Joliet Junior College Culinary Grad Chases Restaurant Dream
Joliet Junior College Culinary Grad Chases Restaurant Dream

Joliet Junior College Culinary Grad Chases Restaurant Dream

JOLIET, IL — Joshua Durkiewicz grew up with traditional Midwestern tastes in a home where his mother’s three-day spaghetti and three-day chili were part of his family’s culinary routine that rarely pushed the dinnertime favorites but that were instead geared toward economic sustainability.

But now, the 28-year-old Bolingbrook native and 2016 graduate of Joliet Junior College’s culinary program has expanded his palate in ways perhaps even he never saw coming. Durkiewicz, the lead line cook at Chula Seafood in suburban Phoenix, finds himself in the quarterfinal round of an online competition for $25,000 — money that he says would be put toward opening his own restaurant in which his flair for fresh ingredients could be put to use.

Durkiewicz, a 2012 Bolingbrook High School graduate, advanced over the weekend to the quarterfinal round of the Favorite Chef competition that is being run by celebrity chef Carla Hall. Participants advance by garnering enough online votes with the top vote-getter walking away with the $25,000 prize and a feature story in Taste of Home magazine.

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Durkiewicz, who previously worked at restaurants in Colorado before moving to Phoenix, is doing his best to balance his chances of winning the competition with his daily duties at Chula Seafood. Voters now have until August 3 to cast votes for the locally grown chef who hopes that in the end, his food and his culinary creativity can speak for themselves.

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The competition recently cut the field in half from 100 participants and likely will do so again when the online voting shifts to the semifinal rounds next month.

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“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Durkiewicz told Patch on Monday. “It’s a cool experience and you get to see all of the people who are in (the competition) but there is an overwhelming aspect to it where you’re at work and you’ve got this in the back of your mind, but at the same time, you’re not trying to over-think it.”

Durkiewicz describes his cuisine as “thought-out” when it comes to the effort that he and his culinary team put into the recipes that make up his daily offerings. He describes Chula Seafood as a fusion of Japanese and Mexican cuisines. But since heading up the restaurant’s kitchen, Durkiewicz says he has branched out with dishes from Peru and Ireland with coming specials paying homage to Russian delicacies.

His culinary schooling in Joliet offered him the opportunity to work with chefs from New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. But since moving away from home, Durkiewicz has worked in kitchens in Colorado and Massachusetts, which he says has opened his eyes — and his taste buds — to new food experiences.

He has been given access to local ingredients, including local New England seafood, fresh trout in Colorado, and locally produced corn. Having so many fresh ingredients at his disposal has only widened Durkiewicz’s repertoire of menu items, which has helped him to branch out even farther from the foods he grew up with in Bolingbrook before starting his culinary education at JJC.

Now, at Chula Seafood just south of Scottsdale, Durkiewicz finds himself facing stiff competition from a bevy of local restaurants — all of which are constantly pushing the limits of ingredients found in the southwestern United States. That, in turn, forces him to up his own culinary game as a way of keeping up.

That experience is paying off in the Favorite Chef competition, in which he hopes to differentiate himself from the rest of the field. The timing of the competition comes after Durkiewicz, like others, was forced to question how badly he wanted to remain in the restaurant business after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the industry.

While many restaurants closed due to dining restrictions and supply chains being drastically affected by the pandemic, Durkiewicz has persevered. Despite the challenges, he says losing sight of having a place to call his own has never wavered.

“Owning your own restaurant gives you creative freedom with what you want to do,” he told Patch. “I think personally, I think what I can offer is something that people are going to enjoy, and I try to stick to that.

He added: “I liked the aspect of being some kind of personality, but at the same time, I like for my food to speak for itself.”

Durkiewicz says he grew up respecting celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, whose flair for Cajun ingredients and flavor profiles grabbed his attention. He appreciated Lagasse’s penchant for pizzazz, deep flavors, and dishes that grab people, which encouraged Durkiewicz to begin his own culinary journey of creating memorable creations.

He says that the online nature of the Favorite Chef competition has put him on a completely different platform. Although local diners in the Phoenix area have gotten a ring-side seat for the kind of food Durkiewicz can produce, he now finds himself relying on the support of friends, family, and yes — even strangers — to keep moving forward in the race for the $25,000.

His mother, Janet Durkiewicz, the one who would make enough spaghetti and chili to last three days to keep her family fed, has contributed. She has worked hard to put her son’s name out there on enough social media pages to drum up local support as Durkiewicz continues to chase after his dreams of running his own restaurant one day.

She told Patch on Monday that working as a chef has always been her son’s dream and now, to see him on this path, is part of achieving his goals. She says she is willing to do whatever she can to help her son’s chances.

“It is extremely thrilling to be able to support my son in something he is so passionate about,” Janet Durkiewicz told Patch on Monday. “His whole family and all his friends are behind him cheering him on.

She added: “Everything he does in life, he puts his all in. He is such a great man, son, husband, and father. We are all very proud of him.”

But now that he has advanced to the quarterfinal round, Durkiewicz says he will try to focus only on what he can control rather than becoming consumed with that which he can’t.

“I came into this competition not really thinking too much about it,” he said on Monday. “Getting past one stage is really nice and it boosts your confidence a bit. I still have the love and support of my family and friends. I’m not going to say (winning) is a sure thing because there are a lot of talented chefs here.
“I think I have a decent chance (of winning) but I’m not 100 percent getting my hopes up.”

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