B y Derek Liebig
Marty Lyons has never done anything but cook and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The former Washington County and Whitehall resident has worked in the restaurant industry since he was in high school and over the years has become a master of his craft. In fact, he has become so skilled in the kitchen that he was recently recognized by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association as its 2013 Rhode Island Chef of the Year.
“It felt good. It’s nice to be recognized but the best part for me is getting to tell my family. They’re very proud. That’s what’s important to me,” Lyons said week as he took a brief break from preparing for the weekend’s deluge of diners at the XO Café in Providence, R.I. where he works as executive chef.
A foundation born in mom’s kitchen
Lyons interest in cooking began at a young age.
“I originally started cooking with my mom and then she dragged me to the church breakfast when I was 15 or 16 years old and they had me cooking eggs,” Lyons said.
Scrambling eggs may not have been the most glamorous of jobs, but it sparked in Lyons an interest in cooking.
He cultivated that new found interest at the former Division Street Café in Whitehall where he did everything from wash dishes to help prepare meals with owner Leann Twyman.
After graduating from Whitehall High School in 1999, Lyons attended SUNY Cobleskill where he earned his associates degree in Occupational Studies in Culinary Arts. He then went on to earn a second associates degree, in food and beverage management and a bachelors degree in service management from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, the largest food service college in the world.
But Lyons admits his true education was gleaned from summers spent working at the Coach House Restaurant in Lake George.
“I worked there for three summers. It was the first big, crazy kitchen I worked in. We used to do a hundred plates a night,” Lyons said. “I still keep in touch with the touch. That’s where I learned how to survive and work in a kitchen.”
A foodie’s city
Although he reflects fondly on growing up in Whitehall and says he’ll “never forget where I came from,” he felt drawn to the bright lights of Providence and its local food scene and moved there permanently 11 years ago.
“For a city of its size, it’s pretty impressive what it has to offer,” Lyons said. “It’s one of the top-rated food cities in the country. It’s about the same size and demographic as Albany but its exponentially different.”
Because of the city’s size and location, it is very accessible to farmers and has long been at the head of the farm to table movement.
During his decade-plus in Providence, Lyons has worked at the former AAA Four Diamond Restaurant in the Hotel Providence, was Sous chef at L’Epicurio and then Nick’s on Broadway and most recently was chef at Loie Fuller’s.
‘Food the way is always should have been’
Lyons is currently the executive chef of the XO Café, a 75-seat restaurant on the city’s east side.
Lyons, who has been the restaurant’s executive chef for the past 16 months, has near complete control of the menu.
“It’s all mine. They have full trust in me,” he said.
The restaurant’s menu includes entrees such as Black Trumpet Crusted Cod, Beet Brined Pork Tenderloin and Crispy Seared Salmon with pistachios, wilted greens and curried squash broth.
Nearly all the dished on the menu embrace the farm to table ethos that is in vogue at many fine dining establishments.
“The concept is fresh, local seasonal food,” Lyons said. “I source as much food as I can from local farms. It’s what food used to be and what it always should have been.”
The restaurant and Lyons’ cooking have drawn rave reviews from diners and food critics including Foodies of New England and the Providence Journal, among other publications.
Last year he was nominated for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s Chef of the Year and was selected by the public and the organization’s board.
Although he admits the hours can be taxing and he’ll probably never get rich cooking, Lyons enjoys what he does.
“It’s a privilege to cook for others. I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s very personal.”