He’s cooked for presidents and first ladies at inaugurations and celebrations, competed on – and won – Iron Chef America and served as chef at birthday parties for luminaries like Shaquille O’Neal and Julia Child.
During his 40-year career, chef Walter Leffler has led the culinary programs at renowned Hilton hotels including the Willard Room at Washington D.C.’s Willard Intercontinental just outside the White House grounds, where former First Lady Nancy Reagan dined three times a week and the Hilton Short Hills in New Jersey, the only 5-Diamond Hilton restaurant worldwide. A guest chef at the James Beard House on dozens of occasions, Leffler even cooked for the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” launch party.
But chef Leffler kept many of those experiences, accolades and honors off of his resume when searching for a new position in the Seacoast area a year ago, before finally landing at Revolution Taproom & Grill in Rochester in November 2019.
“I would send out my three-page resume and I would not hear a thing. And the more I did it and the more, I didn’t hear anything, the more aggravated I was.”
While he initially came to Wells, Maine from New Jersey to take care of his father, after his father passed, the chef reevaluated his life and decided to retire himself in the region he’d visited both as a kid during the summer and as an adult when his parents retired there.
But retirement just wasn’t for him and a friend suggested that instead of broadcasting his age and vast experience, he “unpad” that resume a bit, toning down his accomplishments.
“I made a fake resume. It was all honest stuff…All of a sudden the phone started ringing like crazy.”
One of those calls was from Stacey and Mark Marchionni, owners of Revolution Taproom & Grill in Rochester.
A chef becomes a ’secret shopper’
“I got a call from Stacey and Mark and we set up a FaceTime interview,” said Leffler. “In the meantime, I hopped in the car and went and checked them out. I thought it had a lot of potential. The property is gorgeous. But I thought the menu was too big and guessed that they were having food cost issues and possibly labor issues. I really checked the place out. I did basically a secret shopper report when I was on the phone with them.”
It was on that phone call, said Leffler, that the Marchionnis realized that his resume didn’t quite jive with the expertise they were hearing.
“When we got off the phone, I Googled him and the first thing that popped up was a picture of him with Julia Child, then with Anthony Bourdain, with James Beard House and Hilton Hotels,” said Stacey Marchionni. “We thought perhaps there were two chef Lefflers, as this chef couldn’t possibly be applying directly for an executive chef position himself. Surely someone of his caliber would come through a headhunter.”
For their in-person meeting, Leffler brought his real resume and even more ideas, and was hired.
Getting to know the clientele and their tastes
Coming from the culinary program at elite hotels to decidedly more low-key Rochester meant learning all he could about who comes to Revolution Taproom & Grill.
“The clientele is fantastic, a great mix of blue and white collar. We get a good draw from larger towns because instead of going to Portsmouth for dinner, they stop in and see us. Now, it’s less of a drive to eat at a good place and the beauty of being in Rochester is that we don’t have to charge what you would charge in Portsmouth.”
The chef also approached the menu with new eyes and set out to tighten up the systems in the kitchen.
“The dishes on their menu were very complicated so I started to simplify things. I looked at how many steps it takes to put a plate out of the kitchen whether it’s a squirt, a swirl, a ladle, a slice – I’ve developed a sheet over the years that counts how many steps it takes to get a plate out of the kitchen. You don’t want a disappointed clientele, No one wants to wait a half an hour for anything.”
Launching a new menu
While dishes on the new menu are familiar, each is made more interesting by chef Leffler’s signature touches.
“Guests absolutely love his food,” said Marchionni. “He takes comfort food to another level, from both a flavor and execution standpoint, but still manages to keep it approachable. He has taken a few menu staples off like the pork dumplings and the cauliflower wings, but we bring them back as specials, and his replacements such as the Cast Iron Kobe Meatballs, the Smashburger Sliders, the Boom Boom Shrimp and the Mediterranean Tasting have been huge hits. His presence here has definitely brought people in who are excited to have someone of his background in NH and especially in Rochester.”
Each week, chef Leffler has the opportunity to methodically test out new dishes for inclusion on the menu.
“I do a weekly specials list with about six to eight things on the list and I track them – the different burgers, the entrees, desserts. We track all the numbers. That way we don’t put any ’dogs’ on the menu. It doesn’t always work, but it does about 95% of the time.”
Leffler said that this helps them narrow down what works and what doesn’t, what will be profitable and what won’t, ensuring that the menu doesn’t become unwieldy.
“I did an apple pie egg roll and it was almost a joke the amount that we made that week. We did Rice Krispie French Toast as a dessert that had us calling the bread company the next day for six more loaves of bread. Both of those things got on the menu.The first time I did the Kobe meatballs, we made 20 to 25 pounds. At the end of the night, we looked at each other and said, ‘I can’t believe we have to make more meatballs tomorrow!’ I did another 25 pounds and we decided to put it on the menu. We sell 50 to 60 pounds every 10 days.”
Looking to the future
When COVID-19 hit, he had two months while the restaurant was closed to tweak the menu even more and concentrate on the catering menu, looking forward to the day when their upstairs event space can again be used for gatherings.
They’ve also invested in a wood-fired Forza Forni pizza oven being installed in the front dining room so guests can see the pizza chefs in action.
“Now I get to teach people how to make pizza. I’m originally from New York and pizza is near and dear to my heart. This will be Neapolitan-style with the bubbly crust and a little char.”
Leffler says he’s happy to have landed at a restaurant where he can help create dishes locals love, but that also bring in more “destination” diners.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the metamorphosis of the business itself. We have even more fun stuff coming up.”
Marchionni says that Leffler’s approach honors the most important people in the restaurant business – their customers.
“Chef is very responsive to what sells and what our guests are looking for, which is not to say he doesn’t up the ante, because he definitely does, but if he loves something but it doesn’t sell well, he’s not keeping it on the menu. Because at the end of the day, it’s about what our guests are enjoying, and chef gets that. His ego never gets in the way. He is a very humble man for all of his accomplishments, accolades and skills.”
Find Revolution Taproom & Grill at 61 N. Main St., Rochester, NH. 244-3022. Revolutiontaproomandgrill.com. The restaurant is open for indoor and outdoor dining as well as curbside pick-up. Find out more about chef Walther Leffler in this video. https://www.facebook.com/revolutiontaproomandgrill/videos/297166628287270