul the business to execute his vision of fine dining. He gave a facelift to the interior and exterior of the building as well as introduced a completely new menu. The reopening was an instant hit. Shortly thereafter he received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce. Petrynka cherishes the honor, but doesn’t take his successes for granted.
“In this city, when people establish favourites, they establish favourites.” He likes to see that people are being more adventurous when it comes to dining. Having said that, he loves cooking for the people in his community, “People here are very fun to surprise. I love watching them eat my food. It’s like, ‘Oh, they enjoy it!’ You can see it. The reaction someone has whenever they taste something for the first time is… is spectacular. It hits home. It really does.”
Petrynka believes that memories play a big part in how food is enjoyed. Flavours, smells and tastes bring back memories and it often makes people feel good. He wants people to have pleasing memories of dining at Eight Zero Zero. He wants to make fine dining appealing to all walks of life, but he recognizes that there doesn’t seem to be enough time in a week for leisure. Life gets in the way. Going out to eat at a restaurant is usually reserved for special occasions. Therefore, he appreciates everyone who takes the time to visit his restaurant. Whether they dine a few times a week or a few times a year, he wants all of his customers to enjoy their meals and he tries to make each customer’s experience a memorable one. That is Eight Zero Zero’s mission: good food and great atmosphere at a reasonable price. He wants people to come out, relax, put the busy life on hold, and simply enjoy themselves.
At times, the intricacies of the restaurant business can take away from the passion of food, but his “work family”, or his staff, makes it all worthwhile. They help him carry his vision without him having to say too much. His staff’s loyalty and devotion permits him to connect with his customers and provide them with an exceptional fine dining experience each and every time they come to Eight Zero Zero.
It is abundantly clear that Petrynka is a calculated man. From the words he chooses to the way he explains the various aspects of the restaurant, everything has a logical process. Every word is filtered, measured and put delicately.
When asked how to cook a steak at home, Petrynka shifts in his seat and hesitates before answering the question not wanting to give away his tricks. “Screw it,” he whispers, finally, after some thought. He takes a deep breath and starts outlining his methodical approach to cooking the perfect steak. Normally when you ask your “grilling master” neighbor how he cooks his steak, he probably spends a few minutes describing various spices or rubs as well as extolling the virtues of using charcoal over gas. For Petrynka, cooking a steak is so much more than that since he believes that each part of the process is essential to the final product. Like a watchmaker precisely placing each cog in the proper position in order for a watch to provide the exact time, Petrynka thoughtfully considers every step of the cooking process. For him, a great steak starts with a great cut of meat. Another thing to consider is the preparation time. Finally, he cautions against rushing the cooking of the meat by using high heat.
That being said, being methodical doesn’t go far without a clear vision.
Most chefs will likely tell you that cooking is an art form, but Petrynka believes that proper training and understanding food is what makes a good chef. “You have to go through the steps and envision the end result. Everything has to fit properly on the plate. Appreciate food for what it does to you and for you. You can taste passion … you can taste love. Seriously you can.”
He says that respect and love are intertwined and play an important role in cooking. “I like properly prepared food made with love. It’s all about proper fundamentals. I can tell what kind of chef cooked my food by tasting every ingredient on the plate.” And you can tell he means it. Petrynka makes sure he takes the right amount of time to properly execute every step of the cooking process. “Everything is made daily. Freshness is key.” That’s extremely important to Petrynka. As he explains it, if you cook something as simple as a carrot, you should do it properly. It should be tender yet still have some crispness to it. “Respecting yourself, your craft, the food you’re preparing and the people you’re preparing it for consequently makes you better and your food better,” says Petrynka.
Another big part of cooking is plating and presentation. If a chef simply dumps food on a plate, the care and preparation involved in creating the meal is lost. Petrynka understands that the taste of the food is only one component of the dining experience and takes a lot of proud in his plating. The expression “you eat with your eyes” is certainly true. How a food looks is one of the first ways we use to judge the food we eat. Accordingly, every plate from Petrynka’s kitchen is carefully thought of and executed.
How can a home cook achieve that level of perfection? Petrynka sums it up quite succinctly, “Try! Constantly just try to implement the fundamentals. Try new things. Don’t be afraid to take risks.”
