Zach Ohly was born and raised right here in Rochester. Following graduation from Lourdes High School he went on to the University of Minnesota in Duluth. During those four college years he cooked in chain restaurants. While the food there was rather one dimensional, he found it a good introduction to the culture of restaurants.
Having always enjoyed cooking, he decided to enroll in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in the Twin Cities. While there he got a job at the Saint Paul Grill. “That was my first taste of upscale, scratch cooking,” says Ohly.
During culinary school he met a woman who is now his fiancée. At the time, they both wanted to get away. They visited Chicago but decided it was not far enough away. Instead, they wound up moving west to Denver. They remained there for almost five years. It was his culinary experiences here, “in chef driven restaurants,” which provided a progression for Ohly to experience, learn and acquire much of the insight required to deliver a fine dining experience.
However, Ohly was driven to go further. Truth-be-told, from the time he entered culinary school he set a goal for himself, and a high goal at that. Shortly into his culinary studies he was introduced to the French Laundry Cookbook. “That book really showed me what food could be, including an outlet for passion and creativity,” he recalls. “It represented the pinnacle of our craft.” He was inspired and determined to strive for that level of workmanship in his own cooking.
When he learned that the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group was looking for chefs to stage, or trial, in the kitchen, leading to an opportunity to work at one of its prestigious restaurants, The French Laundry in Napa, Calif., Ohly applied. There was no hesitation when the call came asking if he would consider a “look and see.” He recalls undergoing 32 hours of shadowing in just two days, at the end of which he wrote a five page essay on how to make a consommé.
“It was the most intense thing I ever did,” says Ohly.
A job offer followed and a couple months later, Ohly found himself at the group’s Bouchon Bistro in Yountville (Napa region) until he moved over to The French Laundry when some remodeling was completed.
Ohly describes the expectations there as “perfection or nothing.” He still is in awe over the emphasis on technique, the quality of product and the respect for food. He was quickly promoted to a “Chef de Partie” –a system where an individual chef is in charge of a station or particular aspect of the food preparation.
When the time came to make the long term commitment to stay in California the reality for both he and his fiancée was, after almost seven years away, to return home to Minnesota. Ohly was excited to bring his acquired skillset back home. He joined the Nova Restaurant Group, initially helping to launch Terza before moving over to Pescara as executive chef almost three months ago.
With the change of season, the timing offered an additional opportunity for Ohly – that of showing Rochester the food he can make and make well. It was a joint effort with owners Scott Foster and Pat Woodring to make recent menu revisions. Clearly patron favorites, like the Lobster Bisque, Tuna Tartare, and walleye were not going away.
What has changed is that patrons will find what Ohly describes as “more composed” entrees. In addition, he will have the opportunity to showcase more signature dishes and small plates. Ice creams and sorbets – “bold flavored at that” – are being added to the menu.
During the weeks and months ahead it will be exciting to see what unfolds as Ohly finds his stride back at home.