Our Neighbors...Kevin AhoWhen Kevin Aho, at the age of 15, first started out as a line cook at Hardee’s Restaurant in Cloquet, he wasn’t overly impressed. “I hated it at first,” he admitted, “– until I figured out what I was doing!” Today, he is an award-winning chef at Izaty’s Resort on Lake Mille Lacs, where he has become as well known for his business acumen as he has for his culinary flair.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
When Kevin Aho, at the age of 15, first started out as a line cook at Hardee’s Restaurant in Cloquet, he wasn’t overly impressed.
“I hated it at first,” he admitted, “– until I figured out what I was doing!”
Today, he is an award-winning chef at Izaty’s Resort on Lake Mille Lacs, where he has become as well known for his business acumen as he has for his culinary flair.
Aho was born and grew up in Cloquet, the son of Gene and Linda Aho. Cooking was not even on his radar as he was growing up, however. He played bass guitar and spent time jamming with his garage band, and enjoyed baseball, boxing and “getting into trouble!” he said.
When he graduated from Cloquet High School in 1987, he had no real idea what he wanted to do in life, but since he was playing in a band on the entertainment circuit in the Twin Cities, he was able to put that decision off for a later time.
That time came when Aho decided to go to culinary school in 1989. For six months, he lived on pizza and Ramen noodles and shared the angst of learning how to become a professional chef with all of his classmates.
“I once watched a girl put the wrong size paddle in a mixing bowl and then turn it on – there was shrapnel everywhere!” he recalled. “It was very scary.”
After he graduated, he went on tour with the bands “Cinderella" and "Jackyl,” and he didn’t have anything much to do with the food industry until he met Duluth-area Executive Chef Glenn D’Amour in 1990. He interned under D’Amour and opened his first restaurant, Bella Vita, in Superior in 1995 along with Dan Cohen. He later owned and managed Barrillas and then went on to manage the Third Rock in Superior.
“At Third Rock” Aho related, “I cooked for many international rock stars, including Ratt, Vince Neil, Saigon Kick and Poison.”
Along the way, he also began to share his culinary skill with local television audiences, appearing on Channel Three’s “Northland Cuisine” in Duluth from 1996-2000, and hosting “Cooking with Kevin” in 2008 on the PBS franchise in Staples.
“‘Cooking with Kevin’ was a great experience because it was created and run by students at Central Lakes College, who brought in local guests to help me cook,” said Aho.
Aho also developed a native ability to offer advice and assistance to restaurants that were having a hard time hitting their stride.
“I have helped restaurants that were struggling and about ready to go under,” said Aho. “I go in and change the things that don’t seem to be working. For example, I’ll hire all new staff in the front and back of the house, create menus that work for their area, and teach the owners about food costs, waste and labor issues. Sometimes people get into owning restaurants and bars without understanding the bigger picture of how they fit into the food world.”
Aho started cooking at Izaty’s Resort in 2003 as a sous chef. Within six months, he earned a promotion to executive chef.
“On a personal level,” he related, “the best experience [at Izaty’s] has been meeting my wife there and being able to raise my children at a beautiful resort.”
On a professional level, he said his time with Izaty’s has given him the inspiration and opportunity to develop his culinary creativity.
“I love being able to grow in my culinary arts and see guests year after year experiencing my new creations and loving them,” said Aho. “They inspire me to keep creating the best food that I can.”
Aho has brought his fair share to Izaty’s as well. The number of weddings at the resort has tripled during his time there.
“It’s great to be a part of making each bride and groom’s experience the best possible,” said Aho. “Izaty’s Resort has been a great place for me to explore my culinary arts. They trust me to keep creating that ‘wow’ factor for the guests that come there, and I have a great team to work with.”
Aho’s circle of appreciative diners has also included a host of celebrities and dignitaries. He cooked for the Ambassador for Kuwait in 2004, and through the years, there have also been others such as comedian Louis Anderson, heavy metal rock band Tesla, actor/producer Josh Hartnett and, just recently, Larry the Cable Guy.
“A little story when Tesla was at Izaty’s....” Aho related. “I was also in the house band at that time, so I opened for them one night and then the next morning they said they wanted to meet the chef because they were amazed by the food. They were shocked to see it was me! [Lead vocalist] Jeff Keith said, ‘Wow!! Didn’t you play in the band last night?’ I told him I had, and he said I should go on tour with them and be their personal chef – so they could have a back-up bass player, too!”
Aho’s specialty is cooking French and Italian cuisine, but he has garnered many awards for his expertise in other areas as well. In 1998, when he was cooking at the Keyport Restaurant in Superior, he was awarded the March of Dimes’ “Best Chili” honors. In 1999, he was lauded for “Best Soup and Ribs” by the Superior Chamber of Commerce, and in 2011, he was pivotal in helping Izaty’s earn the “Best of the Best Golf and Yacht Club” honors.
Most recently, Aho was recognized as the “Certified Hereford Beef Distinguished Chef of 2011-12” after being nominated by Sysco Foods and Izaty’s along with numerous letters of recommendation. Given the fact that Hereford beef is prepared and served in more than 10,000 restaurants nationally, that comes as high praise for Aho’s abilities and talents.
“This has been a great honor,” said Aho. “I didn’t really know anything about it until they came to me about a week before I was to get the award. At Izaty’s, certified Hereford beef is all I use.”
Aho celebrated his big honor by showcasing some of the recipes he’s developed using certified Hereford beef, which he said is juicier, more tender and tastier than other beef. On the menu were such taste-tempting dishes as Beef Carpaccio, Steak and Blue Salad, Filet Veloute, Sirloin Duxelle and Steak and Eggs Oscar.
Anyone who meets Aho will no doubt note his striking similarity to The Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri, with his platinum-tipped, spiked hairstyle and affable attitude.
“The Guy Fieri thing has been a lot of fun,” Aho admitted. “I do get mistaken for him all the time. Wherever I go someone always comments on it. It’s even funnier when they find out I’m actually a chef. One day my wife and I were out shopping and there was a couple arguing over whether I was him or not. The lady wanted to come and get an autograph and the man was trying to drag her into a store. My wife finally hollered to them, ‘It’s not Guy Fieri!’ I was very happy when he came to Cloquet for Gordy’s Hi-Hat. I loved that place as a kid as much as I do now.”
Aho and his wife, Angel, are parents to three children, Tilly, 18, Stefanie, 15, and Sebastian, 14. Aho said he likes little better than to barbeque with family, go fishing, eat out at other restaurants and hang out with his family and the “family” from Izaty’s.
His mother, Linda, and brother Calvin – who works at K1 Sports – still live in Cloquet, and he has numerous uncles, aunts and cousins in the area as well.
“I would like to thank all of my family and friends for their personal support as I go through my culinary journey,” said Aho.
That journey is far from over – Aho said he would someday like to earn a James Beard Award (often called “The Oscars of Food”) and cook at the White House for the President.
KEVIN AHO’S AMAZING BURGERS ON THE GRILL
3 pounds of ground beef (I would suggest Hereford)
1 T. Kosher salt
1/2 c. Creole seasoning
2 T. minced garlic
3 T. Worcestershire sauce
2 T. onion powder
1 T. cumin
Mix all together and hand patty into 1/3-pound burgers. Let rest in refrigerator for at least half an hour. Cook on grill to your perfection (I personally like medium). Top with pepper jack cheese and your favorite barbeque sauce.