Food and family are so closely related that it’s almost impossible to keep the two separated. The meals we enjoy the most are shared with family. Family is very important for Petrynka. He is engaged to Nancy Spagnolo and he is also the proud stepfather of her three children — Zachary (10), Matteo (7) and Isabella (6). They met when they were kids. They went to the same grade school and their grandparents used to be in business together. When Spagnolo would run into Petrynka’s grandfather, he would always ask her if she remembered his grandson. In 2011, they reconnected through Facebook and began dating. In the beginning of their relationship, Petrynka was trying to make something out of nothing by opening and running his own restaurant and Spagnolo provided much needed support. They spent many nights at Eight Zero Zero, just the two of them, having dinner and enjoying each other’s company. It was their version of a date night. He mentions how lucky he is to have Spagnolo. “She was there when I had nothing, and she’s still with me now that I have a little something,” he says with a complicit smile.
Spagnolo comes from a big Italian family. Here father has twelve brothers and sisters. “When we have functions, we have functions,” Petrynka exclaims. Although he’s been cooking for years and owns a restaurant, he draws inspiration from the Spagnolo family. “Italians taught the world how to eat!”
Spagnolo has become invaluable to Eight Zero Zero because she helps in any way she can. Whether it’s playing hostess, cooking in the kitchen or waiting on customers, she does it all. However, the three kids are the couple’s priority. Spagnolo’s day job as a hairstylist gives her the flexibility to make her own appointments so she’s able to attend the kids’ hockey activities at the Benson Center five to six times a week. She doesn’t call for a babysitter. If she’s needed at the restaurant, the kids come as well and they also enjoy helping out, especially Zachary who takes pleasure in asking customers if they’ve enjoyed their meals. He loves clearing the tables, talking to people, playing host and, most of all, making tips. The kids are the main source of happiness for Petrynka, as he loves to talk about them and the funny things they do. At home, they often debate whether mom or dad cooks the best spaghetti, but for now Petrynka claims he is the pasta champ.
As far as Petrynka’s side of the family, he grew up in a Polish blue-collar household with both his parents and two brothers. Petrynka mentions that his mom was a big influence in his passion for cooking, but his dad, Henry, is the person that’s most involved in the restaurant. For example, his father goes to Farm Boy and handpicks fresh produce for the dinner service. They spend a lot of time together in the kitchen and the father has become his son’s best critic. Talking about his dad, Petrynka says that he is the only person he listens to. With a smile in the corner of his mouth, Petrynka admits that his father is often right, especially when Petrynka doesn’t want him to be. His father has not only become a partner in the restaurant but also a confidant and “rock” in times of uncertainty. With that said, it’s only natural that Petrynka chose his father as his best man for the upcoming Petrynka-Spagnolo wedding this July.
As much as Petrynka loves cooking, he loves to eat as well. On the rare occasions that he goes out to eat, he makes sure that everyone gets something different on the menu so he can have a taste of everything the place has to offer. But, when he’s home, he’s home. He’s not Chef Dave Petrynka owner of Cornwall’s Eight Zero Zero. He gets to hang up his chef’s hat and let Spagnolo run the kitchen. “She is an amazing cook, says Petrynka. During family gatherings like Thanksgiving, he gets to sit back and enjoy the holidays. He tries to avoid any culinary tasks as much as possible, but he does have a soft spot for the turkey. He’s the self-proclaimed “Turkey Carver” of the family!
When asked where the Cornwall food scene will be in five years, Petrynka brings it back to the people.
“I don’t have much fear of the future. I really think that people have really found what they need, what they want in terms of food quality and, there is a demand. There’s a demand for a better dining experience. Also there’s a lot of money in the city, it’s not some small, little, poor mill town anymore. Our blue-collar businessmen have been doing extremely well lately and they’ve been essential in keeping this part (restaurant business) of the economy going. They’re a big part of our city. Our community has started to really notice and have an appreciation for dining out. They like to spend money. They appreciate it a lot more. They come in, and they’re hard workers themselves, they understand and they appreciate the amount of hard work that everything takes.”
Petrynka’s modesty is sincere. He’s a chef of the people, professing that everyone deserves the best dining experience he can offer. “I really think that a humble approach to a dining experience is key in this city. Let’s face it, it’s food. It’s still something that you consume. Our key thing is to make sure that everybody, regardless of the amount of money they have in the bank account, could come in and be treated exactly the same. And, I really believe that is important.”
With all the time spent in the kitchen of Eight Zero Zero and not having a lot of free time, what is his favorite restaurant in town? “North End Pizza,” he says without hesitation, “it has been around all my life and having that pizza is always a treat.” Something as simple as a pizza pie conjures great memories of time spent together with family, friends and loved ones. That is why food is so important for Petrynka. Every day he does his best to create new memories for his customers. “That’s why I do this. I do it because I love to watch the families and the people love each other, share good times and enjoy themselves, more than anything. And that’s what keeps me coming back and keeps me doing this every day.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]