Nowadays, with a successful restaurant, catering company, and farm to their name, it can be hard to imagine Spice Kitchen & Bar’s humble beginnings, in a basement in Parma. But Josh Woo, director of culinary operations, remembers those days well. And that makes Spice’s substantial growth in recent years that much more satisfying.
Woo has been a big part of that expansion, cooking up creative dishes that truly embody the farm-to-table, no-waste concept by utilizing the produce grown and meat raised on Spice Acres, the restaurant-owned farm a mere 21 miles down the road from Spice Kitchen. It’s what makes him our pick for Thrillist Cleveland’s Chef of the Year.
Growing up in the Virginia countryside, Woo took an interest in cooking from a young age, often helping his Chinese-Puerto Rican father with traditional Chinese dishes and his mother with Southern comforts. After high school, he moved to Wilmington, N.C., and spent several years cooking for various restaurants in the area, including Port Land Grill. The head chef there became his mentor, and encouraged Woo to attend culinary school in order to learn the business side of being a chef.
“You take culinary classes, of course, but the financial side is also really important,” Woo says. “I’ve known plenty of people who are way better chefs than me, but they can’t manage their food costs and it doesn’t work.”
Woo scraped up enough money to enroll in Johnson & Wales advanced standing culinary program in Charleston, S.C. He was only there a few weeks when he learned that the room he was renting was an illegal sublet, and ended up with no place to live. Luckily, Ben Bebenroth, his new friend, fellow classmate, and the future Chef, Farmer, and Founder of Spice, stepped in.