Growing up in a food-focused family launched local chef Tony Pester into a culinary career. His passion for food and all related aspects, which began at home, evolved over time with formal training and hands-on mentorships with established chefs.
Pester, a Minnesota native who grew up in Blaine, recalls that meal time was a time the family sat together, reviewing and sharing the events of the day.
He recalls working side by side with his sister, Nicci, as they helped prepare holiday meals along with their parents, both of whom were good cooks.
“We did everything. We cooked, we set the table and washed dishes,” he recalls. “Indeed, we were engrained in hospitality before we ever recognized the concept.”
In his elementary and teen years, Pester had his own way of acknowledging things by regularly telling his mother she was “a good cooker.” His sister, Nicci Sylvester, went on to create Tonic Restaurant, which she owns and operates. In their adult “professional years,” he values the role she has had modeling and teaching him how to genuinely care about those you are serving, whether with family at home, customers in the restaurant setting or participants at a charity event.
Tony credits an experience from his senior year in high school for pushing him in a culinary direction. “When a guest chef came to our home economics food class and gave a detailed presentation and demonstration, it opened my eyes to new flavors,” Pester notes, recalling the uniquely seasoned sautéed broccoli. “And the way he explained the story behind Steak Diane simply intrigued me.”
Two weeks after high school graduation, he started at the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in St. Paul, which at that time, was part of Brown College. Regardless what direction this took, he figured, “If I wasn’t going to be a chef, at least I knew I would walk away with more cooking skills and more refined culinary insight.” Tony wound up graduating top of his class.
He had the good fortune to do his internship at one of the oldest restaurants in Paris, Maxim’s. While there, he fell into “a brigade system,” where young chefs shadowed each separate area in the restaurant. He felt very fortunate to get such a placement with “truly brilliant chefs. It was a dream to actually witness each aspect.”
Once back in Minneapolis, he worked in various capacities from pantry chef to sous chef and eventually executive sous chef alongside chef Erik Harcey, chef-owner of Victory 44 and Upton 43 in the Twin Cities.
As for other up-and-coming culinarians, Pester advises, “Consider the numerous options the field offers.”
Believing that one of his strengths is in identifying the strong suits of an individual, Pester enjoys overseeing and training kitchen staff, identifying their faults or weaknesses and enhancing their strengths.
Pester’s standards are high in all areas. When it comes to preparing food, he says product awareness is essential. For him, on a daily basis, “everything is first visual in determining quality, with smell and taste coming in to play — even ones sense of hearing, noting that if the pan is not hot enough, the sound will be different as a piece of meat is being seared.
While at Pescara for 6 1/2 years, Pester maintains what he learned there took him beyond being a “made-from-scratch cuisine chef.” He credits chef-owner Scott Foster, of the Nova Restaurant Group, for the guidance that advanced him to that of “business chef.”
Pester’s strengths include an ability to utilize ingredients to their fullest potential, attend to detail and continually be aware of everything around him. He developed the first menu for Terza and oversaw the coordination of the about 70 dishes on the menu when the restaurant first opened.
Coaching and guiding staff in service remains important to Pester. He credits chef Bill Eisemann, of Rochester Gold and Country Club, for inspiring him in what Pester describes as “gentleman leadership,” adding “Bill taught me to truly capture the essence of being a working chef, shift by shift.”
He feels fulfilled at the end of the day when he can go home “with my head held high and ask, ‘What did I learn today?’” Pester firmly believes, “You are only as good as your last shift.” On the days he goes home after having really bent over backward to please a staff member or patron during that service period, he knows he has done a really good job.
These days, Pester is “behind the scenes” with the Creative Cuisine Restaurant Group, locally family owned and operated by Dave and Mark Currie. His primary focus has been in the rebranding of City Café, scheduled to open next month as Hefe Rojo. Pester is excited about the fast, casual cuisine and craft cocktails that will be on the menu. His passion is spilling over as staff becomes as passionate about Mexican scratch cuisine as they have been with Newt’s hamburgers. Pester also is involved in creating the spring menu for 300 First.
So how does Pester describe himself today? “As a Midwest boy who knows French technique then took a leap to Mexican while still using his background in French methods.”