Josh Wludyka (pronounced loo-dyke-ah), winner of the 2016 Bon Vivant Cook-Off, is a man on a mission. The 26-year-old Detroit native, whose inspired use of local produce infused with a “sense of place,” wowed judges in the hotly contested face-off.
The Agua sommelier has a clear culinary philosophy and is “a huge proponent of simple dishes and preparations.”
As well as using a mix of ingredients, to him great cooking means trying new techniques to extend your culinary repertoire and using produce in different ways while balancing flavors into a harmonious whole. He particularly enjoys cooking breadfruit and okra in different ways, as with a little effort and ingenuity, he says they are wonderfully versatile and packed with flavor.
A gifted amateur chef, Josh came through the three rounds of Cayman’s top culinary competition to make off with the grand prize before a capacity audience.
As the winning finalist, he and his sous chef/girlfriend Ashley Stafford recently jetted off to the Food & Wine Best New Chef event in New York, staying at The Ritz-Carlton. Their prize also included lunch at the three Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, whose owner and executive chef is Cook-Off judge Eric Ripert.
Home and away
Growing up in Detroit, Josh, who is of Korean-Polish extraction, ate ethnically diverse foods alongside more American staples. The aromas and fresh ingredients, part of his cultural heritage, ranged from his mother’s home-made kimchi to the warm rye bread with hot cabbage soup made by his Slavic grandfather.
Looking back now on those early years, Josh says: “I definitely didn’t appreciate what was right under my nose at the time… and Midwestern cuisine hadn’t really taken shape.
“Thinking back, I was definitely the kind of kid who would have happily lived off chicken nuggets and fries. I suppose I really took it for granted.”
Josh’s culinary epiphany came while 4,000 miles away from home. As an 11-year-old exchange student in Lyons for eight weeks, he discovered food culture in France’s culinary capital. Introduced to an array of regional specialties by his host family, Josh’s interest in food was piqued in ways that had an enormous influence on his career.
“To be honest, up until then, cheese for me was basically Kraft singles,” he says candidly.
“My host family often dined out. They’d encourage me to eat things I’d never tried before, letting me drink wine with some meals. I discovered – amongst many other things – that cheese also came in huge round blocks and differed a lot in taste, texture and consistency. This was well before the whole organic revolution was at its height, and was a real eye-opener for me.”
Taking more than a passing interest in what passed his lips, food became something of a passion. By his mid-teens Josh, who played baseball and basketball, bonded with his father over weekly feasts, sourcing ingredients in Detroit’s colorful Mexican markets.
At college, while classmates bought clothes and downloaded music, Josh collected kitchenware. Finally following his passion, he switched courses from economics and finance to hospitality management. For the third year DePaul University student, the timing couldn’t have been better as the Chicago-based college had just received a multi-million-dollar grant from hotel magnates the Hiltons. In one of the school’s first cohorts of hospitality management majors, Josh’s economics background stood him in good stead when studying the business end of catering management.
His new course included interesting industry placements in Switzerland and an unforgettable three-month stint in Paris.
Back in Chicago, Josh found that the course opened many doors including access to the Windy City’s top restaurants, chefs, and sommeliers.
Another big break was scoring a job at Charlie Trotter’s. The two-Michelin starred restaurant owned and operated by chef Trotter was one of only a few job applications Josh made on Craigslist straight after college.
Working with the first chef to have his own cookery show on PBS, Josh also worked on the wine team and finally made his way up to be in charge of the restaurant’s “kitchen table” which served 15 to 20 spontaneous courses nightly to parties of up to six.
“I soon discovered that in the industry it’s not all about skills but about your attitude and work ethic,” he explains.
“Staff come and go in rapid succession because of the antisocial hours. But on the flip side, if you’re keen and committed you get taught on the job what can’t always be found in books,” he says.
Trotter’s was Josh’s second “university” and the master chef became a touchstone and a mentor to him. During his time there he got to work alongside consummate professionals and the restaurant was a favored haunt of some of the world’s best chefs who invariably called in to pay their respects when in town.
With the long hours, those who stayed on were soon welcomed as part of the restaurant’s family: eating, laughing, and working together.
“Sure there were flare-ups,” Josh admits, “but nobody can afford to stay mad for long when you’re working so closely with each other for long periods for time.”
Josh moved to Cayman when Charlie Trotter’s closed, following a chef friend who had relocated to the island.
“I was immediately taken with the great lifestyle and food options here and subsequently built up my own home kitchen,” says Josh.
Won over by the island vibe, he wants to see more local restaurants opening, especially ones that will serve well-prepared high-quality island fare.
“We have an excellent climate for growing fruit and vegetables all of which are relatively inexpensive yet rarely seen on most menus,” he says. “I’d like to see more restaurants embracing the diversity of crops grown here. At the moment they’re underutilized, which is strange as when cooked properly they can bring increased color and depth to our cooking.”
Josh is particularly keen on the variety of flavors found in local greens like arugula, Asian greens and calaloo. His growing appreciation of fruits and vegetables follow from him gradually moving away from heavily meat-based dishes. These days Josh finds produce that is “super natural and more rooted to the earth” more appealing.
“Fruit and vegetables are lighter with phenomenal textures and flavors,” he says. “I’m happiest making simple and soulful three-ingredient dishes,” he notes.
“Gently cooked vegetables that are properly seasoned and prepared in interesting ways can be great comfort foods.”
In this regard, his food philosophy mirrors with that of his favorite chef, Dominique Crenn. Based in San Francisco, she was the first woman to gain two Michelin stars in the U.S. Josh says “Her plant-based dishes are often plated on “natural landscapes” using slate, honeycombs or pieces of wood.”
Getting back to his recent win, Josh says that it is particularly gratifying as he “totally blew it” in 2014.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” he explains. “I was too ambitious. Unsurprisingly, I came last.”
A little older and a lot wiser, Josh approached this year’s competition with the key ingredients of humility, and practice. “I practiced the dishes repeatedly to get the timing, consistency and presentation right.”
In round one he prepared local rib-eye with charred okra and parsnip purée; a three-ingredient dish which was very simple and pleased the judges.
For round two, Josh again plumped for beef, preparing it Korean short ribs style, cut across the bone and thinly pounded out with chorizo salsa and plantain tostones.
Having made it to the final he infused his dish with a “sense of place” grounding his ingredient choices in the local environment.
The Cook-Off judges which included celebrity chefs Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, and José Andrés were suitably impressed with Josh’s jerk chicken and fried breadfruit with okra and lightly pickled local wing beans.
“With Ashley’s help it all came together in the final,” he says, “though the days leading up to the Cook-Off were pretty intense with her practicing endlessly to perfect the breadfruit element.
“The other dish was a riff on a Sardinian specialty: bottarga (mullet roe). More involved in the final than in the earlier heats, Ashley sourced wahoo roe from the local fish market and salt cured it to draw out moisture,” says Josh proudly.
He explains that bottarga in its concentrated form, “is like distilling the essence of the sea. We served this with boiled breadfruit which was then fried and topped with the grated roe. Anthony Bourdain was particularly impressed with the sense of place the dish invoked.”
A team effort, Josh says it was the humble breadfruit’s taste and preparation that helped catapult them into first place.
As to the future? Josh plans to open up his own place one day, a dream that working at Agua is helping towards.
“Last year, they let me take over a month off to go to Willamette Valley, Oregon to make wine with master sommelier Larry Stone,” he explains. “This year I want to take up work experience in a restaurant kitchen in New York or San Fran. I’m basically taking it one step at a time and enjoying the ride.”