Executive Chef Steve Ackner of Philly's Ocean Prime Restaurant
Philadelphia is a melting pot of culinary talent. So many people get blessed with an opportunity to open up their own restaurant here. Others are blessed with an opportunity to be a chef at an establishment. Check out one of Philly’s newest edition to the restaurant scene at Ocean Prime, executive chef Steve Ackner.
Where are you from?
I’m from north of Detroit Michigan, a little town called Lake Orion.
What do you miss most about your hometown?
I miss my family the most. Both my mother and brother will actually be visiting this month.
Tell us about your personal journey that led you to becoming a chef? Did you go to culinary school?
Well I dropped out of college. I was going to college for business. I didn’t really like it, I thought it wasn’t practical enough for me. During my first semester on my Thanksgiving break, I told my dad that I wasn’t going back. He said I could come back home but said I couldn’t just live there for free. I had to at least be in school and get a job. I ended up getting a part time job and I started taking classes at community college. I had two A’s and then I was also failing two classes. A counselor at the college called me one day and pretty much asked me what’s going on. She said I had good grades and I also had terrible grades. I said well I’ll go do these classes but I won’t go to the other ones. She later said there’s a woman speaking from our culinary department who’s at a different campus. The community college had about four or five different campuses in the county. She recommended that I go and listen to her speak. Well, she mandated that I go because she was basically frustrated with me and she wanted me to do well. I went to listen to this woman talk about culinary arts. She was very passionate and excited about what she was talking about and that’s how I got hooked. She was in her 60’s and still excited about what she was doing. That really got my attention and I ended up signing up for entry level classes in the culinary program the same day. I’ve been in the kitchen ever since.
Tell us about your work experience before coming to Ocean Prime?
I started cooking in an Italian kitchen while I was still in culinary school. The chef in that kitchen went to the same school as I did. When I applied there, he saw my resume and noticed the school I was attending. That pretty much made him more comfortable with knowing how I was being trained. He hired me and I worked for him for a couple years. I got to a point where I felt stagnant in his kitchen and he encouraged me to take my career to the next level somewhere else. He ended up introducing me to a one of his former chefs. He was a chef at a country club in Michigan. I almost took a job there, but I got in touch with a friend I went to school with who was a sous chef at Ocean Prime in Troy at that time. He’s the one who brought me in for an interview and I started cooking sides that week. That’s how I got my foot in the door at Ocean Prime.
Does each Ocean Prime have any similarities or differences?
I would say they are all about 80-85% the same. There’s market specific dishes and each location cosmetically look a little different.
Which cuisine or types of food do you personally love to eat or work with?
If i’m off, I’m going to some kind of barbecue spot somewhere. A smoked meat type of joint. I went to Fette Sau recently and it was amazing. I was also looking up Mike’s BBQ online in South Philly, I gotta check him out. I love barbecue. Just give me a bowl of baked beans and barbecue and I’m good.
Are there certain food items or ingredients you love that you don’t get to experiment with often and would love to incorporate into a menu one day?
We’re a seafood and steakhouse restaurant. If you look on our menu, there’s a lot of similar things that other places like Del Frisco’s or Captital Grille would offer. We do have some creative freedom which is amazing. But at the same time, this is what we offer. We have a few Asian influenced items here and there. I would actually love to work with more Asian food and Italian food. I would love to play around with different foods, but you can’t incorporate everything everywhere.
What’s your favorite food item on the menu and what’s your favorite cocktail on the menu?
I love our blackened snapper dish, I think it’s fantastic. I love our shrimp sauté dish as well. As far as cocktails, I love our Prime Old Fashioned. I’m really into bourbon. An old fashioned is my favorite cocktail in general.
Are there any culinary skills you would love to master one day?
I think it would be cool to make bread. I would love to be an awesome bread maker. I think it adds a lot of versatility to your repertoire. I don’t think a lot of people are out there crushin’ it making bread. I think that’s definitely something I’d be interested in spending time learning how to master. When I started cooking, I thought I wanted to become a pastry chef. I was watching shows like “Carlo’s Bakery” and I was like that’s cool as hell I wanna do that! I took a cake decorating class, and then I was like this is hard as shit! It’s very difficult and tedious. So when I started cooking on the hot line at Ocean Prime I said whoa this is way easier. It’s still a lot of work, but it’s not like baking. If i’m a teaspoon under, I won’t ruin something. Baking is intense.
If you could cook side by side with any chef in the world, who would it be?
That’s one hell of a question. I would love to cook with Chef Massimo, he seems like a really cool guy. I would love to cook with Iron Chef Michael Symon. Now if I had to go to work everyday and cook side by side with anyone, it would be with some of the chefs I’ve worked with and miss. I got a close friend down in Naples Florida, Frank. He’s the sous chef at the Ocean Prime down there. I miss him everyday. Mike Morris who hired me. He’s my best friend, I would cook with him everyday. The thing about being in a kitchen, I have to be here 12-13hrs at a time. It’s all about the energy and the people you’re around. I don’t care if you’re the best cook. Obviously I need you to have some sort of qualification to do your job. But I have a family full of hard working individuals in my kitchen who have been doing this everyday. I would never bring anyone in to ruin what we’ve built, that’s really important. I think that sort of thing is applicable at any type of job. If people paid more attention to those things instead of qualifications alone, a lot of things would run a lot smoother for some people.
What do you love most about the Philly food scene?
I love the variety of food here. You have chain restaurants here, but Philly has much more than that. You have Stephen Starr restaurants. There’s Michael Schulson restaurants. There’s very strong chefs and restaurants here offering a variety of so many different things. I just think it’s so awesome. Food here is easily accessible with lots of options.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout your culinary career?
Work hard. Treat others how you want to be treated. You attract more bees with honey. Be respectful to people. Success is directly related to how you treat other people, that’s my personal opinion. Just treat people right and take care of people who deserve to be taken care of.