If you have an extra seat at your kitchen table, consider giving Ron DeSantis a call. One of the foremost chefs in America has a list of accomplishments as long as your arm, but he doesn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.
Cooking for Chef Ron may well be akin to acting in front of Meryl Streep, who once said she couldn’t keep her lip from quivering when she first met Al Pacino. “It was ‘The Godfather’ time and I was nobody.” These days, she hates the idea she might be someone’s Pacino.
So it is with Chef Ron. Though he has earned a rightful place among the culinary elite, he much prefers a democratic approach to food. One that gives everyone a place and a voice.
“Chefs are the easiest people to cook for because we know what it takes,” he says. “We appreciate the fact that you went through the effort.”
If the salmon is dry, don’t stress, he says. “It’s the whole experience, not if the salmon was cooked right.”
It’s exactly that philosophy that makes his longstanding partnership with Hormel Foods such an ideal fit. The global Fortune 500 company takes pride in feeding the world, and Chef Ron is delighted to lend a hand.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how the food is cooked. It’s the experience that matters.Certified Master Chef Ron DeSantis
Winning him over is nothing if not a feather in the cap of the Minnesota-based company. For starters, he’s an American Culinary Federation (ACF) certified master chef, a designation so elusive and rare, only 67 other chefs – and a handful of pastry chefs – can lay claim to it. The eight-day test, a rigorous and demanding measurement of skills and knowledge, has a mere 20 percent passing rate. Chef Ron succeeded nearly 30 years ago on the first try, as did four of his classmates. That level of success is far from the norm.
“We had this ridiculous bumper crop [of chefs],” he says. “We started with 12, and I think five of us passed. I believed it’s because we quickly became a team, and helped and watched out for each other.”
That brand of collaboration is in his blood and has no doubt led to a successful 10-year-plus relationship with Hormel Foods. He was directing the consulting arm of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the early 2000s when members of the company came seeking help in the creation of a culinary enrichment and innovation program. They didn’t have to look any further. Chef Ron set about formulating and articulating a program that continues to serve Hormel Foods to this day.
“It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever worked on,” he says.
He also fell in love with the people.
“Do you go through a big screening process?” he teases. “Because you only bring in really nice people. They’re knowledgeable. They’re good corporate citizens. They look out for different philanthropic efforts, and they involve the company in good ways,” he says.
The partnership between him and Hormel Foods continued soon after the culinary innovation and enrichment project with an opportunity to be on the ground floor of the development of a new line of products for the foodservice industry. Chef Ron set about bringing to life something he said “he would want” – Hormel® Fire Braised™ meats. “I was involved from the beginning. I did a full assessment of prototypes, too,” he says.
Many years later, the products remain some of his favorite Hormel Foods offerings, a go-to ingredient that he’ll reach for without a second thought. “I helped create them, and I really love that line of products,” he says.
Chef Ron’s Philosophy of Balance
For any naysayer who insists a chef should never take such a shortcut, Chef Ron answers with a philosophy of balance that he lives by and that makes sense to him.
Make no mistake, he embraces the idea of local, in-season ingredients. In fact, Chef Ron was largely raised on that style of cooking. His grandparents owned a grocery store in his hometown of Maybrook, N.Y. His grandfather had five gardens, one of which was the backyard of the house Chef Ron and his family rented from them.
“If you stepped on things, he would run after you,” he says, remembering his childhood in the small town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains.
He was admittedly too young to understand the significance of what he was eating or that his grandfather was ahead of the curve. It was much more basic. “I grew up with fresh food because that’s all we could afford,” he says.
There’s a balance, and you have to look at that because there’s a business reality to everything you do.Certified Master Chef Ron DeSantis
His belief these days is that “we can do local, in-season ingredients in different areas.” However, experience has taught him it’s unrealistic to think it can ever be embraced universally. For example, when he left his job at CIA in 2011 to become director of culinary excellence at Yale University, one of his duties was to oversee the production of more than 13,000 meals a day. Given the university’s location in Connecticut, where the growing season is short, and the reality of serving that many people every day, the ability to serve only local is limited. We have to think of local in a regional context.
“Chefs everywhere are using convenience products to some degree,” he says, mentioning the staple ketchup as an example. “There’s a balance, and you have to look at that because there’s a business reality to everything you do. Price points, labor models, etc.”
Given the place he believes such “convenience products” have in today’s cuisine, Chef Ron is in favor of ensuring that they’re as high-quality as they can be. In that regard, he finds satisfaction in working with Hormel Foods and in bringing what he calls “artisanal-quality food” to the company and its consumers.
Wanting people to have the best food possible is a goal he shares with Hormel Foods. When he reconnected with the company in 2013 as a member of the Cancer Nutrition Consortium, a group of scientists, chefs, food producers and physicians grappling with the challenge of keeping cancer patients nourished during their treatments, he fell back on a familiar approach: What would I like to eat? The end result was Hormel Vital Cuisine™ meals, shakes and whey powders that look good, taste good and are packed with important nutrients.
Projects such as the ones he’s been involved with for Hormel Foods served to convince him recently that it was time to begin a new chapter, one that capitalizes on his knack for meeting challenges head on. So, in July 2017, Chef Ron launched CulinaryNXT, his own foodservice advisory practice.
“The goal is to do something for me and use the experience I have to help others,” he says. “I like to solve problems.”
Journey to the Kitchen
An ancillary benefit of his new job is that he is able to cook more often for his wife. He’s quite fond of Sylvia, saying she is the reason he never took the path of opening his own eating establishment. “I would have needed her involvement,” he says. “She didn’t want to do it, and I decided I liked her better than the idea of owning a restaurant.”
He has no regrets nor should he. He came to cooking accidentally when he was in the U.S. Marines. Something clicked. “It was a natural for me,” he says. “I had no idea people did this for a living.”
After his discharge from military service, Chef Ron enrolled in the highly regarded CIA, and that’s when “everything came together.” And then some.
In addition to being a certified master chef, he is internationally known, with a wall full of medals to prove it. Among others, he is a recipient of the ACF’s President’s Medallion for his contributions to the master chef exam, and of The Cutting Edge Award for leadership and service to the culinary profession. Michael Ruhlman gave him a cameo in his best-selling “Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection.” He is an educator, chair of the ACF’s certification committee and holds a master’s degree in business administration. And it goes without saying that he can cook like there’s no tomorrow.
Yet, more impressive than what he’s done is who he is. Chef Ron has every right to be a snob, culinary or otherwise. But he isn’t wired that way. Instead, he cares that cancer patients can enjoy a meal like everyone else. He delights in his young grandson, worrying far less about creating a perfect meal than letting him tend to the mushrooms. It’s this warm and engaging way that makes you forget for a minute you’re talking to a bona fide master chef, not a guy you grew up with.
So you take leave to work on your salmon. Because you’d love nothing more than to have him over for dinner sometime.