For most chefs, heritage has a tremendous influence on cooking style. Coming from a Latin and Italian family, Leonardo Maurelli III ’03 said his grandmother and mother were his biggest influences.
For most Latin or Hispanic mothers and grandmothers, the kitchen is a cherished cultural space. It’s a place in the house where you either help out—or get out.
All of the experience Maurelli gained from them and in his professional career led him to be the executive chef of Ariccia Tratorria at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center.
“I want to pay respect to them and recreate that joy of my mother and grandmother’s cooking,” said Maurelli.
Maurelli said he strays away from cooking only one type of cuisine. “Dinner at home was a spread,” he said “We’d have the Italian meatballs, yucca and plantains on the same table.”
Adventurous with his cooking style when he was younger, as he matured Maurelli earned a different respect for the product.
“As your palette grows, so does your need for less and less manipulation,” he said. “So if you’re using the best and freshest seasonal ingredients you can use, does it make sense to denature it into something it isn’t?”
Born in Panama, Maurelli moved to Daphne when he was 11. Not having any Panamanian restaurants in the area forced Maurelli to dig into his heritage and explore those flavors himself. He’s done this throughout his professional career working at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, South Beach Food and Wine Festival and even at the infamous Willie Nelson’s Ranch.
“For me, after all these years, I have seen that Italian, Latin and Southern dishes are very much alike,” said Maurelli. “[It’s] the way that the food is presented. Family style, big communal platters.
Ingredients may vary, but the basic techniques are the same—braising is braising, roasting is roasting—so you’re only changing the ingredients. Seasonality as well—what’s best right now is also a commonality in all three cultures.”
Maurelli has worked as a chef at Hamilton’s, Amsterdam Café, The Auburn Hotel and Conference Center, Zazu’s and Central Restaurant in Montgomery.
“I had a very direct and chosen career path,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a chef. I knew I wanted to progress as a cook, sous-chef, chef and then executive chef.”
After quitting his job cutting grass as a freshman, he got a job at Willie’s Wings and promised the owner he’d work there until graduation. Closer to graduation, he took another job as a line cook at Hamilton’s in downtown Auburn.
“Working at Willie’s Wings was informative in a different way,” Maurelli said. “It taught me how to manage people, not only focus on food. It took a lot of coaching and guidance from the owner. I had to learn how to work with people. Everybody is different. A lot of this industry is learning how to manage people.”
Maurelli is now on the other side of the classroom, teaching the lab portion of Principles of Food Production. This class focuses on the skills, competencies and knowledge students will need to manage a broad variety of food production and service facilities.
As he progressed as a chef, he started teaching other cooks his techniques. At Amsterdam Café, Maurelli taught Auburn alumnus David Bancroft ’06, now executive chef and owner of Acre in Auburn.
In a small town like Auburn, they stay in touch, of course.
“We all benefit from having a bustling food scene,” said Maurelli. “It’s important that David at Acre has a thriving business, or even Patrick at Hamilton’s. Is there a level of competition? Absolutely. But at the end of the day we push each other.”
This team spirit of chefs from different restaurants allows them to do amazing things for the community as well. In 2011, Maurelli suggested to his general manager the idea of raising cash to donate to victims of the deadly Alabama tornadoes. This led to “Chefs to the Rescue,” a fundraising dinner that brought in more than $60,000 in donations.
Commanding almost 30,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space, he also oversees the catering abilities as well as doing events on the road representing the hotel, Ariccia and what it means to be a dedicated, hard-working Tiger.
He has been awarded the 2011 Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Alliance Chef of the Year and has been voted Best Chefs American South since 2013. Maurelli has also worked with numerous James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs.
Even now, however, Maurelli stresses the importance of continuing his culinary education. “Everybody always has something to teach you. If you’re not learning, you’re stagnant.”