Chef Joe Bonaparte has been cooking since he was a little kid.
Growing up in what he called a typical Italian family in New Jersey, he said everybody lived close together and would have big Sunday dinners at his mother’s house.
“My mom is a really good cook, and we would make things like cappelletti or ravioli – stuffed pastas and things like that,” he said. “We had a big pasta board and we’d make pasta.”
His mother made the kids help. “Her thing was – if you didn’t help, you didn’t get any,” he said.
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Bonaparte was called on to taste many of the items on the menu at his house, and his mother dubbed him the palate of the family. It seemed he could decipher the nuances in food better than most.
He arrived on the Grand Strand at the end of 2013 from Charlotte, N.C., diving right into his new gig as executive director of the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach at Horry-Georgetown Technical College.
Bonaparte, originally from Hackensack, N.J., was most recently director of curriculum and quality assurance for all culinary programs with the Art Institutes, a system of more than 50 educational facilities across North America. He had been with that organization since 1995, beginning with a teaching position at the Art Institute of Houston.
“To me it was just going to be a transitional thing,” he said.
While culinary school seemed like a good bet for Bonaparte, his stepfather was not exactly a fan of the idea.
“My stepdad was an engineer and thought I should be an engineer, so I tried,” he said. “I went to college for a couple of semesters, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted cooking.”
He also wanted music, and these things dovetailed when he moved out to the Bay Area, where his brother was attending UC Berkley. Bonaparte briefly attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and immersed himself in the burgeoning punk rock scene there.
“I cooked to make money and played music and thought that would be my living. I tried that for years – doing some recording and touring – but that never really went anywhere. My thing now is, thank God I cook better than I play the guitar.”
Bonaparte is a graduate of the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management – garnering both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. “They had an operating Hilton Hotel as a part of the school,” he said, adding that he went to work there – ultimately as chef de cuisine at the hotel.
Then he started teaching at the Art Institute of Houston, something he thought he would do while he was finishing up his master’s.
“By the end of the year I started liking it and was getting pretty good at teaching,” he said. “The Art Institutes were very good to me. I got to travel the world with them.”
One of the teaching chefs at the Art Institute of Houston echoed what his mother has said to him years go and told Bonaparte that he was the palate of the school, bringing things full circle.
As for the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach, Bonaparte is all about giving culinary an identity here. A new facility is set to break ground this month near The Market Common.
“The curriculum is vastly different than it was a year ago,” he said. “I have been to a lot of culinary schools around the country and did a lot of accreditation visits. I know what it takes to be competitive in this market – not because I’m smart, but I am fortunate because of experience.”
And he sees hope for culinary entrepreneurs in this area.
“There is a lot of empty space,” he said. “I have only been here a year, but it appears to me that there is enough of a year-round population. If you don’t go in over your head, you could do a little place and you could make it. A good example is Fire & Smoke Gastropub [in Myrtle Beach]. Right now that’s probably the best example of how to do it down here. You can keep your staff all year,” he said.
Paramount for Bonaparte is sustainability: Farm-to-table, local fare and humane farming practices – and folks knowing where their food is coming from.
“People dropping baskets and opening boxes – taking frozen food out and dropping it in a fryer or putting it in the oven – that’s not cooking. Cooking is a trade, a skill and an art. That’s something we’ve lost, but it’s coming back. I am a little bit of a fanatic about cooking technique and where food comes from.”
He said a growing number of consumers are becoming sticklers for this as well.
“It’s philosophical – caring if food is grown around here or imported from Mexico or China. This area is traditionally agricultural – but when you are buying all of your product from somewhere 1,500, 2,000 or 3,000 miles away, you are not really doing things to help the local economy.”
For Bonaparte, sustainability also means keeping people employed.
“Maybe you don’t have a restaurant you need to put 3,000 people through a day,” he said. “Maybe you have a place where you only need to put a couple hundred through a day but you can operate it all year round.”
With the advent of a new facility and a revamped outlook, Bonaparte is confident that HGTC’s culinary program can make a difference.
“We hope to be the epicenter – the impetus that can help fuel this thing,” he said.”