1105 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco
Child labor laws were given lip service when Robert Aylwin was growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts and probably just as well or his Uncle Roberto wouldn’t have invited his 12-year-old nephew to join him that summer to work in a hotel on Cape Cod. Never mind that Uncle Roberto dangled fun in the sun with the prospect of earning money to shuck oysters and peel potatoes. If he hadn’t experienced that first taste of working in a restaurant kitchen, c might never have chosen to become a chef.
My admiration borders on awe for these committed individuals who choose to labor countless hours in front of a hot stove to keep us well-fed and content (ahem, most of the time) in order to make certain we return often to our favorite watering holes.
Simply put, chefs are truly and sincerely — no — are passionate in their love for food. Not the stuff in boxes lining grocery shelves, but fresh, flavorful food! What’s not to love in elegant, verdant spears of asparagus, the satiny skin of purple eggplants or pearly, almost quivering fresh seafood — fish filets, Key West pink shrimp or plump oysters and briny baby clams? Who among us wouldn’t be seduced by the deep pink flesh of baby lamb chops and milk-fed veal scallops or the infinite variety of colors and tastes found in fresh fruits and berries?
That having been said, we recently interviewed the Old Marco Pub’s Executive Chef Robert Aylwin for this week’s In the Kitchen feature story.
“I did like it, shucking oysters and peeling potatoes at the Cape Codder Hotel in Falmouth,” Chef Aylwin admitted, explaining that his Uncle Roberto got a job as food and beverage director at the hotel and offered him a job there for the summer.
“It was 1975 and no child labor laws to speak of. When season ended I went back to Springfield and resumed grade school that fall.
“When I was 13 we moved to Miramar because my stepfather had a nice job in Pembroke Pines. I started high school and the following summer I got a job at the Sands Restaurant, starting as dishwasher. The chef saw I was getting things done and asked if I wanted to try cooking. I got a taste of the bitter side of the food business — the chef threw things when he was stressed — I ducked!” Chef Aylwin said, adding that the following summer he went back to the Cape and got promoted out of the “oyster cellar” a dark and dank odorous place.
“That’s when I learned if you work with dead fish you begin to smell like one,” Chef Aylwin said, explaining that’s what one of the female bartenders told him. After the second season he stopped working on the Cape. “I steered toward more outdoor activities in my mid-teens. A friend and I opened a lawn and landscaping business around Miramar with two lawnmowers — after several years I’d had it with the restaurant business — so I worked at that (lawns and landscaping) until I graduated high school.
“In the meantime my uncles had gotten jobs at the Soreno Hotel in St. Petersburg. Ernie was the pastry chef, Paul was the head bartender and Roberto was the food and beverage director, while Tony sang opera for the customers and my brother was the roll guy, and also my cousin,” explained Chef Aylwin, noting it was family time and with all the family working together it was great. “I worked in the kitchen on the line for two years and one year as a waiter. Then, Jim Lynch, the chef at the Cape Codder came to town and called me to ask if I’d like to work in Naples.
“I never heard of it — I thought he meant Naples, Italy. I followed Jim Lynch down to the Naples Beach Hotel in 1983. That’s when I got into ice sculpture, and where I met Kevin O’Brien who took over after Jim Lynch left. Kevin was — well, let’s say I learned a lot from him, he could do anything — speed, quality, presentation. He was the best I’ve ever seen in a kitchen!” Chef Aylwin stated emphatically, noting that he met and married his wife, Sarah, while he was working there.
“We live on Marco Island with our three children — Camille is 16 and attends Lely High School, and she recently won second place in South Florida Amateur Art Festival and her entry will be hanging in Connie Mack’s office for six months. Sarah runs the floral business, Sarah’s Flowers and Gallery on Marco Island — it’s where we display Camille’s paintings, mostly oils, and she’s won quite a few prizes for her artworks as well as sold several through the gallery.
“While I was moonlighting at the Naples Bath and Tennis Club, I was friendly with someone who also worked at the Ritz Carlton and he asked me if I’d like to work there also. I actually took a pay cut but I knew it would be a good thing career-wise because there were so many opportunities — it was a growing company at the time — sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward. I’ll always remember that was the year (1986) that the Celtics beat Houston to win the NBA Championship. It was nice, it was fun.
“Then I got transferred to Boston and got a raise and saw the Kennedys,” Chef Aylwin related, noting it was a really high pressure state of affairs — not the Kennedys but because he was the first American chef since the Boston Ritz Carlton opened in 1927. It was a wild time cooking for heads of state and presidents and occasionally, he would meet celebrities.
“Julia Child, how could I forget. There were Russian dignitaries staying at the hotel and I sculptured an ice replica of the Kremlin — Julia Child noticed it and asked the management who created it and said she wanted to meet that person. Anyone who likes food knows Julia Child. I was pleased she asked to meet me and we shared a glass of wine together.
“This was quite a promotion for me; however there really wasn’t a choice when Ritz Carlton corporate asked me if I’d “like” to take the position of banquet chef at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco. So I got a nice raise but it was tough considering the high cost of living and I didn’t care for the team they assembled,” stated Chef Aylwin, explaining that when you’re the executive chef you assemble your own team and he felt he was ready. “When you’re ready to be an executive chef — I don’t care who you’re working for — so I left!
“I sent out resumes and the Radisson Resort came up with an attractive offer and became the executive chef there until Konrad Mayerhoffer made me an interesting offer and I worked there six years until 2000 when I went to work at the Island Country Club for a year,” he said, adding he decided it was time to open his own restaurant, possibly on the island, but opted instead to open The Crooked Fork Café in North Fort Myers.
It featured an open kitchen, a trend that was becoming popular due to the public’s interest in cooking techniques. “I also did a lot of catering for private parties and brunches for several local churches. I was in my truck a lot — almost living in it for 2 ½ years — so I sold the restaurant.
“I wanted to get out of the kitchen for a short time — I was working 200 hours a week — I didn’t want to leave but I needed a break so in 2003 I became the food and beverage director at the Longshore Tennis Club, and those two years were a good thing. I now appreciate the front of the house as much as the back — it made me a better chef — I’m more aware,” Chef Aylwin declared, explaining that he was working with Cinderella Services — Catermasters for quite a while when Tom Ackerman called him and asked if he’d be interested in coming to the Old Marco Pub as executive chef. “I accepted the offer, but I still pitch in at Cinderella occasionally.
“I really enjoy what I’m doing right now, working with true professionals like Tom and Susan Ackerman at the Old Marco Pub. I thank God because — I’ve been in this business almost thirty years — I still love it!
If you go: Executive Chef Robert Aylwin, Old Marco Pub, 1105 Bald Eagle Drive. Phone: 239-642-9600. Hours: Open for dinner six days, Monday through Saturday, from 5 p.m. to closing.