In my last post I talked about the fabulous Melt restaurant of Center Valley, PA. I mentioned Christopher Heath, the executive chef of Melt and the entire Paxos Dynasty — a group of great restaurants in the Allentown, PA area.
I set up an interview with Mr. Heath and compiled a list of appropriate questions that ran along the lines of background, influences, philosophy, and the like. When the time came to talk with him, though, I wound up asking only a single question: How’d you get into food? It was all that was needed to get Christopher talking. Suffice it to say the man is passionate about food. What follows is a distillation of his answer.
His mother grew up in the Philippines and came to the US via Canada as a nurse. She was always known for her cooking which influenced Christopher. When he was a kid, his mother catered for dinner parties. She was good at everything except desserts. Even though he was young, he explored sweets and pastries to fill in the niche. His grandmother on his father’s side (who was from Boston) was also an inspiration for his interest in cooking.
At 14 he got his first job in a kitchen. “It was a little Italian restaurant in DC,” he says. “I did dishes and prep work.” By 18 he knew exactly what his life trajectory was going to be. He enrolled in culinary school for an intensive one-year program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, just outside DC.
At 19, following his formal training, he started working at DC’s Galileo, considered “one of ten best Italian restaurants in America.” There he was fortunate to work with top Italian chef, Roberto Donna.
Rounding out his experience included working in numerous restaurants around the globe. In 1997 he moved to New York City to work at La Grenouille (the frog), a 52nd Street restaurant known for classic French cuisine. He followed that up with a stint in London, and then went back to New York where he opened a Conran concept restaurant in the Gustavino’s space under the 59th Street Bridge. In 2004 he moved to the Carribean and worked as a chef d’cuisine on Anguila.
Finally, in 2006 he landed in my part of world: the Lehigh Valley of Southeast PA. His reason for this final move was Melt, that fabulous restaurant I wrote about last time. He took the job because the building interior, designed by Jeffrey Beers of NYC, was exciting. Sensing this to be a grand adventure, he was all in.
And so it has been. Today he’s the head chef of the Paxos Restaurant empire where he oversees five separate high-end eateries including the Blue Grillhouse in Bethlehem, Torre (Mexican) and Melt in Center Valley, Top Cut steakhouse on the floor above Melt, and the newest offering: Firepoint Grill in Newtown Square near Philadelphia’s Main Line.
He’s also starting a secret meal prep service kitchen inspired by pandemic conditions. The kitchen was partly opened to keep people employed during shutdowns. It’s a state of the art commercial kitchen just getting underway. Not quite ready yet, it’s all hush-hush at this point.
Apparently the pandemic changed a lot of things in the food service industry. “The supply chain is no longer what it used to be,” Christopher says. “Products that were once easily obtained are now difficult to get.” The cost of production has also gone up. “It’s the highest I’ve ever seen it,” he says. “Salaries are going up; everything is changing. What is sustainable remains to be seen.”
Right now his biggest job is to keep up the morale of his team, to keep them “in a good place.” The good news is that people are going out to eat. He says sometimes it takes 12-20 weeks to get a certain piece of equipment or even parts for equipment, so breakdowns can cause big problems. But at least customers are returning. “These conditions change how you look at things,” he says.
Taking care of his staff is a major part of the culture he creates in his kitchens. He tries to understand his workers’ issues. Because of the care he takes, he’s been able to maintain his staff.
He’s made a life for himself in our area, and these days he has no reason to leave, however he loves to travel. He’s been all over the world and wherever he goes, he finds himself sampling the cuisine and if he’s lucky he’ll gain an entrance into the kitchen of whatever eatery he’s visiting. His favorite region is Tuscany, the area around Florence.
One particularly memorable visit found him in the Northeast region of Italy where he was on a discovery trip with 49 other chefs and food writers. While the illuminati ate at the tables furnished with fabulous Italian fare (you know how sumptuous that is), Christopher made his way to the back where four grandmothers in their late 60s and 70s plied their trade. He couldn’t understand the dialect, but jumped in anyway, plating whole dinners, laughing, and enjoying the work and the ambiance. “This is why I cook,” he says. “I’ve done the same thing in Thailand and everywhere I go if I can.”
I suspect he can’t help himself, he’s that passionate.
You can visit his creations at Melt (2880 Center Valley Parkway, Center Valley, PA 18034) M-Th 11am-9:30pm; F-Sa 11am-10pm; Sun 11am-8:30pm. Best to make a res: 610-798-9000. For info on all the Paxos Restaurants check out the website.
—Sue Lange, Writer/Producer, Le Bon Chef