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One could say that a culinary future was always in the cards for Zeph Leaton.
Leaton, the executive chef at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, grew up in Frytown, a small community between Kalona and Iowa City.
His parents owned and operated Farmers Market and Bakery, a home-based business that provided organic baked goods to outlets in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area.
“When you talk about passions, jobs and talents, it’s one of those things I didn’t really realize I had a talent for until I got to where I am now,” Leaton said. “I got a job in the industry I knew.”
Once he turned 16, he started working for restaurants around Iowa City and Coralville, gaining experience and working his way up in the business.
He graduated from Mid-Prairie High School in 2002, and continued working his way up the culinary ladder.
“I worked around the Iowa City area for a while before coming to the casino in 2006,” Leaton said. “It’s kind been the only thing I’ve done.”
Leaton started in Ruthie’s Steakhouse at the casino, eventually becoming head chef at the restaurant.
“About nine years ago, I took over as executive chef of the property,” he said.
As executive chef, he oversees the operations at the resorts four primary restaurants: Robert’s Buffet, Ruthie’s Steakhouse, 22 and Vine, and Draft Day, as well as the grab-and-go Express Café, the banquet department and the Clock Tower Plaza, which serves gofers during golfing season.
“My job entails overseeing the food aspects of the resort,” Leaton said. “I have a chef who works in each specific restaurant who reports to me. They run day-to-day operations at each restaurant.
“I assist in the menu creation for all the outlets. I assist in staffing, development of staff, the general message in what our food and beverage department is trying to put out, training, costing and all the backside numbers.”
He said one of the biggest challenges is catering to all the varied tastes of people at a property that serves more than 30,000 meals a month.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that taste is subjective,” he said. “One of the most challenging things is I feed so many mouths, and everyone has their own opinion about what they like.”
When planning a menu, he first takes into account the style of each restaurant.
“What’s the goal of the restaurant?” he said. “Who are we trying to attract?”
Each restaurant at the resort has a different style.
“In Robert’s Buffet, I have to create a menu that’s very widely based that can suit a lot of mouths,” Leaton said. “At Ruthie’s, I get to try and display a little more creativity there.”
Creativity is key in the culinary world.
“I like to try to challenge myself,” Leaton said. “I’ve always been an artist. Food is a natural art form. You eat with your eyes first.”
It is difficult to pin him down on his favorite style.
“Right now, I’m kind of on a pastry kick,” he said. “I have a hard time narrowing down what my favorite thing to cook is. Italian is kind of my roots, and I’ve been able to evolve out from there.”
One of his creations is a long-standing hit at the Express Café: The Zephyr – the “self-created monstrous doughnut that’s gained a lot of credit and fanfare over the years.”
The reward, Leaton said, comes when you give a customer a good experience.
“The food industry now is an entertainment industry,” he said. “You’re catering to a personal event in their life. From one plate to 500, you’ve been able to impact someone’s day that is a positive thing in their life.”
Another reward is the family atmosphere among his co-workers.
“I always enjoyed the people I worked with, the camaraderie, the brotherhood,” he said. “Everyone is pretty much family. They’re together when their families are doing other things.”