Photo by Chris Casella

Rook Cook

In the world of kitchens, there are myriad stereotypes—the unshaven veteran whose bark makes the line stand up pencil-straight; the young slingers who are making money for band van gas; the stoner dishwashers who giggle their way through shifts; or the newbie chefs, the ones whose ideals haven’t been shucked out of them by bottom-line restaurant owner, or the crass economy popular taste. Sorry, love, the bloomin’ onion sells, that geoduck tartare is 86ed for good.

But to catch a chef when he’s rising, when he still smiles at his reflection in the unblemished silver of his knife, is to gain insight into a burgeoning passion for the craft. Stephan Madias of A&R Creative Group is still in that fiddlehead green stage, having recently taken over the controls of their food enterprise, Ethyl & Tank.

Before turning to the cutting board, Madias worked at the bar next door to Ethyl and Tank. Making it through football Saturdays on campus prepared him for the chaos of a kitchen at dinner rush. You can be sure he’s seen the campus population at both it’s boisterous best and wasted worst. The gig also gave him insight into the muddled mind of the OSU student and makes him excited to serve a community many food folks associate with Hot Pockets and post-bar gyros.

“Students don’t have to have frozen fries, frozen chicken tenders,” he said. “I want to open people’s eyes and present affordable, differently presented dishes. They don’t always have to go to Subway or Chipotle.” From bouncing drunk kids to “earning his stripes” at The Crest to running the show at Ethyl & Tank, Madias wants to elevate campus fare to a higher yet accessible level.

“[The owners] have given me the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “I’m just tryin’ to take the bull by the horns and run with it.”

Sitting in the corner booth at the 13th Avenue eatery, the Cleveland native is gracious and full of energy. His dark Greek eyebrows are expressive, and he continually gestures to make a point, or looks out the window to gather his thoughts. A big athletic guy, his chef whites seem to be having a difficult time reigning in all his energy. “Food is beautiful, there’s beauty in how five or six ingredients can come together to make the best food of your entire life,” he rhapsodized. “I love cooking, I’ve always been in the kitchen. Meals from my family are some of the best things I’ve had in my life—it won’t change, how the food came to be, how their lives came to be—small amounts of everything, but do it right.”

“My entire family can cook, it’s part of our culture,” said Madias. “We always hung out in the kitchen, friends and family, it was the place to be.” As a kid, Madias remembers going out to eat with his family and the whole tribe putting on their critic hats. “We’d go a couple times a month and just sit there and talk about the food,” he said. “Well, we’d pick it apart, talk about what was wrong, right down to the salt. We’d get mad if someone ordered the same dish because then there was one less thing to taste.”

Madias’s first food memory, the one that transformed food from the mash-up on the plate to the marrow of his being, was that of his father’s lamb. A beauty-in-simplicity mélange of rosemary, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, and oregano, the whole animal would slowly spin on a spit outside while the kitchen hopped with Easter Sunday preparations. “There’s ways of showing off simple ingredients and a simple life in beautiful ways—six ingredients and fire,” he said, smiling. When Madias speaks of his family and his parents, the kitchen samurai gets a faraway look. “They have inspired me so much,” he said. “Their journey to get over to America, overcome all the difficulties, and start a family … their journey gives me the strength to move forward.”

Stephan Madias’s newbie chef enthusiasm is on display at Ethyl & Tank, 19 E 13th Ave.