Who the heck is this guy and what is he doing! I get asked that all the time, and I got to say it was a challenge to come up with so here is the whole story!
This is…John Wayne “The Duke” Formica, but also: chef, writer, veteran, biker…. and at the end of this excursion…. “The Traveling Cowboy Chef”
Named by his father after the actor John Wayne, he grew up ½ Italian ½ Lebanese. When most would think that these two cultures would be nothing but conflict because of their strong historical belief in food, on the contrary, there was never a question of color with this combination; both sides always came together in the kitchen.
Son to a militaristic father, and a pastry chef/engineer mother, he spent much of his young life around his grandparents due to his parent’s busy schedules. On his father’s side, his grandfather was a chef/restaurateur, and on his mother’s side, his grandmother and great grandmother were also chefs. Without the slightest desire, or even idea as a child, he was immersed into a “foodie” world, only realizing this years later.
Becoming a chef was never a glimmer in his eye. While in high school, and being drilled on the line, “The Duke” worked at a fish market, and then at an Italian restaurant becoming head pizzaole, becoming humble to the profession. Standing in front of a 1200-degree brick oven, and its hard work to maintain, he concluded that this wasn’t the profession for him. Transitioning from the kitchen into a short-lived career in media engineering and deejaying , he faced a dead end that became a world of drugs, and late night partying. “The Duke” was unfulfilled, and had a vision that his life was worth more than “The Sex, Drugs and Partying scenario.” A decision was made to clean up his life; what better way to get some discipline, and direction, than in joining the Army.
The Army was a life changing experience for “The Duke”; being raised into it helped him excel very fast, and grow through the ranks, earning many service accommodations. As a result of receiving some injuries in the service to his country, he eventually was released from the Army. In the end, he learned that he was meant for the military, but it wasn’t meant for him! As he was transitioning from the Army, he ventured into cooking again for friends and neighbors, finding a deep down passion and fulfilling spark in feeding people. Becoming an avid watcher of the Food Network, and remembering his childhood with his family cooking, “The Duke” realized that this was it; this is his final pursuit to happiness!
Becoming the culinarian was an easy transition from the Army. The focus and regimented ways of running a kitchen is so much like the Military! Escoffier must have created the brigade system off a militaristic system. After much debate over many prestigious culinary schools “The Duke” made the decision to return to Chicago to pursue his culinary dreams and be close to his family, while attending The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Le Cordon Bleu Program.
At CHIC “The Duke” Excelled at all levels of courses, becoming attached to the entire top chef’s at the school also branching into pastry, learning an appreciation of the versatility of the 2 sides of the culinary world, making them one! One of his Chef’s also felt he was so talented in pastry, his Chef told him blatantly to quit culinary and specialize in pastry, but “The Duke” wanted it all. Choosing the path for his externship was very easy under the conditions that he would stay in America. He went the hard way, Italy was the place for him to get back to his roots and cook from the heart with culinary passion! Finding the right master to teach was the next goal! Italian Culinary Federation “ICF” Master Chef Biagio Longo was taking on apprentices at his family owned and operated bed and breakfast, and restaurant in Sorrento, Italy. “The Duke” took on the challenge learning from the Master; Neapolitan cuisine. After graduating from the Master, completing his culinary degree, and using up his entire visa in Italy, he reluctantly knew it was time to return home.
Chicago is a great culinary city, with a vast amount of restaurant trends and concepts to choose from, “The Duke” discovered that Marcus Samuelson was opening his new restaurant in Chicago. Sensing that this could be a right fit for him, he applied and was immediately hired on as a Sous Chef. After almost a year, “The Duke” learned much about running a high priority restaurant, and also a top tier hotel, understanding the meaning of becoming a chef! After achieving the goals he set at C-House, “The Duke” needed to move on, and find a new Master to learn from.
“The Duke” spent several months seeking the right restaurant to work at; during that time he worked for some of the top catering companies in Chicago, learning the art of high-volume catering, and “cave cooking.” Through interviews and tasting’s at some fine establishments, he eventually was introduced to Chef Roedlio Aglibot “The Food Buddha”.
After hitting it off with Chef Rodelio, “The Duke” became an opening Sous Chef at Rockit Ranch Productions, New Asian concept restaurant Sunda. Receiving 3 out of 4 stars by Chicago’s top food critics, it was a beginning of a great future. Being able to implement all levels of influence into Sunda, “The Duke” took it and ran! Becoming the Executive Sous Chef was a great accolade after “The Food Buddha” transitioned into a consulting role in order to peruse and expand on his career. Maintaining the standards set forth by Chef Rodelio, Sunda continued to achieve success into its second year, including honorable mention by the Michelin guide. Completing his goal of successfully running Sunda, “The Duke” became hungry for more!
And the story of the Traveling Cowboy Chef begins……….