By Jacob Baumgart, Patch Staff
Aug 15, 2020
As the sun rose over Naples, Ryan Zale headed down to the docks. He cracked a few jokes with the fishers, had a sip of ouzo and picked up the day’s meat; it was his daily routine. His summer as a personal chef in Italy taught him that America’s food culture was missing something: fresh ingredients. Italians source their food locally, he says. Americans, do not. Zale wants to change that.
A summer in Italy was just the start for Zale. After working in one of America’s finest restaurants and opening his own eatery, Zale made his way to Annapolis, where he landed the executive chef job at Level – A Small Plates Lounge.
The newest cook at the West Street establishment has drawn a buzz, but it’s not just from his ingredient-sourcing expertise. Zale is most-known for his 2014 appearance on the Food Network. He competed in the channel’s popular show called “Cut Throat Kitchen,” a contest where cooking prowess meets rivalry and sabotage.
Despite the program’s dramatic front, Zale says his episode, named “Welcome to the Jungle,” was largely staged. The two days of shooting were not about cooking, he claims. They were about entertainment. “There’s a lot of acting,” the native of northeast Ohio said. “There’s a lot of times they’re telling you what to say. … You want the guy that’s burning himself and losing control.”
Zale did not take home the top prize, but he earned plenty of attention. He funneled that excitement into the restaurant he owned in Harrisonburg, Virginia, called the Local Chop and Grill House.
Continuing his advocacy for local food sourcing, Zale worked with Virginia farmers to bring the freshest ingredients to his customers and shake up the menu seasonally. All of Zale’s fixings came from the Virginia valley, including his meat. In his free time, he even raised livestock on a Virginia farm. “I was butchering my own beef, butchering my own pork,” Zale said. “At some points, I’m picking my own cattle. I’m picking my own pigs.”
Though restaurant ownership advanced his appreciation for community farmers, Zale mastered his fine dining techniques years prior elsewhere in Virginia. Two years at The Inn at Little Washington challenged Zale to grow quickly.
The restaurant is world-renowned and truly elite, the chef says. Each year, AAA ranks the top eateries around the globe on their five diamond scale. The Inn at Little Washington is one of 67 restaurants in the world to earn a perfect five diamonds. “It’s a destination restaurant,” Zale said of the secluded staple in Washington, Virginia. “They have helicopter landing pads for politicians and celebrities to come and have dinner.” The upscale meal house is so selective that Zale had to audition for his job. He worked two “brutal” and unpaid 16-hour days to show how serious he was. In the end, The Inn at Little Washington grew Zale into the Food Network-worthy chef he is today.
Zale moved to Maryland about a year and a half ago. After a short break from the restaurant scene, he joined the Level team in February. He promises to continue sourcing food locally and tailoring the menu to each season. “It’s a way for me to showcase Maryland agriculture,” Zayle said.
Level co-owner Jennifer Sowers couldn’t be happier to have him. Aside from his cooking, she says he is such a lighthearted coworker. Zale’s nonstop singing and gyrating inspired the restaurant to dedicate a plaque declaring that “This Kitchen is for dancing.”