John Lakatosh has worked in a wide variety of culinary environments, from upscale hotels and country clubs to the military, hospitals and universities. He's currently employed by Aramark at Frostburg (MD) State University, where he serves as executive chef.
But other than his culinary talents and accomplishments, Lakatosh is also an artist, an ice carver (he is a certified judge for the National Ice Carving Association) and an avid fisherman who ties his own flies.When not engaged at Frostberg, he can often be found angling one of the many streams than criss-cross Maryland and Eastern Pennsylvania.
A native of the Pittsburgh area, Lakatosh took up cooking in the US Navy, and then, after his discharge in 1979, he attended and graduated culinary school. He then worked in a variety of hotels, country clubs and restaurants for six years before joining ARA Services (now Aramark).
With ARA, Lakatosh experienced the healthcare foodservice environment for the first time, initially as catering chef and then production manager. He spent the next 11 years in Pittsburgh-area hospitals, first with ARA and later with Morrison Health Care. He tried his hand at designing and owning his own restaurant for a couple years before migrating back to the noncommercial side of the business, this time on the higher education front. He joined Aramark's operation at California University of Pennsylvania in 2000 and then spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before coming to Frostberg State a year ago. Much of his noncommercial experience has been in the catering end, where he is able to exploit his artistic talents as well as his culinary skills.
Do you cook the fish you catch?
Once in a while, but for the most part I'm catch-andrelease.
Where do you fish?
I do a lot of stream fishing. My favorite is fly fishing, and I tie a lot of my own flies. That's what makes it even more fun and more challenging, because you're trying to imagine the fly or the bug in the water, or, in the summertime when the grasshoppers are out, you're trying to tie a fly that looks like a nice grasshopper.
Is this something you've been doing since you were a kid?
Yeah, my grandpap had me out fishing when I was about four years old.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Irvin, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh?
The LeMont is a very nice restaurant. It's on Mt.Washington and overlooks the city. It's probably the nicest restaurant in Pittsburgh.
What about cooking? Was that something you were interested in as a kid?
I got into cooking basically by accident, but once I started I really fell in love with it. Because I was always good in art, it made my cooking go extremely well. There's a lot of art in cooking, from ice sculptures to pastries, and in how you present the food—even how you present a salad.
So, how did you start cooking, and when?
I actually started cooking when I was about 19. I was young and wanted to see the world so I joined the Navy just for something to do. I actually got into cooking there and just loved it almost from Day One. So I just kept it up and when I got out after four years, I went through culinary school.
What ship were you on?
The USS Wabash. It's an ammunition oiler that supplies warships with fuel and ammunition at sea.
What parts of the world did you get to see?
I was in the Orient: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore.
Were there set mealtimes on the Wabash?
You had your set mealtimes but you also served around the clock depending on what was going on. Especially if you're out at sea refueling another ship, that takes hours and hours and the feeding is nonstop. But when something like that is going on you're also doing other things. I was also a signalman landing helicopters and drove fork trucks. Everybody has multiple duties to keep the ship going.
What kind of food did you typically serve?
A lot of it was based on comfort foods, just like the food that we serve in the cafeterias here at the college. Pot pies, for example.
When you got out, you did what?
I went to culinary school at Westmoreland Community College and got an associate's degree in the culinary arts. I then spent a couple years as sous chef, first at a restaurant and then a country club. Later, I was with the Hilton in Pittsburgh for another couple of years.
Was there a culinary tradition that you were particularly interested in when you were at culinary school?
Classic French-style cooking. I love the oldstyle sauces, the good reduction that makes your sauce and things like that.
Did you ever get to France while you were in the Navy?
No, and that's the only place I wanted to go. I've been in every state in the United States and all over the Orient, but I've never been to Europe.
Any food trend you have your eye on now?
I'm starting to use more and more Southwestern in my cooking because its so popular.
Working primarily in the catering end at Frostberg, it sounds like you get to indulge your creativity as a chef.
I like Campus Services because there's so much freedom. Here, I design a wide variety of menus and they are always different. Some are based on cost, others on the kind of guests who will be sharing the meal.
What attracted you to Frostberg?
I like the area. It's up in the mountains and away from the hustle and bustle a city has. And there's great fishing!