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People

Meet Chef Garrett Overlee, CSU's own 'Top Chef'

January 23, 2012
by Dell Rae Moellenberg

Chef Garrett Overlee (right) with Bill Franz, an instructor in CSU's Hospitality Management Program.Cooking is a pop culture trend du jour, with audiences across the nation devouring a buffet of shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America. An entirely new communications industry has sprouted up around food in recent years – with magazines, television networks and even feature-length films focusing on gastronomic personalities and pursuits. Tuna casserole is out and steak au poivre is in as families across America mix exotic ingredients and cooking techniques into their weeknight meals.

CSU has its own top chef, Garrett Overlee, who recently was named instructional chef at the Aspen Grille, the university’s student-run restaurant in the Lory Student Center. Overlee is a 2005 graduate of CSU’s Restaurant and Resort Management Program (now called Hospitality Management), and he returned here to help the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs get their start in the industry.

We recently caught up with the chef while he was prepping food for a special menu at the Aspen Grille.

Why did you become a chef?

As a kid, I was a restaurant brat. Both of my grandfathers owned and worked in restaurants. And my first jobs with my aunt were in restaurants. I came to CSU with no plan as an open option. When I found out CSU had a restaurant degree program, I immediately signed up.

You are at home in your pjs. What do you make for dinner?

A grilled-cheese sandwich. I actually had that the other day.

Why grilled cheese?

I think right now fancy grilled-cheese sandwiches are kind of the trend. Sometimes when I’m at home I try to create one that I could charge customers $8 for.

Is there anything you don’t like to cook?

I am terrified when I do desserts. Baking is scientific, cooking is more seat-of-the-pants. You can’t do seat-of-the-pants when you bake.

What is the one ingredient everyone should have in their kitchen?

Besides alcohol? I would say heavy whipping cream because it is delicious, and a little heavy whipping cream makes everything else delicious.

What do you want CSU students to get out of working and learning from you at the Aspen Grille?

If they learn to cook anything, that’s a side product. I want them to learn is how to manage the kitchen. I think the chef runs the restaurant. I want them to understand the bare minimum of what they need to know how to do - if the dishwasher doesn’t show up and they have to wash dishes or how to fix the grill if it catches on fire. In short, I hope they learn how to run a kitchen and a restaurant.

Did you create recipes for the menu?

Yes and no. I’m new this semester, so the menu was already made. I took the old recipes and made them my own without needing to reprint the menu. Some of the recipes are very different. Some are just slightly different. Moving forward, I will change the whole menu for next semester so it will be about what I think would be cool.

When you create a dish, what elements do you keep in mind?

Always keep the guests’ perception in mind so that we meet and then exceed their expectations whenever possible. It can be tricky because if you sell something like a grilled-cheese sandwich and you make it too fancy someone can say, “Well, this isn’t a grilled cheese as I know it.” But being able to make a grilled cheese, charge $8 to $10 dollars for it and have them say, “That was phenomenal. I can’t make that at home, but I want to see if I can make that at home because I want it again.”

I’m noticing a theme of grilled-cheese sandwiches…

Obsessed.

Why is a great meal an important thing to create?

I want to create a great meal because it brings everyone together. As a chef, I think my role is to make sure the food is not the topic. If they leave my restaurant and never mention the food, from the chef’s point of view, I’m happy. If the food was terrible, they will talk about it when they leave, and I definitely don’t want that.

Some people think they’re terrible cooks. What words of wisdom do you have for such people?

Do whatever makes you happy. If you’re just cooking for you or your family, sometimes it’s OK to be selfish and say, “I really like green beans so I’m going to make green beans.” If you’re thinking too much about pleasing someone else, you forget about why something is good in the first place. So I really think being a little selfish from time to time in your cooking is completely fine.

Is it safe to say a grilled cheese is your favorite thing to eat?

I do enjoy a grilled cheese. Or a quesadilla. If I don’t have bread, a good giant quesadilla would be great.

I thought when you said green beans in that previous question you were going to slip in grilled cheese.

Yeah, I thought about it. If you want to make grilled cheese for yourself, that’s fine. If everyone else is tired of you making grilled cheese all the time, well, then, I guess they have to go out to eat.

The Aspen Grille is open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays for lunch during the academic year. Call 491-7006 to make reservations.