Whether he knew it or not, Chef Maxwell Avon’s future was decided for him at the age of 16. That was when the Worthington native took an after-school job at The Macaroni Grill as a host, food runner, and busser. While literally running around the restaurant, he often found himself talking to the cooks working the expo line. His manager at the time – Tony Ficarelli, wherever you are, he still remembers your name – looked at him one day and declared, “You’ve got it. You’re hooked.”
Now, as the executive chef of the newly minted and oft-lauded Whitney House, Avon laughs at the memory of his absolute horror, retorting, “No! I’m going to college, man! I’m getting a degree. I am not working in a restaurant!” He laughs, look around the restaurant, and sighs wistfully, “He called it.”
“I thought it was cool,” Avon recalling his wide-eyed teenage self. “You’ve got this guy in a uniform, and everyone’s watching him. I became interested in food and how things worked in a restaurant. It just snowballed from there.”
Avon worked at The Macaroni Grill through high school and college while studying telecommunications and political science at Ohio University, with the plan to produce, direct, or do something with videography. Upon reflection, the Whitney’s open kitchen places him in the director’s role, with some of past college studies bleeding through after all. “You’re always on stage; you’re directing backstage,” he said.
And any good director knows that narrative is fluid; that your protagonist doesn’t have to travel the same path every time. In Avon’s case, his story worked backwards.
After working in a restaurant from high school through graduating college, he then went to culinary school. He wanted out of Ohio, choosing the now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona for the climate and friends that lived there. Armed with efficient knife skills and life experience, he focused on refining his technique and attention to detail. It was there he learned the etiquette of “yes, Chef, no, Chef” when addressing the person who runs the kitchen the way he does now. (For those who may not have worked in the service industry, this is a sign of respect not just for the person and station, but the order of kitchen hierarchy. I usually ask a chef if they prefer to be called by their trained title or name. As a layperson I have found over the years that it varies, but important: when in doubt, it’s “Chef.”). Any classical French technique he uses is a result from his culinary school training. He was sure he would love it in Arizona and never leave, “but [I] did not love it, and I left. I thought I was never going to come back to Ohio, but I found I missed the Midwest. It was a nice town, but if you go to a bar or restaurant out there by yourself, no one’s going to talk to you. In the Midwest, Chicago and Columbus for example, people are welcoming and friendly, and my family is close-knit.”
After culinary school, he moved to Chicago and interviewed with rising star Chef John Caputo for a concept in development. Avon went in, did a stage (worked for free), and was hired. His time there was as impactful as any of his formal training in school.
“Chicago was a blast,” he said. “That’s where I learned everything. I knew about truffles in culinary school, but we never saw them. You get the basics, but you see restaurants actually using ingredients readily available.” He was there for two years before returning to Columbus. He then worked under Ian F. Brown at Bon Vie, then later left to work as executive sous chef for Lindey’s before Brown asked him to head his ambitious new restaurant venture, The Whitney House.
“Chef Caputo was big on technique and instilled the importance that there are no shortcuts on doing things the proper way. That’s where the hanger steak comes from. They put it on the menu, and I had never heard of it at the time,” Avon reminisced. “I love the story about it: a throwaway meat, people didn’t want it – a ‘butcher’s cut’ – butchers knew how great it was so they took it home for themselves. It went unappreciated and overlooked. It takes some talent to butcher it, cook it.”
As if in homage, Chef deftly prepared a hanger steak. He carefully and classically seared it, basting it with clarified butter, and letting it rest before expertly slicing it against the grain to reveal a perfect medium rare center. He plated the meat with long, skin-on, potato wedges, adding that they are not the standard classic French frites in appearance, but they are blanched and double-cooked traditionally for that elusive crispy outside, creamy inside texture. He finished by garnishing the potatoes with a bright citrus flake salt from Cyprus that complimented the house-made lemon aioli. Not your typical steak frites, but then, this is not your “typical” chef.
The parallels are as obvious as the deliciousness of the meal: Chef Avon’s career and the hangar steak and the legend behind it that he so loves are cut from the same story cloth: under rated, yet given the right techniques, phenomenal.
Avon and Brown are always asking themselves what’s the best version of a dish they want to feature on the menu. “I think any chef always takes ideas with them from wherever they go,” says Avon. “Nothing is original, but you put your own flair on it, or what fits your restaurant, maybe use a different protein, different techniques. We just put our own spin on it, which has evolved over the past year as comfort food, rustic, and refined as I’m preaching technique and high quality ingredients. In the end it’s still biscuits and gravy. It’s still a pork chop and veg, but you know, it’s done with great ingredients and proper technique and presented beautifully, and that’s what we want to do.”
All this, from a high school part-time job and a manager with a crystal ball. Chef Avon was hooked, line, and sinkered.
The Whitney House is located at 666 High St. in Worthington. For information, visit