Growing up in rural Brookhaven, Mississippi, Amway Center Executive Chef Cory York enjoyed eating everything from Southern and Cajun to Creole-style meals on a regular basis, instilling a passion for food in him at an early age. Brookhaven lays in the heart of the South, less than 100 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, Louisiana (a southern culinary haven) and a quick two-hour drive directly south on I-55 to the world-famous food scene of New Orleans. In short, it’s a pretty exciting place to live if you’re inspired by the culinary arts and it’s no surprise that a young Cory started “really enjoying food” almost immediately.
After his radiologist uncle engrained in him that choosing to be a doctor or a chef as your profession will always provide job security, Cory quickly landed on the latter. “That really kind of stuck with me,” explains Cory. “Knowing I was a very hands-on person and not quite the doctor type, taking the chef route was a pretty easy decision.”
$300 + Hawaii = A Fresh New Career
When it comes to building his culinary career from scratch, Cory’s journey is equal parts incredible and inspiring. His first job was working at a small French Bistro in Brookhaven as a fry cook while tackling other duties as needed around the kitchen. Upon applying to a culinary arts program in downtown Pittsburgh (where he also had family), Cory was quickly accepted.
“It was a pretty tough program,” explained Cory. “While other college kids in the area were downtown having fun, we were hauling food portables through traffic, working in ‘on stage’ in front of huge window displays.”
With sushi and fresh seafood at an all-time high in the industry, Cory got wind that experience in the Hawaiian culinary scene—centered around its fresh seafood and even fresher ingredients— could do wonders for an aspiring chef. It didn’t take too long for him to take his chances and ship out to the Big Island upon completing the culinary program in Pittsburgh. Cory arrived with just $300 to his name and a sleeping bag, spending his nights on the beach while looking for jobs during the day. Within a week he landed his first gig.
“It was one of those things you don’t exactly know what you were falling into but I had that special feeling and just loved it,” explains Cory. “I was fortunate enough to work with a renowned chef from San Francisco, spending a lot of time with fresh seafood and ingredients that helped me learn a ton and get started. It was an unforgettable experience.”
A Return to Roots
Crafting dishes in Hawaii for several years, Cory was compelled to return to his southern roots after the tragedy of 9/11 shocked the country. “As we all know, that was a really challenging time. As soon as it happened I just wanted to get back home to my southern roots and landed in Atlanta,” explains Cory. “It was a great feeling being back with some close friends in the area and I took the time to figure out my next move. A few years later I moved to North Carolina, met my wife and things really took off from there.”
Took off they did.
While in North Carolina, Cory landed his first role as a sous chef with the Oceanaire Seafood Room. There he honed his culinary skills with a constantly-evolving menu and hundreds of covers a day before being promoted to Executive Chef in 2007. Shortly after, Cory was hired to open another seafood concept, the Nantucket Seafood Grille, this time as part of a Marriott in Greenville, South Carolina. Cory helped oversee the entire design and build-out of the property’s new kitchen, turning it into a hugely successful concept for the hotel giant.
Since then, Cory has helped launch numerous hotel restaurants, hospitality and cultural concepts while being selected for a culinary trip to Spain and winning Restaurant and Chef of the Year by Orlando Magazine for three consecutive years. While the awards were always appreciated, Cory says the most rewarding part was learning valuable lessons about what it means to be a chef and serve guests.
“You quickly realize the guests are the real reason behind any accolades you receive as a chef,” recalls Cory. “That really taught me it is all about your guests and not your advancement or reputation. You have to understand the needs and wants of your guests; that lesson has truly helped me ever since.”
Welcome to S&E, where we feed thousands
When he joined the Amway Center as Executive Chef for the Magic’s 2017 season, Cory was primarily focused on food execution, having not served at such a high volume before.
“My approach to new projects is always to look, listen and learn, so my first season I was mainly focused on food execution and getting it done the right way,” explains Cory.
With his first season under his belt, Cory’s first offseason allowed him to dig in on the meaty part of the job, focusing on local product sourcing and partnerships throughout Orlando. “Our minority business partners are really our gateway to the community. It becomes about getting the product that’s in the heart of Orlando and seeing what they have to offer,” explains Cory. “From there, we partner with local culinary leaders to showcase their talents and product on our platform and turn that into a bonus for the guests and fans.”
Another key focus of Cory’s is around waste reduction, which can be challenging work at a venue that handles thousands of guests at once.
“Working at a la carte restaurants and bistros, you really don’t have to worry about waste as much, so the waste initiative became a priority of mine pretty early on,” explains Cory. “With the volume we serve, you really have to be thoughtful with any changes. In our world, if you switch to a product that costs an extra 25 cents a pound, you’re going to notice at month’s end, just from sheer volume. We’re always focused on the guest while staying cognizant of our waste, so we’re not just adding more to the already packed landfills.”
A (Levy) Family Affair
While the Amway Center has hundreds of days a year as the home to two professional sports team (the arena also hosts the ECHL’s mid-level pro soccer team the Orlando Solar Bears), along with concerts and various ticketed events, Cory loves the opportunity to work with other Levy properties and teams across the country.
“It’s great be able to go out and support another property in our offseason to learn from the amazing chefs across the Levy family and bring that knowledge back to Amway,” explains Cory. “It’s really cool to work Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Super Bowl and see a certain treatment to a Flower Box Salad and say ‘Hey, we can do this at Amway!’”
As for leading the Amway Center team, Cory says his leadership style always starts with respect. “I have a mantra from a mentor that was around leading with respect,” says Cory. “There’s a fine line between asking and telling, and emotional demands and coaching, but it’s crucial to keep them separate.”
As an example, Cory explains he doesn’t put any job titles on team member chef coats; just first and last names. “We all have to respect each other and the majority of our staff is part-time. We need people that love what they do but also want to come to work every day. So, that’s a concrete way of putting our leading-with-respect culture right out front.”
While Cory has learned a lot from his journey and is grateful for the opportunities he’s had, he’s just as excited about where the industry is going and the up and coming talent.
For aspiring chefs looking to enter the culinary world, Cory promises it’s as much about embracing failures and the nerves as anything else.
“You of course have to have that undeniable desire to succeed but having the ability to expect failure and learning from it is huge in our profession,” explains Cory. “I’ve always learned much more from my failures than successes and I think that perspective is especially important for a chef.”
Another rule of thumb from Cory? “If an opportunity or job doesn’t make you a little nervous, it’s not worth trying.”
Well said, Chef York. Good luck the rest of the season!