An experienced restaurant operator/executive chef with an understanding of all aspects of managing a successful restaurant/food service operation, Novak sold his The Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Company (in four days!) in 2018 to move to Austin, Texas, to be closer to family. “I also know that Austin is a good food town, so I was excited to explore all the city had to offer,” Novak said.
While doing some preliminary job searching, he came across a listing for a Head Chef position through SAGE Dining Services and applied. He was hired and took the position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, a K-12 independent school, where he was responsible for 670 students and faculty/staff, oversaw the kitchen staff, maintained HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) standards, planned menus, facilitated ordering, and controlled COGS (Cost of Goods Sold).
“I thought I would have this job for a year or, get the lay of the land in Austin, and open my own food truck,” Novak shared. He stayed in the Head Chef role for two years and was promoted to Assistant Director of Dining Services at St. Andrew’s in August 2020. He took on more responsibility in that role, including overall leadership of dining services operations, budget oversight, menu development, client relations, maintaining HAACP and health code standards, hiring and training kitchen staff, quality control, and more.
“I now think I could stay with SAGE forever,” Novak said. “The job incorporates bits and pieces of everything I enjoy … cooking, managing a food service operation, menu development and ordering, catering special events … and most importantly, people. I love that I get to work with school-age kids and interact with their families.”
For the Love of Food
Growing up about an hour north of Philadelphia in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Novak was one of three children. The family lived in Spain for nearly three years due to his father’s work, and Novak acquired an eclectic palate. At a young age, he was introduced to seafood, Mediterranean dishes and more, enjoying a more international-type cuisine. His parents also immersed him in the culture; he learned Spanish and remains a fluent speaker.
Novak learned to cook with his mother and both of his grandmothers, who lived with the family. The Novaks are a family that loved to eat; food was a source of celebration, a comfort, a way to interact and connect with others.
“I was always helping out in the kitchen,” Novak recalled.” My Grandma Stella was the real cook; rustic Italian was her specialty. Her Sunday sauce with meatballs was divine, and she made the best chicken noodle soup, which we would sit around sweating while we ate on a 95 degree summer day, but it was so good we didn’t care! His Grandma Helen also had culinary skills, and Novak relished cooking alongside her. “I remember cooking with them and then adding ingredients here and there to enhance the flavor,” he added. “For us, sitting down to a family dinner and a good meal was tradition.
“And the house rule was you either help with the preparation of the meal or you help with the cleanup,” Novak continued. “That was a no-brainer for me.”
A standout swimmer in high school, Novak attended Bloomsburg University on a swim scholarship, swimming his freshman year and then playing on the water polo team. He and his college roommates were lifeguards, working summers on the Jersey Shore. One of his roommates opened up a restaurant after graduation.
“I helped out in the kitchen and fell in love with the food industry beyond my home kitchen and really learned a lot about what not to do from him,” Novak said. “I told my parents I wanted to pursue opening my own restaurant. They told me to get practical experience.”
That advice led Novak to become the Manager/Head Cook at Jay’s Crab Shack in Ocean City, New Jersey, for two years and then the General Manager of a food court (Ben and Jerry's/Philly Pretzel Factory) in Atlantic City’s Harrah's Casino for two years. He also took business courses at Kutztown University and Northampton Community College and attended culinary school at the Atlantic County Community College Academy of Culinary Arts.
His dream to open his own restaurant became a reality in April 2010 when he opened, with the help of family financial backing, The Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co., in Somers Point, New Jersey. For six years, Novak was responsible for managing all aspects of a successful restaurant operation. He managed 15+ employees and all aspects of the business, including personnel and training, procurement, scheduling, controlling COGS and labor costs, menu design and development, kitchen operations, customer satisfaction, marketing, general maintenance, and all health code and licensing requirements.
“I used social media marketing before it was even a thing, developing a plan that resulted in a 50% increase in gross sales from 2013 to 2014 and a 35% increase in gross sales for 2015.”
The call from the Food Network that came in 2015 was a dream come true. “I mean, I felt like we were the type of restaurant that would get featured on 'Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,' but after a few years and not hearing anything, I figured it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The call changed the restaurant’s trajectory. There was a near six-month vetting process that took place, and Novak created a menu of 25 items to be sampled. Ultimately, his Crab Melt and Pork Belly Reuben Sandwich were chosen as the featured items.
Novak signed a nondisclosure agreement, and shooting took place in early September 2015, with the show airing three months later in December. “It was a three-day closed set. The first two days were all about getting the shots of the food being prepared, the restaurant clientele [invited family and friends], the b-roll,” Novak said. “Guy [Fieri] rolled in on day 3 in his 1968 red Camaro parked outside the restaurant. He was just like he is on TV: a nice, lively, fun guy.
“His Camaro out front was a dead giveaway that something big was going on, so after the filming, the restaurant had a 2-3 hour line waiting to get in for months,” Novak continued. “It was great, but also hard work that became non-stop.”
While selling the restaurant was a difficult decision, Novak wanted to be closer to family in Austin and be able to visit his brother and niece and nephew in Puerto Rico on a regular basis. Novak lives in Fort Worth (he’s been here less than a month) with his two Great Danes, Boomer and Pepper, and is looking forward to exploring the food scene of Fort Worth and meeting FWCD families in the Fischer Dining Pavilion.
Steve Novak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
. He can already be seen front-of-house regularly interacting with the students.