The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Vision 2013

April 28, 2013

For chef, there’s no place like home

Many young professionals return to region

— When Rebecca Armstrong left Johnstown three years ago to pursue a culinary career in Charlotte, N.C., she was a starry-eyed twenty-something – full of restless passion, fresh ideas and the drive to become renowned for her cooking.

She left a yearlong stint at The Back Door Cafe in Cambria City to “spread her wings.”

This year, she found it isn’t true what they say: You can come home again.

Her itching feet led her back to Cambria City and she redonned her apron at The Back Door Cafe, assuming the position of sous chef and bringing a wealth of new experience with her.

In North Carolina, the 25-year-old Conemaugh Township grad was swiftly climbing the ranks at a Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurant – initially hired into management, soon becoming general manager of her own location, along with a sizable salary and a full host of new responsibilities.

Her superiors commended her attention to detail, her dedication to the industry and her food presentation. She was even commissioned to prepare dishes that were photographed and distributed in franchise marketing materials.

Armstrong refers to herself as an artist and, when she talks about her craft, one might envision her ingredients spread out according to flavor profile across a painter’s thumb palette.

Inspiration, however, is the lifeblood of the artist. It defines the artist’s work and how they’ll be remembered for it.

She said Johnstown offered the inspiration she craved, along with something else she couldn’t find in Charlotte – an identity.

“I would not have come back if it weren’t for The Back Door Cafe,” Armstrong said.

She met the cafe’s owner and executive chef, Tom Chulick, while saving up money for her Charlotte move.

She said she was enamored by the atmosphere, the youth and vibrance of the Cambria City scene and the ever-changing menu.

“The first time I ever walked in the place, I was like, ‘This is the kind of food I want to be serving,’ ” she said. She told Chulick, “I can replicate what you do, but I want to learn what you do. That’s what I’ve been searching for.”

The two fostered a working relationship that was mutually beneficial in more ways than one.

When she was on her own in the South, she said she kept in regular contact with Chulick and his wife, Denise Thompson, who continued to mentor and advise.

“They definitely, from the moment I started working there, have been a huge part of my life,” she said.

Chulick said Armstrong’s philosophy of food closely mirrors his own and Thompson, who holds arguably the most important position of tasting the food, said her youthful exuberance gives everything a little kick.

“She’s got that young ‘joie de vivre,’ ” Thompson said.

“We appreciate that.

“She’s constantly seeking, reading, thinking about it, experimenting at home,” she said. “You have to have a passion for it to really translate well.”

Armstrong said she felt that passion draining away the longer she stayed in Charlotte, a city she described as “young” and struggling to find its personality.

“It’s too corporate, it’s too new, it’s too big,” she said, sneering. “Emeril Lagasse has a restaurant and Wolfgang Puck has a restaurant.

“I miss being able to go to North Fork whenever I want and going hiking,” she said.

Armstrong is what Sherri Rae, president of Young Professionals of the Alleghenies, would call a “boomerang.” She said many of the organization’s board members share a Johnstown homecoming, with degrees in hand or internships to term.

“I think a lot of it is coming home to family and friends,” she said. “We have a lot of businesses and a lot of things you can find in cities, but we’re right by parks, streams and other recreational locations.

“It’s a good place to raise a family or to settle down.”

It’s a good place to get involved, she also emphasized.

Networking facilitation is a big part of what the organization provides for its members.

Rae spoke to the benefits of volunteering or nonprofit work for oneself and one’s community – it’s more like making one’s own opportunities.

“ … If you would just step outside of your comfort zone and explore,” she said.

Armstrong said she wound up heading up fundraising for the Sedgefield-area PTA during her stay in Charlotte, despite having no kids of her own – only a desire for the area students to be “healthy.”

Back on Chestnut Street in Cambria City, she can be found in a kitchen alongside Chulick, scheming up new appetizers and soups, palette at hand.

“She’s the only woman in my kitchen and she supervises my other cooks,” Chulick said. “The day-to-day operation is under the hand and tutelage of Rebecca.”

This meant more freedom for her to devise and explore, compared with the static chain eatery fare.

“We are not corporate food,” said Chulick, hitting upon one of the reasons Armstrong said she longed to return.

“We respect the food.”

Plenty of low-cost local fare goes into the menu. Between grass-fed beef from Latrobe, hand-picked watercress and produce procured from farmers markets in downtown Central Park and Ligonier, Armstrong said there’s an abundance of material within reach to spark her flames of inspiration.

“With the spring and summer and the farmers market – that’s when our creativity really explodes because you have so much fresh stuff to work with,” she said.

She said she’ll continue to watch Chulick at work, and he’s glad for it. To him, lessons and technique are like change handed out to make a whole bill.

“I’m forthcoming with all my experience,” he said.

“The only way I can sustain what I have here at The Back Door Cafe is if I give somebody – or several people – everything I have.”

And with Armstrong at her post, Chulick said the past couple months have been a breeze.

“I’m happy as pie.”

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