An inside look at the secret food vices of Dayton’s chefs

By Paula Johnson

Photo: A bowl of cold cereal is one of chef Darin Mitchell’s (Coco’s Bistro) favorite guilty food pleasures


Recently, it happened again. I was driving near the Dayton Mall. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once or twice a year, but when it does, I can’t resist its siren song. And as to songs, the one that’s playing in the soundtrack in my head is Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs. Jones,” that sultry number about adultery, perfect for the disloyal act I’m about to commit. I drive through, shrinking waaaaay down into the car seat upholstery, really hoping to not see anyone I know, even using a voice that doesn’t sound like mine as I approach the speaker and hear, “Welcome to Long John Silver’s! Can I take your order?” Oh yes, yes you can.

We all have them—those secret food vices. What and/or where we eat when no one is looking. I spend countless column inches railing about eating fresh, local, seasonal, organic food and staying away from fast food and chain restaurants in favor of individually owned places. But occasionally, I descend into the pits of epicurean Hades, and I’m not alone. Here are some of the most recognized chefs in the U.S. talking about their secret food vices:

Mario Batali favors lime-flavored chili Doritos and salsa, while Anthony Bourdain has an unexplainable penchant for KFC’s mac and cheese. “When I am recognized, I feel like I’ve been caught leaving a porn shop,” he says. Esteemed chef Thomas Keller likes hot dogs and peanut butter. No less a personage than Julia Child herself enjoyed Burger King french fries, while curmudgeonly Food Network star Gordon Ramsay goes for chocolate and gummy candy. Renowned chef and restaurateur Eric Ripert has a thing for The Cheesecake Factory. “The food’s really not that bad,” he claims. Mother of the local, farm-to-table movement Alice Waters absolutely loves caramel corn: “I throw the bag away in the trash, and then I get it back out.”

Assuring them they are in good company, I asked some of Dayton’s most highly regarded chefs to spill about what they crave. Here’s what they reported:

Darin Mitchell, chef at Coco’s Bistro: “Cereal.” What kind? I wanted to know. “Any kind. After I get home from a long night of tasting and smelling food, I’m not very hungry for anything complicated. Just a cold bowl of cereal or maybe breakfast. At that point, food is mostly fuel.”

He also confessed to a weakness for fast food chain Steak ‘n Shake: “I love those garlic double steak burgers with cheese and their caramel turtle milkshake.”

Bill Castro and Mark Abbott, owner and chef of Dayton favorite El Meson, had remarkably little to report in terms of vices, eschewing fast food completely. “We do have our favorite snacks,” Bill admits. “For me, it’s Cheez-Its. I love them! And for Mark, it’s definitely popcorn. That’s what we sit around eating at night,” he laughs.

Nate Young, chef at The Oakwood Club (he’s been there for 35 years!), gave one of my favorite answers: “A cold beer!” Rolling Rock is his preference. And a steak. Even though he cooks them all night long? Yes, indeed, was his answer. But I pushed back, asking about what he would go for if he had to step away from the porterhouse. “I wouldn’t say no to a bag of potato chips,” he laughs. Nor would I, Chef Young!

Bill Valaitis, chef at Basil’s On Market says, “You ask me what I eat when I am not at work, well, it’s pizza! I love pizza—it really doesn’t matter where it comes from. I will tend to eat pizza five days a week. I do like to go out to eat a lot at places in my town, and don’t cook that much at home. People always think that when a chef is at home he makes himself a high-end meal, but most of the time it’s simple things, like grilled cheese or soup. I cook all day long [14-hour days] so when I get home, I want something quick to finish up my day. Even though I cook it for my guests, I have never been a vegetable or salad fan.”

Now that we’ve spilled, I’m curious. What do DCP readers and eaters snarf when no one is watching? Where do you drive through hoping to stay incognito? I’d love to hear about your forbidden foods!

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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