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Wine & Dine: Soho’s Joey Zelinka learned to love cooking making hoagies

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By   – Contributing writer

 

About 20 years ago, a staffing issue opened up a delicious new world to then-teenager Joey Zelinka.

“Basically when I was 16 or 17 I was a dishwasher at my friend’s mom’s hoagie shop,” recalled native South Floridian Zelinka, now 36 and the executive chef at Soho American Bistro in Vinings. “One day, one of the cooks didn’t show up. I jumped in, and I knew right then this was what I wanted to do. We were super busy. I had been working maybe five feet away from the line, and it never dawned on me to try it.”

Turns out, one person’s absence, along with being in the proverbial right place at the right time, was the perfect recipe to inspire Zelinka to seek a career in a profession that’s proven fulfilling and fortuitous — one he said he can’t imagine life without.

Since that early foray into the culinary world, Zelinka has moved and gained more experience at various restaurants and enterprises over the years, delighting palates and filling bellies in metro Atlanta along the way. His efforts have included pop-up restaurants Junk Food and Babcia’s Fine Polish Food; his executive chef position at The Sound Table on Edgewood Avenue; and his creations at Soho, among others.

He participated in the kitchen incubation program at Joystick Gamebar, also on Edgewood. His Junk Food concept a few years ago included notched-up takes on classic comfort foods, such as the “potato chip taco” featuring a six-hour braised oxtail and other high-quality components, according to the menu posted on Eater Atlanta. The fish in the “fish sticks and shrimp hushpuppies” was bone-in snapper sticks that had been dredged and fried, and included gribiche, described on the menu as “fancy tartar sauce.” One reviewer on Junk Food’s Facebook page proclaimed in 2015 that Zelinka “has an amazing talent and the skills to back it up!”

More recently, five-star ratings and reviews about Soho’s offerings on Opentable.com describe the food as “amazing,” and “absolutely wonderful.”

Zelinka’s culinary education happened in the United States Coast Guard. “I realized that college wasn’t for me and I had to do something.” He started as a food service specialist second class with the Coast Guard, according to his bio on Soho’s website.

Zelinka didn’t have to look too far for inspiration. “I decided the military was the best way to go. My grandfather spent 32 years in the Coast Guard. That made my decision. I think everything was a set-up for what I am today,” he said.

The path definitely has benefits. According to the Coast Guard, the starting salary for food service specialists is $46,595 — that’s more than $11,500 higher than a civilian sous chef — and comes with health insurance, tuition assistance, the Coast Guard’s accredited food service speciality school, and more.

“When I was getting out of the Coast Guard, everyone was telling me ‘Don’t make the Coast Guard your career,’” Zelinka said.

Fortunately, the ingredients for a promising profession came together. “My best friend’s father [the same friend whose mother owned the hoagie shop] was partners with Douglas Rodriguez,” Zelinka said. In the late 1990s, Newsweek had named chef Rodriguez — who claims to be the “Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine” on his website — one of the top 100 people influencing the approaching millennium. Zelinka said he worked as a line cook for about a year and a half at Rodriguez’s OLA restaurant.

While he’s moved on and up since his humble beginnings, Zelinka’s passion for his calling is still as piping-hot as his first stint as a fill-in cook at the hoagie restaurant. The experience “turned the light on for me for sure,” he said.

 

Q. How did you get into the restaurant business? It seemed like the obvious transition when you want to become a chef.

Q. What’s your favorite meal and drink preference, and why? It would have to be a Hoboken Hero with hot peppers at the Hoboken Cafe in Marietta, and a Mexican Coke. It’s just my favorite meal. It’s everything for me.

Q. What are some pantry staples you can’t live without? Hot sauce, from Tabasco to the most obscure Mexican ones.

Q. If you could prepare a meal for anyone in history that you admire, who would it be and what would you cook? [Musician] Brad Nowell, and I’d make burritos.

Q. What career advice would you give to new chefs? Figure out if you love it. If you don’t, get out.

Q. What do you like to cook at home? Breakfast.

Q. Any specific breakfast? Nothing specific, just breakfast.


Name: Joey Zelinka

  • Age: 36
  • Born in: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • Lives in: Atlanta suburbs
  • Education: 2002-2003, University of Central Florida; 2003-2007, Coast Guard
  • Current job: Executive chef, Soho American Bistro
  • Prior jobs: participant in the kitchen incubation program at Joystick Gamebar; pop-up restaurant chef/owner of Junk Food and Babcia’s Fine Polish Food; sous chef, American Food and Beverage; executive chef, The Sound Table
  • Family: wife, Jennifer; children, Sophia and William
  • Hobbies: Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000

Top 5 Ingredients

In order of importance:

  1. Salt
  2. Pepper
  3. Onion
  4. Carrot
  5. Celery

“There’s really no sexy or abstract reason why I chose these. It’s just a matter of functionality,” Zelinka said.