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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WCC Culinary Grad is a Lion of a Chef

  • As executive chef at Ford Field, Joe Nader is responsible for feeding thousands of people at football games and other major events.
  • Chef Joe Nader worked with WCC culinary arts students when he was a guest chef for the WCC Foundation's Mardi Gras fundraiser earlier this year.

Joe Nader, 39, stands over an empty Ford Field wearing his chef’s coat and a toque, or chef’s hat. It’s quiet now, but once his day gets going he’ll oversee the work of about 100 employees. And during football season, an average of nearly 50,000 people per game will look to him for tasty and interesting food.

As executive chef of Ford Field, Nader provides everything from hamburgers and hot dogs for the average Lions fan to gourmet catering for Club members and special events, such as the sold out 2006 Super Bowl or a Madonna concert.

“Working in a professional kitchen is like being on a pirate ship,” said Nader. “You have a captain, a first mate, and swabs. There are a bunch of characters, some misfits, all necessary to run a successful ship. Not always a glamorous picture.” Captain—or rather, executive chef—Nader runs a very tight ship.

Nader began his culinary career like so many others: as one of the swabs. After being amazed at the wonderful food his Lebanese and Italian grandmothers produced and watching vegetable gardens grow even in urban Detroit, Nader was hooked on cooking. Luckily, the competitive environment of a commercial kitchen gripped him—even inspired him to do his best. Although Nader was in the low berth, the executive chefs at both Station 885 in Plymouth and Gratzi in Ann Arbor saw his potential and took an interest in his culinary career.

In decades past it was enough to apprentice under more experienced chefs, but that isn’t enough anymore and Nader knew it. “Hiring someone with an education in culinary arts is more and more desirable,” said Nader. “Restaurants look for it and it adds legitimacy to the craft. At school you learn the classic methods, which gives you a base foundation, and then the chefs you work for are the bricks that lie on top of that foundation.”

Nader attended WCC’s culinary arts and hospitality program from 1991 to 1994, soaking up everything the instructors could teach him. Then it was off to California for 10 years of honing his craft at country clubs, private restaurants, and corporate restaurants.

It was a corporate food service company that lured him back. “I liked California and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back to Michigan, but as a single father I wanted to be closer to my friends and family,” said Nader.

So back he came to a job with Levy Restaurants, and a new chapter in his culinary life began with sports entertainment.

“It was the perfect time career wise to come back to Detroit,” Nader said. “Comerica Park was new, and the Super Bowl was that year. Things were just popping. Aside from the Super Bowl, my job has allowed me to work at the Final Four, the Kentucky Derby, the PGA Championship, the World Series, and even the Grammy Awards. I couldn’t see myself ever going back to a mundane restaurant.”   

Recently Nader came back to WCC as one of the guest chefs at the WCC Foundation Mardi Gras fundraiser. “I was happy to be more involved with young chefs,” he said. “I was a beneficiary of someone caring about my career, and I can connect with them because I’ve been in their shoes.”

Does he love what he does? “Being a chef is hard work with a fun rock and roll element to it,” Nader said. “You have crazy hours, it’s physically and mentally demanding. Everything is in the extreme. But I love it and there is nothing else I’d like to do.”

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