Passion is the top ingredient

Palos Hills man up for chef of year award

By Laura Bollin

A Palos Hills man who has cooked alongside Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse has been nominated for an award given annually to the top healthcare facility chef in Illinois.

Juan Ortiz, executive chef at Alden Estates in Orland Park, is up for the Illinois Healthcare Association’s 2012 Chef of the Year. The winner will be announced next September.

Ortiz has worked since February at Alden Estates, a short-term healthcare and senior living facility at 16450 S. 97th St. He was previously the executive chef at the Royal Country Club in St. Charles and Embassy Suites in downtown Chicago. He was named Chef of the Year in 2008 and 2010 by the American Culinary Federation for his work at hotels and country clubs.

“Cooking has been in my blood forever,” Ortiz said. “I grew up around family-owned Mexican restaurants in Chicago. I started working there when I was 12 years old, and worked my way up from being a dishwasher. When they were short-staffed they would throw me on the line.”

Among the dishes he loved to make as a child was beef fajitas, Ortiz said.

“Working there, we made really colorful food,” Ortiz said. “That’s why I try to do here, I try to make the food colorful and tasty.”

At Alden Estates one of his signature dishes is blackened salmon with avocado relish and roasted pepper garlic mashed potatoes. His challenges include making great tasting food that complies with the dietary restrictions of persons recovering from surgeries or illnesses, he said. Ortiz is known to visit residents’ rooms to talk to them about what they like to eat, Alden Estates administrator Katie Maniatis said.

“We had one woman who wasn’t eating her breakfast, and Juan went into her room and found out she likes poached eggs, so he said no problem and made her poached eggs,” Maniatis said. “I eat here every day, and it is always something different. One day it will be a salad with chicken, then it’s shrimp, then it’s swordfish. He has been an amazing addition to the team.”

One of his favorite things to do is surprise residents with a meals consisting of their favorite things to eat, he said.

“My style is to be as creative and healthy as I can,” Ortiz said. “I love cooking Chilean sea bass. It is one of the world’s best fish. I love being able to make something good and put a smile on someone’s face. That is priceless. With cooking, I can make something that will make someone’s day.”

Alden residents can choose from a four-course or a la carte lunch and dinner menus that include salad, soups, entrees and desserts. Ortiz and his fellow cooks make hundreds of meals a day for residents and employees. He was invited to the Food Network Awards in 2010, where he made Spanish rice as a sous chef for celebrity chef Bobby Flay on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.”

“At a dinner, Emeril put his hand on my shoulder, and I asked him for the best advice he could give a chef,” Ortiz said. “He said that you have to have passion. If you have passion, you will succeed, if you don’t, you will not succeed. When I volunteer to go to schools and talk to students, or when I talk to my staff here, that is what I tell them. Passion is the No. 1 ingredient in my recipes.”