How George Zappas plans to continue the legacy of Orchids

By Betsy Ross

Video by Shae Combs

George Zappas had an idea of what he wanted to grow up to be, way back in grade school in his native Pittsburgh. That’s when the local paper wrote an article on him and when the reporter asked what he wanted to do, he said “I want to cook.”

Today, he cooks for hundreds of people at a time as the new executive chef of Orchids at the Hilton Netherland Plaza downtown.

But he’s not just in charge of the kitchens (there are three kitchens plus a kosher kitchen)—Chef Zappas is in charge of the legacy of excellence that permeates this hotel like the smell of fresh baked brie. Open in 1931, this Art Deco property is the place where guests go to celebrate—whether it’s a wedding, an anniversary or a birthday. There is an emotional connection for visitors, just as there is for Chef Zappas himself.

He basically grew up in this building, first as a kitchen supervisor, then through the ranks as sous chef, director of purchasing, and now, as the executive chef overseeing everything food related, from banquets for 300 in the Hall of Mirrors to dinner for two at Orchids. His run of 10+ years in one kitchen might be unique for the business, but, Zappas says, not unusual for the Netherland Plaza.

“This hotel has a high level of retention with employees,” he said, referencing a private dinner this week for 75 that will celebrate hotel employees who have been there 20+ years. “What usually happens is you find people who fit this hotel and they find everything they need here. We have a separate butcher shop, a hot food banquet department, pastry shop, we have all those things that you can find your right fit. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth here and the culture is correct, so if you’re the person who wants to be here, you can be here for a long time.”

Even though he knew he wanted to cook as a sixth grader, Zappas didn’t necessarily design the path that led him to the Netherland Plaza. Like so many college students, he cooked his way through school (Ohio University) to pay the bills. “I left there and said, ‘I’m never working in a kitchen again.’ But you have to take from every experience what you can learn, and in that kitchen, I learned how to do volume. I learned how to execute 300-400 covers on a Friday and Saturday night. It’s learning how to organize your brain, organize your thoughts and to be able to execute any type of cuisine.”

When he moved to Cincinnati with his then-fiancé, he used those kitchen skills to turn it into a profession.

“It was in my blood and as much as I wanted to fight it sometimes, because in this industry also comes the holidays, the late nights, the weekends, all that fun stuff. But I’m very blessed. I have a wonderful wife, a wonderful family and she’s very supportive of everything I do.

“We talked about this decision to become the executive chef well before it was done, and what it meant to take over the kitchen, what it meant to grow this kitchen and grow these departments back to where we want them to be. I’ve got a great team in there, I’ve got great sous chefs who came on board, great executive sous chefs, and these people are now my family and they’re pushing forward with me.”

It’s a proud culinary tradition that Zappas takes over, with Orchids perennially winning five diamond awards from AAA and four stars from Mobil under the direction of former Executive Chef Todd Kelly, who left a little more than a year ago for Atlanta. Kelly’s touches remain at the Netherland Plaza, including the bees who live on the fifth floor.

“That was the brainchild of Todd when he was here,” Zappas said. “Without the bees we don’t have produce and food we need to cook in the kitchen. They have their beehive in the city and they’re looking for food, so we have plants, we have herb gardens, they produce honey for us and we take care of them. They’re our little children.”

From fresh honey to fresh herbs and local farm suppliers, Zappas realizes guests have certain expectations when they dine at the Netherland Plaza, and he looks at his new position as a way to honor the past, while adding his own signature to the history of the property. “It’s my chance to put my chapter in the book. And this book is the whole hotel. This is now my turn to put my chapter in, my turn to put my stamp on it and say I was part of this for a number of years, however long I’m here for, and saying, this was mine.

“This is the food I produced, and this is the vision I had, and this is the quality that went out. This is the team I’ve developed, these are the sous chefs I’ve promoted, that are now executive chefs over here, this is the culture I’ve created. That’s what it means to me. It’s about being able to impart on everyone all the knowledge I can, and grow them to the next level, and also to take this restaurant to the next level.”

Alex Reilly