Chef profile:Aqua 103's Executive Chef Kris LeHardy uses small kitchen to patron's advantage

December 20, 2011|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Kris LeHardy, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, fills the small kitchen at Aqua 103, a high-end restaurant off Leitersburg Pike north of Hagerstown, where he is executive chef.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.

Aqua 103, a high-end restaurant in the Lyle Building off Leitersburg Pike north of Hagerstown, has a relatively new executive chef.

He trained at a prestigious culinary school in Pittsburgh and served as executive chef at a classy hotel restaurant in Ocean City, Md. But when the chef came to Aqua 103 seven months ago, he was no stranger to the area.

Kris LeHardy grew up in Hagerstown.

"I'm not one of those who knew they were going to be a chef at the age of 2," LeHardy said. "But Dad said cooking is in our genes. I'm just the first one to make it into a career.

LeHardy and his wife, Beth LeHardy, live in Hagerstown with their 2-month-old girl, Amelia. His parents and step-parents live in the area, and his stepmother, Sharon LeHardy, works in the pagination department at The Herald-Mail.

Chef LeHardy chatted with The Herald-Mail earlier this month.

What were your early experiences with food?

I'm a big boy. I wasn't shy about food. Mom cooked. Dad cooked.

My dad's rule at the table was "Just try it, If you don't like it, spit it out and I won't make you try it again." For me personally, no food was taboo. The first thing I ate was broccoli, and they say I liked it.

When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?

I really didn't know what I wanted to do after high school. I graduated from (St. Maria) Goretti (High School) in 1999. I had a friend, Blair Ginsberg, and his father was co-owner of the Grille at Park Circle. Lots of our friends worked there as busers. I applied, but didn't get a job.

Then they called me out of the blue and asked me if I could wash dishes one night. I worked a shift, and they hired me on the spot.

I washed dishes for six months, and then they asked me to help do prep. Croutons were the first thing I ever made in the culinary world. Then I peeled potatoes. Finally, I moved up to line cook.

I was very slow. It took me a long time to get used to everything. And then one night it clicked. I finally found a rhythm that worked for me.

Where else did you cook?

I worked at the Grille for four years. Then me and some friends went to Ocean City. We wanted to get out of Hagerstown. I worked at BJ's on the Water restaurant.

They didn't do real gourmet. They did thick-cut steaks, fresh seafood, baked potatoes. We pumped out the food — 500, 600, 700 people for lunch and again that many if not more for dinner. It's a high-production restaurant.

That's when I realized I wanted to go to culinary school.

Where did you go to school?

Went to Le Cordon Bleu (Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh), then went back to BJ's in 2007.

The chef at BJ's, Michael Fritz, was very good to me. He had been the chef there for 15 years. He showed me ordering, stocking stuff, scheduling.

During the off-season, it was just me and Fritz for lunch. He'd do the prep and I'd have the whole line to myself. I got to where I could crank out 120 lunches by myself. Fritz showed me a lot of shortcuts.

Where else did you work?

BJ's was good, but I wanted culinary. So I got a job at the Hilton Suites Ocean City Oceanfront. The chef, Brian Nussear, was from Boonsboro. We knew some of the same people. I was hired as a line cook. After two weeks, I was promoted to sous chef (the assistant to the executive chef).

Then, Brian left for a restaurant in Washington, D.C. I was named interim executive chef, but they looked for another executive chef.

Then one of the grandmothers of the Harrison family passed away. The Harrisons own a lot of businesses in Ocean City. She had started the family fortune. They came to me and said we want a big memorial service dinner with beef tenderloin and all this expensive food for 200 or 250 people. In two days. I did that.

Then, a week later, the other Harrison grandmother passed away, and they told me, "We want you to do it again." So I hit it out of the park again. And then they made me executive chef.

Within a year, I went from being a line cook to sous chef to executive chef. At (age) 26.

What was it like running a hotel restaurant?

I ran all the food — the 32 Palm restaurant, Rumbas Lounge bar, the Manana Mode pool-side bar, the breakfast buffet, room service, everything.

(The role of) executive chef is more manager than chef. I had to learn inventory, profit-and-loss (statements), scheduling, ... I was pulling out all my school books and checking them. And everyone was very good about helping me.

But I missed working with food.

Did you come to Aqua 103 from Ocean City?

I took a job with Waynesboro Country Club. Dick Roulette, the former owner of The Grille at Park Circle, knew the owner of the country club needed a new chef. The only person he recommended was me. They made me an offer I could not refuse.

I stayed there a little more than two years. Got to know the customers and what they wanted. By then I felt like I had done everything I could do at the country club. I wanted more.

I applied around the area, but the only place that was hiring was Aqua 103. I had known the previous chef and the type of cuisine was something I wanted to do.

Have you had a chance to adapt Aqua 103's menu to your vision?

This is upscale progressive American food. I'm still trying to figure out what that means. Formerly, there was a lot of Asian influence (here at Aqua 103) — sesame, wasabi, soba. I kept the seafood, but added American dishes. We still serve protein, starch and vegetable, but we add a little color with a sauce or a little garnish — maybe a flower or micro-greens.

For the owners, as long as the cost is in line, they say, "Use whatever you want to."

The challenge is the kitchen is small. My walk-in cooler is the size of a closet. We don't have a lot of space on hand for storage. The benefit of that is we pump out everything fresh.

What do patrons like?

One thing is people here like knowing where their food comes from. We buy fresh, local produce. Trucks come here from local farms. They open up the back end and have all this produce. They're organic and hydroponic.

What is it like being executive chef at a nice restaurant?

Running a kitchen is much more than just cooking food. You've got to be a plumber, an electrician, a counselor, a friend. In a kitchen, equipment is always going down. So you call someone in for a repair, but you keep an eye on them and learn. See if it's something you can do yourself.

What is your least favorite thing to eat?

My least favorite food is liver. Cover it with chocolate, do anything you want — but I will not eat it. Other than that I eat anything.

What do you think about TV food shows and celebrity chefs?

We all (the Aqua 103 chefs) watch the Food Network and Cooking Channel and read magazines, checking up on what the trends are. Watching the TV chefs, I've learned a lot.

A lot of people are striving to be the next Iron Chef. That's not where I'm at.


What do you do on your days off?

I'm a new daddy, so that takes up a lot of my time. I'm a fisherman. I go fishing with my father. And my wife and I like to travel. We try to take day trips.

Other than that, I'm a homebody. I'm a simple creature.

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