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And yet talk to the man, and you’ll find him confident and relaxed, with an easy smile and friendly manner that immediately communicate his ability. Apparently, that’s what comes from a 30-year career in Northeast Ohio kitchens, starting with after-school jobs in high school, moving on to culinary training at New York’s Paul Smith College, and culminating with an 18-year run at Cucina Rustica (formerly the East Side Grille) in Bainbridge.
Chef Chris says the most important lesson his experience has taught him is this: Get to know your guests.
“Spending the past 18 years in a private restaurant, with free rein in the kitchen, was a great opportunity,” says Chris, an Oberlin native who now lives with his family in Chesterland. “And the most meaningful thing I learned was how to talk to my customers — get to know them, know their names, and make them feel important when they walk in the door.”
It’s a talent he has been putting to good use since joining the Radius team in April.
“I want to bring a sense of intimacy to the dining experience,” he says. “I try to get out of the kitchen and into the dining room to talk to my guests at least a few times each week. And every morning when I come in, the first thing I do is read the comment cards from the night before. Knowing my guests — knowing their likes and dislikes — is very important to me. I really want everyone to feel completely at home.”
In fact, Chris has gone so far as to make and freeze portions of his famous Bolognese sauce, so one particular guest — a fan of the chef’s work at Cucina Rustica — can have pasta Bolognese for dinner whenever he wants. “I’m serious when I say I listen to feedback!”
As a proponent of seasonal ingredients, Chris is also excited about the kitchen garden that was recently installed behind the Community Center. The “garden-fresh array” of strawberries, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, rosemary and more will soon be showing up on dinner plates, augmenting fresh produce purchased from local vendors.
These top-quality ingredients help the chef meet his goal of serving traditional comfort food in a way that is “modern, elegant and classy.”
“In a way, I’ve been cooking for Radius my whole life,” he says. “The dishes I grew up preparing are the dishes my Radius guests know and love. For instance, you don’t see orange roughy on menus much today, but it continues to stand the test of time. I’ve had it on the menu here and, no surprise, it got a great reception.”
Beyond adding panache to old favorites like lamb shanks, chicken Marsala and beef stew, Chris has expanded the popular Sunday brunch menu with an assortment of tempting waffles, including an ultra-indulgent strawberry-cheesecake version topped with freshly sliced strawberries and whipped cream. “I call it ‘richness on a plate,’” he laughs.
And at the nearby Bistro, SFC’s casual-dining option, he’s been beautifying the prepared-foods case with a series of much-anticipated fruit and vegetable carvings. “For Memorial Day I carved a pirate ship out of a watermelon,” he chuckles. “And one of the most popular was a lamb I made out of cauliflower. Now, everyone is waiting to see what I’ll do next!”
Not only do the carvings delight his guests, they’re another way for Chris to express his fun-loving attitude toward food.
“Chefs are artists,” he admits. “We wouldn’t be in this field if we weren’t. The only difference is our canvas is the plate.”