Ed Vasaio and Tuffy Stone will open Rancho T’s soon (soon!), and they’ve tapped a classically-trained, fine-dining chef with a fine pedigree to lead their team. So where did Aaron Cross come from, and what’s he all about?
Aaron Cross has spent over half of his life in kitchens. He started, at 14, working a flat-top at a little Greek spot, Nick’s, in Asheville, then as a salad bar attendant at Ruby Tuesday, before finally getting the job that would direct his career for the next 16 years, at a place called Club LeConte in Knoxville, TN.
“I couldn’t have picked a better start,” says Cross. His first boss, a former Navy submarine chef, let Cross come from school everyday to make the dinner rolls and wash dishes. Club LeConte was opulent, the last of a dying breed,1 fine dining according to the brigade system with tableside caesars, bananas foster, steak diane, and obligatory dinner jackets.
The “roughneck skateboarder kids” Aaron came up with in that kitchen have made names for themselves in the industry. One of them, Bryce Caron, went on to be named Food & Wine’s best pastry chef several years back. And then there’s his old friend David Breeden. Cross says, “I can remember, to this day, the day he came into the kitchen with The French Laundry cookbook and said, ‘I’m going to work at this place,’ and I was like, ‘You’re full of shit.’ He’s chef de cuisine at The French Laundry now.”
“It was the rock and roll and the lifestyle that was sort of the initial draw,” says Cross. He and his friends were staying out until 2:00 AM, getting drunk while washing dishes, living by their own code. “We were all anti-authority…but we hit the kitchen, and we were like little soldiers, keeping each other in line.”
Eventually, Cross says, he came to value “the foundation and the craft that comes with it, doing the same thing over and over and over again. A lot of folks find that monotonous…but the technique–I love it. It’s a lot of what keeps me balanced.”
Two weeks out of high school, Cross found himself in Hyde Park, New York, studying at the CIA. And a week after that, he nearly found himself on the long ride home. “Can’t have beer in the underage dorms,” shrugs Cross. But that moment was decisive for him. Cross didn’t want to get kicked out. He wanted, as the first of his family to study past high school, to make his parents proud. He buckled down enough to stay in school and managed to get through the rest of his time. “There’s a certain skillset to being wild and still showing up for work. If anything, I worked on those qualities.”
After graduating, Cross kicked around New York briefly before heading back to Knoxville. After another stint at Club LeConte and a now closed spot called Little Star, the 23-year-old opened his own restaurant. It closed eight months later. “Bankrupt, busted flat–I knew it all at 23,” remembers Cross. “That was not the best of plans.”
From there, came a pivotal learning experience working in the Belgian family-owned Northshore Brasserie. “Mr. know-it-all had no idea what a brasserie was,” Cross recalls. He was starting to realize he didn’t know everything, and it renewed his interest, which took the chef to Chicago where, during the height of the economic crisis, jobs were hard to come by. He used a transfer from the company that owned Club LeConte to work at The Metropolitan Club and spent the rest of his time working for free for the likes of Paul Kahan, Carrie Nahabedian, and Marcus Samuelsson.
But free work doesn’t pay the bills, and eventually, a girlfriend lured Cross to Richmond, where he found a job working for Walter Bundy at Lemaire. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” says Cross. “That first 18 months at Lemaire–I’ve never worked harder. He beat us up.” Then it was on to Keswick Hall in Charlottesville, where Cross quickly rose to the role of Executive Chef of a hotel, a role for which he says he was completely unprepared. “But I did it, and I did well at it. We made it over a lot of hurdles. [Keswick] just got 5 star, 5 diamond, so we accomplished that goal,” but Cross felt disconnected from his cooks and knew his days of running a 30-person staff were limited.
It was Billy Bread baker Billy Fallon who introduced Cross to Ed Vasaio and Tuffy Stone a few months ago, says Cross, “And, for the first time ever in my career, I had to cook for my job. And I was like ‘Awesome!’ I had to cook, and not just ‘Hey, come cook a meal;’ I cooked for two weeks!”
Cross tapped into his Puerto Rican heritage and the recipes of his maternal Grandmother, who Cross remembers was always around and cooking when he was growing up. “We had dinner at Billy’s house I made a bunch of dishes my grandmother made. I was like “why not? Let’s just go down this road.” And I did, and it was pretty good.” From that point on, the admiration was mutual.
To prepare for Rancho T’s opening, loosely slated for some time in the next few weeks (these things are nebulous!), Cross has been logging hours in the kitchen, refining recipes with Vasaio and Stone, learning their methods and their expectations. “It’s been very hands-on,” says Cross. “Ed was making tortillas every day. Tuffy’s in the back frying chicken and potatoes. They’re showing me what they loved, what they have been working on that they’re very proud of.”
After establishing that Aaron knew his way around an empanada, Vasaio and Stone focused on bringing Cross up to speed about what Rancho T’s should be all about: “Their input was more about what we’re trying to accomplish as a feel, as a business–really taking care of people that come through the door,” he says. “It’s not Aaron Cross’s kitchen. It’s Rancho T’s. It’s a restaurant, just a restaurant. Come and eat! Multiple times! That’s the point!”
And that suits him just fine: “When I was a cook, I always wanted recognition,” says Cross, “But once I got in a leadership role, I started to back away from the spotlight.” Maybe that’s why he wouldn’t let me take his picture, instead pointing to the signage above Rancho T’s; and in a time when chefs are vying for attention left and right, I must admit, it was charming if not a bit confounding.
The past week or two has seen a spike in activity for the Rancho T’s team, as Cross meets with reps, locks in vendors, and hires staff. His two goals are “Establishing the right culture in the kitchen” by hiring a few strong cooks he can lean on and “empowering other folks to learn,” he says, adding, “I love taking cooks that know nothing and showing them the way I like to cook.”
“I’m not going to say we’re going to do it better than someone’s Grandma because you can’t touch that. But we’re going to do it right. If we serve tortillas, we’re going to make them here. If we serve tamales, we’re going to make them here.” Cross sites Chicago’s Rick Bayless as a recent influence and says he hopes Rancho T’s will open up Latin-inspired food to young Richmond chefs and, of course, to diners the way Bayless’ restaurants did for the windy city.