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ICE Alumni Entrepreneur: Randy Zweiban

No two roads to a career in food are the same, and ICE Culinary Arts alum Randy Zweiban is a prime example of a professional shapeshifter, finding success in all corners of the culinary industry. 

He launched his career with the purchase of a small catering operation and soon found himself in the Miami kitchens of celebrated Chef Norman Van Aken. After seven years, Randy relocated to Chicago, garnering acclaim for his work with Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. For his first independent project as Chef/Owner, Randy launched the acclaimed Province, Chicago’s first full-service restaurant to attain a Gold-Level LEED certification. Today, Randy is among the industry’s leading consultants, with clients that range from restaurant groups and food councils to such large-scale organizations as the California Avocado Commission or Kraft foods.

Nacional 27

What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE, and what attracted you to the programs?

After college, I was trained as a diamond setter and worked in the Jewelry District of Manhattan during the day. I also was a drummer in a rock band during the evenings, and I juggled both for about seven years. It was during that time that I began to explore the restaurant scene of Manhattan, and realized my passion lay in the culinary field. When it came time to select a school, I appreciated the fact that ICE offered night classes and some flexibility in scheduling. 

Randy and Chef Norman Van Aken at the 2014 Food Arts BBQ.
Randy and Chef Norman Van Aken at the 2014 Food Arts BBQ.

Are there any accomplishments of which you are particularly proud?

To start, becoming a member of the original group of alumni honored in the ICE Alumni Hall of Achievement, along with winning the 2004 “Best Independent Operator Menu” award for my work at Nacional 27 from Nation’s Restaurant News. I am honored to have cooked at the James Beard House a number of times and, most of all, to have had the good fortune to have partnered with some amazingly talented people throughout my career, including Norman Van Aken and Richard Melman. 

Early on in his career, Randy cooks for the likes of Julia Child and Robert Mondavi.
Early on in his career, Randy cooks for the likes of Julia Child and Robert Mondavi.

How would you define your “culinary voice” and your personal principles of hospitality?

The key word is “hospitality.” Treating food with respect, care and passion is as important in a fine dining restaurant as it is in a fast-casual one. Working with a team in any environment is what makes that operation great. I am lucky that I get to do what I love and make a living at it. We are lucky in this business to always have opportunities to continue to learn and get better at what we do.

Describe a typical day. What might your schedule look like?

At present I am working on a few consulting projects, which have had me traveling to places like Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Cleveland, although I live in Chicago. When not on the road, I am working with my partners at VRZ Hospitality Group on developing concepts for hotels, airports and private equity companies. Most days I am up early and work into the evening, but it’s not the late-night restaurant hours I had kept for many, many years.

What might people be surprised to learn about your job?

Being a chef encompasses so much more than cooking. It’s managerial, operational and analytical. Every project has its own set of circumstances and processes. Being able to communicate and listen well is paramount to success when working with different groups on a variety of initiatives.

What advice do you have for those looking to work in the hospitality industry?

Get experience, pay your dues and don’t just jump from one place to the next. Spending at least a year or two in a variety of experiences will help round out your skill set. Always listen and always be prepared to learn. There are no fast paths or luck involved. Hard work, diligence, and passion is what will move you forward and upward.

Where would you like to see yourself in the future?

Definitely someplace warm! But, more generally, I have two great partners in VRZ Hospitality Group, Steve Rennau and Norman Van Aken, and I am enjoying growing our new business and looking forward to future opportunities.

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