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Leonardo Maurelli

Special events and catering chef
The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center

Leonardo Maurelli is fluent in Spanish, having grown up in the Republic of Panama. He learned English in Panama schools and "Southern" English after the family immigrated to Alabama in 1991. His father wanted his children to have the opportunity to pursue an education in the United States. He picked Mobile, Ala., since he spent a considerable amount of time there while in the shipping business. Maurelli earned an associate's degree in computer design and drafting from Southeast Technical College in Mobile in 1997 and enrolled at Auburn University the following year. He earned a bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management in 2003. Maurelli returned to campus in August 2009, when he became the special events and catering chef at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. His love of food and cooking is seen in the numerous special events he organizes for The Hotel throughout the year, often working with local craft brewers to develop unique menus for certain events. Maurelli was instrumental in working with Chef Michael Schwartz, 2010 James Beard Award winner, to organize the "Chefs to the Rescue" event at The Hotel in June 2011. The fundraiser benefited the American Red Cross in the wake of the April 2011 tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa and other Alabama cities. Local chefs were asked to work through their networks and get additional chefs to participate. Maurelli tapped Schwartz and Phil Colicchio, who he met at The Hotel in March 2011 for the annual Hospitality Gala. Colicchio, founder of Colicchio Consulting and Taylor, Colicchio & Silverman, and cousin of "Top Chef" co-host Tom Colicchio, contacted his friend, Chef Kevin Sbraga. The winner of "Top Chef" season seven accepted the invitation. A total of 24 chefs from Auburn and across the country helped at the event, which raised approximately $50,000 for tornado relief. Maurelli said the event also strengthened the camaraderie of all the chefs and created new friendships.In October 2011, Maurelli was honored at the Alabama Stars of the Industry Awards in Birmingham, Ala., as Chef of the Year.

1. You initially earned a degree in computer design and drafting. What inspired you to change directions and become a chef?

I started cooking professionally at age 14 and I have been working in restaurants' kitchens ever since. I worked as a restaurant manager while I was a student at Auburn to pay for classes. It was then that I realized my passion was not in architecture or working in the front of the house. I was the happiest in the kitchen, so I decided to change my major to hotel and restaurant management. I haven't looked back once.

2. In your position as special events and catering chef at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center, you have developed a relationship with Alabama craft brewers and organized a number of events and menus inspired by the beers. What prompted you to work with craft brewers in this fashion?

The concept of Farm-to-Table, using fresh local ingredients and developing menus around them, started it all for me. I was amazed at how people were connecting so well to this concept and how it was taking off. It's funny to me, because in Alabama, Farm-to-Table is simply supper! My wife's family has been cooking Sunday supper from the bounties they harvested for generations. I found it interesting that so much focus was being directed toward a simple "country" way of life. I have also always been a beer fan, more so than wine. I relate to it better and enjoy it so much more. In my early stages of becoming a beer lover, I was guilty of admiring and drinking craft beer from overseas or from Oregon, California and Colorado. Then Free the Hops, a grassroots organization that aims to raise the alcohol and volume limits for beer in Alabama, changed the landscape of breweries in our state. Small, talented and passionate breweries began to open and I honestly felt like they did not have someone who was representing them with the same zeal they devoted to their product or giving them a "stage" or proper venue to showcase all the hard work and quality they were producing. So I decided to support Alabama's homemade product, support our craftsmen and brewers, and showcase not only their product but how to pair it with our great food as well. I wanted to develop that sense of family, and create something that would not only showcase our product, our city, but our state. We have amazing cuisine here, amazing artisans, and I wanted to do my part in getting the spotlight focused here.

3. What's the best advice you have for a student considering the Hotel and Restaurant Management program at Auburn University?

This business is so much more than hotels, resorts, country clubs and restaurants. I would say get out there before you graduate and get into the business. Experience it! Get your hands into as many different facets of it as you can. You never know what can happen once you try something new. You may have thought you wanted to be a caterer, and then you find out through an experience that your passion really lies in the party planning aspect and not the actual catering side. In this business, experience counts! Go out and get your hands dirty!

4. You met "Top Chef" season seven winner Kevin Sbraga at the Chefs to the Rescue event, which you helped organize. What do you think of reality TV shows like "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen"? Do they help or hurt your industry?

I think shows like that are like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has helped turn chefs into "rock stars" and has shown the one percent of the people in our business who love to create and push the limits to always stay ahead of the curve. It has also generated major interest in what we do. But, I also think that as "real" as reality TV is, it does not truly portray the work, sacrifice and dedication the other 99 percent of chefs put into their daily jobs. These shows perpetuate the culture of "I want it all and I want it now" that our society is permeated with, rather than focusing on the patience, passion, respect, love, dedication and sacrifice it really takes to become a chef. The hard work and dedication and time it takes to reach the designation of "chef" are not properly portrayed.

5. If you could have a meal cooked by anyone in the world (dead or alive), who would it be and why?

To be honest, there have been so many amazing chefs throughout the ages - Auguste Escoffier, Jacques Pepin, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, Julia Child, to name a few - that it makes it a difficult decision. If I was awarded a wish like this, I would rather cook for and sit down to enjoy a meal with these three gentlemen, as they are the people that I look up to as a chef: Pablo Picasso, because, besides being a genius, he was an innovator who was classically trained and who chose to forge a path all of his own, making him gutsy and inspiring to me; Salvador Dali, for being a mad genius, for not being afraid to be out there on his own and making "crazy" look and feel great; and Beethoven because he embodies the pursuit of excellence. I would love to have a 100th of the drive and willingness he had, the sheer dedication and realization of a God given talent!

Jan. 3, 2012