Master chef Nick Rada back home serving authentic barbecue at Batavia Downs and (soon) Village of Corfu
He has worked in kitchens throughout the United States as well as Australia and Indonesia.
He has prepared dishes for four presidents and, for a while, was the personal chef for Michael Jackson.
Now, he is back in Western New York, spreading his culinary joy in the form of authentic Texas-style beef and Kansas City-style pork barbecue to patrons of Batavia Downs Gaming & Hotel.
And, if all goes according to plan, his edible creations will be available soon at 10 East Main St. in his hometown of Corfu.
“He” is Nick Rada, a 1999 Pembroke Central School graduate, who has lived out his lifelong dream of preparing delicious meals at a variety of establishments – from prestigious hotel restaurants to neighborhood bistros and taverns.
Currently, Rada (pictured above) is the manager at Burnin’ Barrell BBQ, located at the Homestretch Grill area of Batavia Downs Gaming & Hotel. He’s been working in that capacity since May.
“One day I made some barbecue for Henry (Wojtaszek, Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. president) and Scott (Kiedrowski, vice president of operations), and they fell in love with it,” Rada said during an interview Tuesday at the Park Road facility. “They mentioned that they wanted to do something new with the Homestretch (Grill) and asked me if I wanted to do barbecue.”
Rada jumped at the chance, coming up with the name, concept and menu that offers numerous choices in the form of sandwiches, snacks, salads, sides, small bites and big bites.
He said he caught the cooking bug as a teenager, growing up as the oldest of eight children.
“Ever since I was 13 or 14 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a chef,” he said. “My great aunt and uncle (the late Leo and Marge Brumsted) were butchers. Everybody in my family were hunters; everybody in my family cooks. My father, Don, cooks, and so does my grandfather, Al Lang.”
There always was plenty of food on the table, he said, adding that he is the oldest of 68 grandkids – and that’s just on the side of his mother, Claire, who is one of nine Lang children.
After graduating from high school -- where he was a lineman on the Dragons’ football squad and competed in the shot put and discus on the track and field team -- the 6-foot-1, 300-pounder went to culinary school in Pittsburgh. Not long after that, he found himself working in Milwaukee, Wis., for a brief time.
“The chef that I worked for in Milwaukee told me that I have to work at two places in my career – Ritz-Carlton and the Bellagio in Las Vegas (to get ahead),” he recalled.
Rada did just that, working for the Ritz-Carlton in Detroit before transferring with the same company when they opened a hotel in Las Vegas in 2000.
“I transferred out there and worked for them as a cook for a few years and then went to the Bellagio Resort & Casino on the strip there. At the age of 24, I became the youngest chef – a sous chef -- at that hotel’s restaurant, Sensi.”
Having established himself as a top chef, Rada stayed there for about five years before traveling across the country to the Carolinas, where he worked as an executive chef for a country club. After that, it was on to jobs in Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Australia and then to Indonesia.
“I learned a lot of different techniques, flavors and styles of cooking by traveling all over,” he said.
When asked if he ever cooked for any celebrities, he quickly rattled off the Obamas, the Clintons, and both Bushes while he was employed as part of a catering company when in Milwaukee and Boston.
“I also was a private chef for a short period time for Michael Jackson at the Ritz-Carlton in Las Vegas in 2001 or 2002,” he said.
Over the past five or six years, Rada was a chef at several restaurants in the Buffalo area. In January of this year, he and his wife, Fanchonya (call her Fan), and 5-year-old son, Ronin, came back to Corfu when Rada began work as a cook at the Downs’ Homestretch Grill.
He said the establishment’s transition to barbecue has been a hit with customers.
With a huge smoker outside, he whips up signature plates, including a new one called Wild Wild Weck (pictured below) – a combination of sliced smoked brisket and shaved beef knuckle, horseradish and Alabama white sauce on a brioche kummelweck roll.
He said the brisket is the most popular of the many choices on the menu – “it gets sold out almost every day,” he noted – with other favorites being the St. Louis-style spare ribs, the Texas-size baked potato that is big enough for three, and fried green beans.
Another coming attraction, Rada said, is the Notorious PIG, which he called “a heart attack in one sandwich.”
It consists of stuffed and smoked pork loin, Italian sausage, bacon and cheese on a brioche bun and topped with pulled pork, more cheese and a bourbon sauce.
Rada’s plan is to continue working full time at Batavia Downs while, with assistance from his dad, leasing space in the Village of Corfu for barbecue catering and (after the first of the year) takeout. The Corfu location also will be called Burnin’ Barrell BBQ.
The business site plan is scheduled for review by the Corfu Village Board next week, followed by a referral to the Genesee County Planning Board.
He said he will offer “more traditional” barbecue in Corfu along with another of his specialties: whole hog roasts.
“I do a ton of whole hog roasts for people. That’s one of my main wheels that people call me up for when I cater,” he said, noting that he gets the pigs from Always Something Farm in Darien. “Anything from the small suckling pigs that are 15 to 20 pounds to the whole hugs that are dressed at 220 to 240 pounds. That’s one of the first things I learned to cook in the smoker.”
Rada said to watch for “Whole Hog Saturdays” in Corfu during the summer months and, possibly on the first three Saturdays of this November, for a three-part whole hog cooking class at Batavia Downs.
Perfecting the smoking of beef and pork took quite a bit of trial and error, Rada said, mentioning that his wife, a native of Dallas, Texas – the home of genuine barbecue -- was a key part of the process.
“Before I got to start serving any of my barbecue, I had to get it approved by her – especially the brisket,” he explained. “I had to make a lot of brisket before I got the blessing to start serving it. She’s my biggest critic and my biggest fan.”
For more about Rada’s barbecue service, send him an email at [email protected].
Photos by Mike Pettinella.