Q & A with Phillip Ponticelli, Executive Chef at Strasburg Rail Road
Prior to joining Strasburg Rail Road, you were an Executive Chef for Disney. Tell us about your career.
I started cooking at The California Grill in 1996. That was the start of signature fine dining experience in existence today at Walt Disney World. I am very proud of that. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of opening and reopening numerous restaurants. My longest position was 12 years at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. But, the highlight of my career was Golden Oak Country Club where I had the privilege of serving as Chef de Cuisine for the last 4 years.
Who most influenced your love of cooking?
I find inspiration everywhere, but my parents were my biggest influence in my love for food. They were both great cooks and had their favorites. My mother loved to make ravioli and my father prided himself on his meatballs and hot pepper relish, which I still make today.
What brings you to Strasburg Rail Road?
Luck and timing. This whole COVID-19 pandemic that’s affecting us all in one way or another slowed Disney down in a big way. Strasburg Rail Road’s president, Tony Gebbia, heard I had some time on my hands and asked if I would like to come up and lead the effort to open a Café. Excited for the opportunity to work for the Strasburg Rail Road I said, let’s do it.
What excites you most about the opening of Café 1832?
There is something special about being part of a new restaurant. This is the first time that the railroad is taking on food and beverage and I am proud to be part of this historic time with the company. We have some really exciting dining experiences that will be unveiled over the next months and year, and that’s pretty exciting too.
I understand you’re hiring at Café 1832. Who’s your ideal hire?
I am looking for dynamic players who are not afraid of hard work, who have a passion for serving others and are teachable, and ideally who have restaurant experience. Our goal is to create a memorable experience for our Guests. Every team member – from line cooks and dishwashers to servers and cashiers – plays a role in making that experience. A list of open jobs can be found at https://www.strasburgrailroad.com/dig-deeper/employment/
You cook using a method called Scratch Cooking. What is that?
It is a simple as it sounds. We try to do everything from the bottom up. We make our own salad dressing, soups, stocks, pastas, etc. We want to be able to control the dish from the beginning to the end.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given when it comes to cooking?
Keep it simple, straight forward, and feed the people what they want to eat. Do not push items to the wrong crowd. It’s important to know your audience. Make sure you aree creating a memory that will last past the meal.
What is your favorite dish?
I have so many, it’s very hard to me to single one out. But if I had to pick it would be fried chicken
Who’s your favorite chef?
Jose Andres is a big influence on me but Chef Tomas Filomino gave me a chance when I was 17 years old and then mentored me for the next 5 years. Tomas was a master Italian Chef who held executive positions in New York City at restaurants like the Waldorf Astoria, Plaza Hotel, and the Pelican Room. It was Tomas who encouraged me to attend The Culinary Institute of America in NY, from where I graduated in 1989.
How has COVID-19 and the demand for quality take-out meals changed the way you cook?
Quality was always important but in this current time it is even more important to feed your family in a healthy and safe way. The meals we are creating are designed to deliver an exceptional experience regardless of where you’re eating – in the café, on the train, or in your home with our convenient online ordering and curb-side pick-up. We have also added additional operating procedures to keep our Guests and staff safe.
Aside from cooking, do you have any other hobbies?
I have been surfing since I was 10 years old and paddle boarding the last 10 years. I have a love for Bee Keeping and have hives in Florida that are still thriving. Gardening is another love of mine, I do Bonsai and have several trees that I have been nurturing for over 30 years.