Last week, Caesars Atlantic City hosted a meet-and-greet with chef Gordon Ramsay at the Gordon Ramsay Pub & Kitchen restaurant inside the hotel. Casino patrons and executives, media reps, and local dignitaries got to chat up the high-volume Scottish-born chef, who stars in the Fox chef-competition series Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. It also was his first meeting with Georgeann Leaming, who took the job as the restaurant's executive chef in August.
Though she grew up in South Jersey and at the Jersey Shore, working at first as a preschool teacher, Leaming is familiar to city residents from Suppa (formerly in Northern Liberties) and, later, Samwich, at Sixth and Catharine Streets, both casual restaurants operated with her boyfriend, Angelo Polito.
Leaming and Polito met in 2011 while working at the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel. Leaming also got a dose of TV exposure by competing and winning an episode of the Food Network show Chopped.
What prompted you to go to culinary school?
I just remember when I was a preschool teacher, I wanted to get a career that I would enjoy and possibly make some money in. It was a time when the Food Network was big, and I like cooking, so I decided to go give it a try. At the time, I was married. I got married when I was 19. My first semester in culinary school [at Atlantic Cape Community College], I was working in the preschool and I was going to school full time and I was pregnant with my daughter [Kirsten, 19]. It was a lot, but I just wanted a career. I didn't really at the time realize what the end game would be. I was, I want to be a good chef. I just knew I wanted to learn to cook and get in the business.
Tell me about your career.
When I graduated, I got hired at Harrah's. I was there from 1999 to 2004. Then I left because at the time, I was getting separated and my daughter was turning 5. For a few years, I had my own catering company and cooked in a group home. Then in 2011, I went over to Showboat and my executive chef from Harrah's was working there, so he hired me at Casa di Napoli, the Italian restaurant there. Then I left there to go to Somers Point by the Bay. Right before I left Showboat is when I met Angelo. He came down from North Jersey to work at Showboat. After I left, he left Showboat shortly after. We both decided we didn't want to work for somebody else. That's how Suppa came about.
That was in Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties. Why that location?
Philly was really close to us. We just wanted to be part of the city scene there. It's really picking up a lot of speed and getting well known for their food. We took a shot there.
You did Hell's Kitchen just before you opened Suppa.
So many cooking shows!
I know. Not Ramsay's show, right? I taped Chopped like Oct. 1, 2013, and we opened Suppa on Oct. 27. It didn't air until April 2014. And we had to keep it secret the whole time.
How did you get on the producers' radar?
I think it's a lot of social media, a lot of customer base with casting people. It helped because I also work a lot of the charitable organizations. I did a second Chopped — the Chopped Champion, but I lost that in the first round, so I don't even talk about that one. I actually filmed another show that has not aired yet, and of course I don't really talk about it. You just reach out and they send you information about new shows. If you stay in the circle, they see that. It's just fun. It's something different I like to deal with. Put myself through torture. I don't know.
Why go to work at a casino restaurant?
We really don't need both of us at Samwich. Angelo has it under control. I'm always looking to learn more and grow more. When they called me with this opportunity and asked me to work for a brand like Gordon, it's an intimidating thing. I'm a glutton for punishment, I suppose. You have to understand too that we're a small restaurant, as well. We're not making millions of dollars or anything over there. It's nice for one of us to be out of there.
How did you get into Gordon Ramsay's universe?
Caesars, which runs the restaurant here basically, reached out to me because I worked for the company all the time. My former executive chef Rob Schoell — he's at Harrah's now — gave them my name because they were looking for somebody. Clearly, they have the different chefs come through here but most of them didn't have experience working a casino restaurant. That's a lot different than an outside restaurant. It's more involved, between the union and the large volume. Since I had experience in that, they reached out to me. They called me up and asked me if I would come do a cooking demo for them and see if I would be interested in a position.
Tell me about the tasting you did for the executives at Caesars.
They had me do three courses for them. Obviously, there's a few things — your plating skills, your cooking skills, being able to put together a menu. My executive chef and the food and beverage directors were here. I just tried to keep it simple. I did seared scallops — that's a traditional Hell's Kitchen Ramsay thing. It was summertime, so I made fresh corn puree and pear panzanella salad with plums. And I had fresh ricotta that I mixed with some honey and fresh lemon zest. Then for my entree, since they had a wood-fired grill, I did a nice grilled sirloin with some Korean mushrooms in a little demiglace.
Was Gordon there?
No. I just got hired by the Caesars people and then they recommended me to the Ramsay team. [The event] was the first time he tasted my food.
Give me your first impressions of him.
He's a cool guy. It's pretty intense, first him walking up … the height of him [6-foot-2]. You don't see that on TV that he's such a tall person. He walks into the kitchen and he's impressive. It's pretty cool because right after I met him, I did have to present a tasting of a dinner menu. I had to have it at the table for him to come through and taste, which is a little scary because it was sitting there for a little bit because it had to be ready for him. He had a couple little comments, but for the most part it was pretty painless. It was cool to see that and I totally respect his opinion. Originally, I was going to give three smaller cuts of the steak, and he said, 'Give two thicker ones so you can appreciate the quality of the meat because it was 27-day dry-aged.' That was really it. I really loved that he went down the kitchen line and greeted every one of the kitchen crew. He took the time to take pictures and just chat. They're the heart and soul of the restaurant. They worked their [behinds] off. We're a busy restaurant. We do $8 million a year in sales.
What is your daughter Kirsten up to?
She's actually at ACC for baking and pastry, in her second year. She was at the event and got to get a picture with Gordon, so I'm the coolest mom today.