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Spotlight on David Shea: Chef, Mentor and Farmer

May 16, 2012

Most people can relate to looking back on their lives and careers with realization that their paths have been serendipitous; meaning, they have been built upon the culmination of a myriad of different experiences. . . small epiphanies, occasional transitions into new directions and ultimately the resulting successes that lead us to where we have come.  Most of us are able to build a life of which we’re proud; and, in rare instances, some of us are able to create and foster something so uniquely special that it helps to transform and positively influence the lives around us.  One such person is Chef David Shea.

Chef Dave grew up in Greenwich Village, NYC in the 70’s and 80’s, a time of great change for both the city and our country.  After returning from military service in the early 90’s, David settled into a life that most of us do in our early 20’s, a steady job and the company of friends.  Dave held a steady job by day as a locksmith; and, through a friend’s introduction, began cooking by night at a local restaurant.  His only experience at the time was cooking out of necessity for himself and sometimes for friends in a relaxed, home atmosphere.  What he realized was that he liked cooking, and he felt like he had an aptitude for it.

Over the next few years, Dave migrated to more rigorous kitchens (i.e., Bubby’s in Tribeca & Brighton Grill –now closed–on the Upper East Side of Manhattan), where he continued to develop skills as a line cook.  Building up the confidence in the strength of his abilities, Dave worked up the nerve to write a letter to La Bernardin in 1995.  He directly asked for a job with them to further develop into a successful chef.  Fortunately, he was told at the time that he wasn’t ready for it; and, his life began to change direction.

Dave knew that the rejection was more of a “not right now” than a “no”, and he began to strategize.  With the opportunity to help open and build a restaurant in the village, Lombardi’s Pizza, Dave took this chance to deepen his knowledge of the business, while continuing to build his competence in the kitchen.  It was during this pivotal time that Dave began to consider pursuing a formal educational that would propel his career forward.

In early 1996, Dave’s grandmother approached him with the financial backing to pay for his first semester of cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park.  Dave still recalls the day that his grandmother and uncle drove him to school.  As they dropped him off, he got a, “Don’t f@#% this up” retort.  There was no pressure at all to make this work.

The decision to attend the CIA changed his life forever.  CIA is where Dave met his wife Laura, where he gained the technical skills to become a fine dining chef and where he was first exposed to internships that supported local, sustainable farmers.

The program at CIA lasted two years, during which time Dave externed at the Hudson River Club, a restaurant that supported locally sustainable food.  He and Laura also found their way to volunteer time on weekends at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, which at the time was run by Chef Melissa Kelly.  Back in 1996-1997, the local, sustainable farming movement of farm-to-table was in its infancy.  It was very difficult at the time for restaurants to have relationships with local farmers to source their foods.  While in Europe local farms grew vegetables and livestock for use by specific restaurants, the American restaurant system catered to mass market rather than connecting local farms with restaurants in their regional domain (Delucia, 2008).  Old Chatham was one of the first farm-to-table establishments, whose garden was literally less than 50 feet from the restaurant’s kitchen.  David and Laura spent their weekends becoming educated on the value of creating menus around fresh produce made by local farms.  This educational experience would prove invaluable to their careers.

Upon graduation from CIA at the end of 1997, David and Laura moved to Chicago, where Laura was raised.  Laura migrated to the front of the house, where she built a strong skillset to lead and manage the business, train staff, do it all, etc.  David initially took a position as a line cook at Crofton on Wells.  He transitioned over to Spruce where he worked his way up from line cook to tournant to sous chef to ultimately executive chef.  In addition, David went on to open restaurant Twelve 12 as executive chef (Mice at Play, 2011).

In 2003 Dave and Laura left Chicago and returned to New York, settling in Brooklyn.  They brought with them the very tangible dream of opening their own restaurant.  Over the years since graduating from CIA, Dave and Laura had meticulously written down ideas they had, if and when they were able to open a restaurant of their own.  Their ideas were so well developed that their business plan was in place by the end of 2003.  Angel funds from an old friend allowed for the actualization of their decade’s old dream, to establish and run their own restaurant.  Applewood was founded in 2004 in Park Slope Brooklyn.

When they first opened, it was difficult to establish relationships with local farms to build a network of sustainable food sources for the restaurant.  Dave knew that he wanted to build a menu using only produce that was in season and from the region; and, he knew it was within reach.  While establishing the first few relationships with local farms was arduous, they began to slowly flow in more steadily.  Now, Applewood offers a specialized dinner once every six weeks called, “Meet the Farmer.”  Local farmers that supply Applewood are each invited to share in a dinner at the restaurant where their specialized product is the focus of the dinner.  Each course is built upon something they grow or raise, and both the farmer and the Chef take a moment in the evening to talk about the value of the products that are supplied.

The positive impact of supporting local farmers and producing healthy fare is only part of the impact that Dave has on the community.  The kitchen and overall Applewood staff have been developed to foster an environment of cooperation and mutual respect.  As the perfect team, Dave runs back of the house while Laura runs front of the house.

There are three stations in the kitchen (i.e., fish station, meat station & pastry).  Everyone working in the kitchen rotates every two weeks to each of the stations in turn, regardless of their experience in the kitchen.  The inexperienced cooks trail until they gain the competency to run the station.  Ultimately, all become ambidextrous in the kitchen at Applewood, able to develop the skills needed to support all stations.  They average 12 hour days and work 5 day weeks, and everyone contributes to the construction of the menu.  For an industry often known for intimidation in the kitchen and endless work hours, Applewood is setting the bar high to create a more healthy and balanced work milieu in the food services industry.

While David and Laura have built a thriving business, they strive to continue to evolve.  Most recently, they purchased a farm in upstate New York, where they have begun to plant crops for harvest in the spring and summer.  They are working to bring the next phase of their business plan to fruition, creating a farm-to-table concept specific to their restaurant’s needs.  Of course they have always connected with local farmers to supply their restaurant, this makes the connection for them much more direct.  To help them in their efforts to grow the farm, reach out to them here:

http://www.indiegogo.com/Meet-the-Farmers

As business leaders, Dave and Laura are continuing to build on a long tenure of successes.  In doing so, they are realizing their business and personal aspirations in a way that fosters a positive impact on the community in which they live.  We in Park Slope are thankful for the way they have enhanced our neighborhood.

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5 Comments
  1. Darwin Saltos permalink

    Hey David ….is really nice to see you …!!! Beatifull family….i hope you remember me…? From spruce , from 12 12 !! Long time ago… I will like to vicit you rest as urant and talk….

  2. I could watch Scndhiler’s List and still be happy after reading this. As a Newbie, I am permanently exploring online for

    articles that can be of assistance to me. Thank you
    locksmith park slope

  3. Thanks for another informative web site. Where else could I am getting that kind of info written in such an ideal approach? I have a challenge that I am just now operating on, and I have been at the look out for such information.
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    • David also has a WordPress blog site now too. Check it out here:

      I also take on writing projects. Happy to help. Reach out to me directly if you’d like.

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