Challah! chef readies a restaurant empire

Space is limited inside the Challah! food truck on the days that Catie Randazzo works, since she's cooking alongside the likes of culinary instructor Marcia Ginsberg; chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana in Portland, Oregon; onetime Spotted Pig chef and trusted mentor Nate Smith; and her mother, a health-food fanatic who raised Randazzo to embrace a farm-to-table approach, tending to a sprawling backyard garden that served as the backbone of family dinners.

Of course, this small army of mentors is with Randazzo in spirit only. But the group is always there, shaping her approach to the cuisine currently being dished out both at Challah! and in a six-days-a-week pop-up taking place at Three Sheets in the Brewery District — a collaboration with culinary partner Matthew Heaggans (Alive People to Watch Class of 2014).

The so-called “junk food pop-up,” which features an in-development menu of burgers (melty, to die for), fries (vinegary, crisp) and hot chicken (recently premiered and promising a different take on the ubiquitous dish), among other fried and/or grilled offerings, is a test-run for a burger shack that Randazzo envisions becoming part of a growing food empire that will debut in 2018 when she and Heaggans open restaurant Ambrose & Eve in the Brewery District.

The eatery, named for Randazzo's grandparents, will specialize in inventive takes on classic American dishes and offer a casual, family dinner atmosphere. It also, in a sense, reunites Randazzo with the folks at Seventh Son, who are opening a sour beer brewery and bar in the building next door (Challah! has been a fixture at the Italian Village brewery since Randazzo returned to Columbus in 2013 following a yearlong stint in New York City).

With planning for the restaurant now in full swing, a pop-up running on God's schedule (on the seventh day they rested) and Challah! in continuous operation, it's understandable that Randazzo might feel a little stretched these days. But despite professing a need for a vacation, Randazzo is in good spirits during our late-July interview, flashing a bit of the tireless work ethic that has been a hallmark of her approach since Marcia Ginsberg called her out for slacking early in her tenure at Columbus Culinary Institute.

“I was struggling a little bit and ditching class and [Ginsberg] called me out in front of of everybody: 'You need to get your head out of your ass, Randazzo. You're better than this,'” said Randazzo, 35, who enrolled at the school at age 27 following a stretch where she struggled with issues both concrete (addiction) and nebulous (a general uncertainty about what she wanted to do with her life). “There was the embarrassment of being called out in front of everybody, sure, but she also believed in me so strongly that it made me push to be better.”

Following culinary school, Randazzo interned with Whims, an Oregon chef with multiple James Beard Award nominations, where she learned to respect humble ingredients, cleaning produce delivered to the restaurant by farmers who arrived “with mud still on their boots.” It was an attitude reinforced during a difficult year she spent working with Nate Smith at Allswell in New York.

“The first three months I was there, I thought I was going to get fired every day I walked in the door. … I started doing things like coming in an hour before my shift to get my work done. I would stay hours late. I'd come in on my days off,” Randazzo said. “I wanted to learn. I wanted to be better. I wanted to really own this experience and this opportunity. I let so many people down through my shenanigans for so many years that I felt I had a lot to make up for.”

Beginning at age 15, Randazzo, who split her time between her mom's home in Lithopolis, Ohio, and with her father in German Village and Grandview, started working in the service industry, holding down a string of jobs that included stints at Dairy Queen, Arby's, Joe's Crab Shack and Pizza Hut, kicking off an up-and-down (though mostly up) relationship that continues to this day.

“I have a love-hate relationship with [the service industry]. I hate the hours. I hate not being able to see my friends and family. I hate the sacrifices I've made with my relationships,” Randazzo said. “But I love making people happy. I love producing something you can't get anywhere else. I love watching people when their eyes light up when they try something I put so much of myself into. It makes it all worth it.”