Meet the Fishman
by Jennifer Mogensen
From washing dishes to tending bar to cooking on the line, Geoff Cowles has done it all
The world of restaurants can be likened to the ocean. The food business fluctuates between fierce and turbulent versus calm and quiet. Most often, it’s a simple matter of ebb and flow. Geoff Cowles know this better than most. He’s been riding the wave for over three decades.
From washing his first dish to selling fish, Cowles is a pro at navigating the murky waters of everything food.
Cowles, currently employed by Will Poultry (1075 Williams Street) as their seafood purchasing agent and food service sales person, became hooked on the restaurant business at a very young age. Born in Buffalo, he remembers, at the age of eight, his uncle parading him through the kitchen of a busy eatery. He cites this memory as the catalyst that catapulted him into food service.
As a teenager he had the opportunity to spend a summer working on a commercial fishing boat. He worked hand in hand with the crew. His future in seafood was just a few rock skips away.
His first job was at The Captain’s Table. The small diner once sat on the site of the currently operating Acropolis (708 Elmwood Avenue). Cowles worked as both a busboy and a prep cook, and stuck it out for nearly a year before moving on to bigger and better things.
At Bocce Club Pizzeria, happily positioned behind a stove, he assumed the role of pizza baker and commanded 16 commercial ovens. The pizzeria, located in the early 1980’s in the Stuyvesant Plaza on Elmwood, was his home for one year before he packed his bags and set sail for Sorrentino’s in Williamsville.
Carrying a full menu of Italian cuisine, Sorrentino’s Spaghetti House fed Cowles growing passion for food, but the transient nature of the business caused him to pull up anchor after just a few months. He returned downtown and firmly planted himself at the memorable Romanello’s Roseland. He was a line cook in a kitchen that was serving close to 1,000 dinners a night in the early to mid 1980s.
After a couple of years serving up platters of pasta, Cowles found himself in Sarasota, Florida. He was wooed by the promise of a plentitude of lucrative restaurant gigs. While in the Sunshine State, he tried his hand at several locally owned eateries. During this time in Florida he made first way from behind a stove to behind the wood. He was a fish out of water.
As luck would have it, the Buffalo boy landed a bartending job at a pub by the name of Merlin’s, owned by the same proprietor, Pat Abalone, who owned the Merlin’s here in town. Cowles’ stint as a mixologist was short-lived, however, and soon he returned both to Buffalo and to his comfort zone in the kitchen.
Despite the revolving restaurant door through which he kept spinning, he was not discouraged in the least to jump back in the Buffalo waters and search for his next stop. “I have always had a strong, self-driven work ethic,” says Cowles.
Not long after returning home, he was offered a job by his then neighbor, Jerry Heims. Heims owned a fish distribution company under the name of Kotok and Heims. The company would come to be known as Baltimore Fish, one of the biggest distributers of seafood in Western New York. Cowles embraced the arena of culinary commerce and held his new job for decade. He took tremendous pride not only in his responsibilities as salesperson but also those of a purchasing agent and operational employee. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the chefs and owners he called upon. “I really enjoy the social aspect of the job,” he says. “The restaurateurs are as diversified as their restaurants.”
After getting his feet wet at Baltimore Fish, he found his way to Schneider’s Fish and Seafood Company. “There was a friendly, completive relationship with Schneider’s,” says Cowles. The transition was an easy one, and his employment with the company lasted 15 years and earned him his nickname: the Fishman.
His current employer, Will Poultry, has a deceptive name. Although it could be easily assumed that their sales is limited to fowl, they are, in fact, a full-service food distribution company. Cowles is in familiar waters selling fish.
While he enjoys his job and the challenges it offers, his passion for food will certainly lead to an interesting future in this always interesting industry. He doesn’t necessarily see himself manning the ovens again but, as so many foodies do, he holds on to the dream of one day owning his own place. “I still have a great passion for food,” he says. “It’s a passion that sticks with you.”
Off the Menu: Soho Sizzles
The mere mention of the Chippewa Strip causes many a past partygoer to sigh as they remember the good old days. It was hot, it was happening, and it was the early 1990s.
Time has not been all that kind to the Strip. Shuttered doors, boarded-up windows, and the constant turnover of clubs and bars have made Chippewa more of an eyesore than a happening hotspot nowadays. But there is a movement underfoot, and what was old will be new again.
Jay Manno, partner and manager of the long established Soho (64 West Chippewa Street) is spearheading one of the first major steps in that onward and upward direction. Known as happy hour headquarters for those migrating south of Allentown, Soho has undergone a transformation that exceeds expectations.
Manno, along with three other partners, had the vision of operating a bar and grill establishment when they initially opened their doors in June 1999. The bar portion of the business was ready well before the work on the kitchen was scheduled to get underway. Once the doors swung wide and the liquor began flowing, the intention of finishing the kitchen fell to the wayside.
Soho enjoyed a wave of success that surpassed most their counterparts that opened on the street. They certainly outlasted most of them. But even with their business flourishing, Manno and his partners realized the need for change.
In January 2011, the owners of Soho began to scout out possible locations in the Chippewa Entertainment District in which they could open an eatery. Manno recognized the need to expand and grow. “The places that were thriving were serving food,” he says.
It took just a short period of time for the partners to look inward and remember their original ambition of operating both a restaurant and bar.
The transformation was not taken on lightly. Much research and thought went into the re-development of Soho. Manno and company have paired with Johnny’s Meats (1119 Hertel Avenue) and Romeo’s Bakery (1292 Hertel Avenue) to create specialty, one-of-a-kind seasoned beef and fresh sweet brioche rolls.
Soho closed down April 16 and the re-invention of their establishment began. Eight speedy weeks later, hungry diners were seated and welcomed into the totally revamped Soho.
Now sporting the moniker of Soho Burger Bar, the establishment fired up the grill last Tuesday. With executive chef Ray Flor, previously of City Grill, overseeing operations, this new burger joint is set to sizzle.
The menu boasts nearly a dozen specialty burgers and a custom burger menu that allows diners to explore their creative culinary side. For those who eschew the mainstay of an average beef burger, vegetarian, chicken, and turkey are also stars on the menu. Manno is confident in Soho Burger Bar’s ability to please their patrons. “Really what it comes down to,” he says, “is that everyone loves a good burger.”
The Burger Bar serves the lunch crowd Monday through Saturday starting at 11am. The kitchen remains open all day and closes down at midnight Monday through Thursday. They kick in a couple of extra hours on Friday and Saturday, staying open until 2am. Currently the same menu is offered throughout the day and evening but Manno is constantly looking to evolve. Weekly specials are offered and a late night menu is in the works.
For more information, visit www.sohoburgerbar.com or call 856-SOHO for reservations.blog comments powered by Disqus
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