In the kitchen with Sarah Wagner: Authentic Italian family recipes stand the test of time

DEER PARK, Ohio - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves. 

Sarah Wagner's memorable concoction of coffee and Tabasco sauce earned her the name "the little pistol."  She had just started culinary school, when a chef instructor made the mistake of brusquely ordering her to get him a cup of coffee.

"I got him a cup of coffee with half a bottle of Tabasco in it," Wagner recalled. That was the last time the chef yelled at her. 

With that kind of grit, it's no wonder Wagner has taken her culinary career straight ahead. She bought her first restaurant at the age of 31.  Today she is the chef and owner of Barresi's Italian Restaurant in Deer Park.

Wagner, a Madeira native, got her first job as a busser at Barresi's when she was 14. Her return to the restaurant as the new owner marked a full circle.

 

 

"It was perfect for me to take over this restaurant, because I pretty much grew up here," she said.

A few years later, Wagner got her first taste of the kitchen when the pantry cook didn't show up.

"It was my third day of training as a server. I ended up making salads that night," she recounted. Wagner did so well, she became a permanent member of the kitchen team.

 

 

As good as she was in the kitchen, Wagner was also an athlete, and wanted a career in physical therapy. She had just started school to get herself on that track when she thought better of it.

"I dropped out after my first quarter and went to culinary school instead," Wagner said. She started culinary school at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in 1995 and has never looked back.

Wagner soon got a job at Terrace Park Country Club, prompting her departure from Barresi's.

"My last day there was heart wrenching. Sal (Barresi) was like a second father to me," she recalled.

Wagner broadened her experience at other restaurants, while going to school full time. She became the executive chef at the Royal Oak Country Club at the age of 23.  That marked the first of several executive chef positions Wagner held.  She also found time to earn her Bachelor of Liberal Arts at Xavier University while working grueling hours in the kitchen.

When Sal Barresi wanted to retire, Wagner didn't hesitate to make him an offer. It speaks to Wagner's go-getter work ethic.

"If you ask me to scrub the floor, I'll get the toothbrush out," she said.

Food and cooking philosophy

"I think of flavors from my stomach. I think of what's going to taste good together. I've either seen it or tasted it, so it's easy to put together. I’m not so pressed to do something new all the time.  What I’ve been doing is food that stands the test of time," she said.

"My approach is a little different.  Most chefs do what's in the now, what's hot and popular," Wagner said. "I just want to show people that good Italian authentic family recipes can stand the test of time." 

While the restaurant continues to uphold the Barresi family recipes, Wagner concedes it's not been easy to do.

"The hardest thing for a chef is following someone else's recipes," Wagner said. 

When Wagner breathed life into what used to be a smoking room and transformed it into a wine and tapas bar, she also found new life in her evolution as a chef.

"We've been staying true to the Barresi family recipes, but I’ve been able to evolve as Chef Sarah Wagner with this wine and tapas bar," she said. "It's fun, and allows my creative mind to step away from the Barresi tradition."

"I’ve created this atmosphere where it feels like the customers are coming to my house," Wagner said. She's been known to give away small household items to save her customers from making a trip to the store or even hold babies so that the new mothers can eat.

"I treat customers and staff like family," she said. "This is my home."

Essential ingredients & tools

Wagner’s kitchen must-haves include:

  • People who care about what they do. Wagner builds a culture around conscientious workers and looks for quality people who want to do a good job.  She has not had to fire anyone from her restaurant. According to her, the other workers “vote” the underperformers “off the island.”
  • Preparation list. This is how the kitchen staff communicates and they regard it as “the story of the day.”
  • Fresh garlic. Wagner reveals she’s in fact allergic to garlic, but uses her other senses to gauge the proper incorporation of this ingredient.  "I can look at marinara sauce, and know if it’s right,” Wagner said.
  • Fresh basil
  • Olive oil
  • Romano cheese
  • Good knives and cutting boards
  • Good karma. Wagner treats her staff like family. Everyone who works there gets a birthday cake on his or her birthday, and the team celebrates together like a family.

Inspirations

Wagner is deeply religious and looks to God for her

inspiration.

“The only reason this restaurant is open is because of the Lord above,” Wagner said. She has not only managed to keep the restaurant running through the most recent recession, but also developed new clientele. “God gives me inspiration to keep on trucking, and somehow, I manage to pay my bills every week.”

John Kinsella, a chef instructor at Midwest Culinary Institute, now retired, was a big influence on Wagner when she was going to school there. How did he inspire her?

“Kinsella kicked my ass. He was my mentor, and challenged me to dig deeper,” Wagner recalled.

Wagner draws inspiration from her culinary friends and peers. As a restaurant owner, she’s had to put her culinary mojo on the back burner.

“My culinary mind gets rusty.  I can’t turn off QuickBooks long enough to tap into it,” Wagner said. When she runs dry, she reaches out to her colleagues.

She’s called on fellow chef, Christopher Ropp, to help her develop menus.

“A lot of chefs would not admit that. The chefs who know me and know that I'm a single parent, have no problem helping,” Wagner said.

Wagner finds inspiration in filling her karma jar. She’s constantly helping people whether it’s to  look for jobs or simply mentoring or guiding them out of a tight spot.

Favorite meal to cook for family

Wagner doesn’t cook a lot at home, but does a lot of baking. Her kids are crazy about cake pops which has prompted her to get creative.

“I’ll take any ingredients and roll them up, freeze them, put them on a stick and let the kids decorate them,” Wagner said.

Oreo Ball Truffles

  • 1 (18 oz) bag of Oreos
  • 1 (12 oz) bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Optional: 1 (12 oz) bag of semi-sweet white chocolate chips
  • 1 (8 oz) brick of cream cheese (softened)
  • Touch of heavy cream (or half and half)

Preparation:

  1. Crush the Oreos in a food processor into very fine crumbs. 
  2. In a large bowl, cream the cream cheese and the Oreo crumbs together.
  3. Roll into walnut size balls and place onto wax paper.  Chill for about an hour, or even overnight.
  4. Melt the chocolate in a double broiler and add about ¼ cup of heavy cream.
  5. Roll each ball in the chocolate and place onto wax paper.  Place into refrigerator to harden.

Barresi’s Italian Restaurant

4111 Webster Ave., Deer Park, OH 45236 | 513.793.2540 ‎| http://www.barresis.com/
 

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