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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

ExPats: Bob Sargent

Former Elmiran Hits Rocky Mountain High Note, Celebrating 20 Years Serving Savory Cuisine

By Catherine White, Managing Editor, Southern Tier Life

Bob Sargent grew up on Elmira’s northwest side and, like most Elmira kids growing up in the 1970s and 80s, his childhood was spent roaming the streets freely with friends, riding bikes, and exploring neighborhoods and the surrounding wilderness.

He attended George Washington Elementary School, followed by Ernie Davis Middle School, and then Elmira Free Academy. He made a name for himself, first in cycling, then in track and field sports, throughout his adolescence.

In his mid-teens, Bob entered the workforce, taking a job in a field that would end up bringing him more success than he could have imagined at the time.

“From, like 15-years-old, I was in a restaurant. I bussed tables at Bus Horigans. My older brother came home to go to college after the military, and he was managing at Hill Top Restaurant so then I moved up there. I was being trained to be a waiter and I was …. I didn’t like serving people and I didn’t like putting up with people’s shit. So, I got in trouble a couple of times on the floor,” Bob admitted, wryly.

Instead of firing him, Hill Top’s owner gave Bob a chance and moved him out of the dining room into the kitchen, where he washed dishes and prepped food.

“I did that through my senior year,” he says.

Then he got a job at Campus Pizza, which originally opened in 1983 on College Avenue in Elmira.

“I made the dough in the morning and prepped, and then … I delivered all night,” Bob recalled.

When Bob wasn’t making “dough” making pizza dough, he spent several summers following the Grateful Dead tour with friends.

Photos provided by Bob Sargent. Right to left, a young Bob Sargent poses for a family photo with his mother, father and two brothers; Bob's team football picture for Elmira PBA; and Bob (far right) with fellow Deadheads following the Grateful Dead tour.

“My friend Adam and I sold vegan chili and grilled cheese sandwiches. We got pretty good at it,” he said.

“Then, we went on Phish tour and … a couple times on the Phish tour, we could make a couple thousand dollars a day.” Bob and his friends got by with a little help from the connections he’d made in kitchens he’d worked in.

“I would just call people that I knew or, if we were having a way-stop in Elmira, I’d call Hill Top restaurant, and I would order a whole bunch of produce and cans, and then we’d drive to a whole bunch of places and I would just cook along the way.”

After graduating from E.F.A. in 1989, Bob left the region. When he wasn’t following the Grateful Dead, home base had become Rehoboth Beach, DE, where he worked at an ice factory. His older brother, Dennis, was working as a lawyer, and lived close by, in Wilmington, DE.

“I made good money working in the ice factory and I could just party all day and make ice, and deliver ice and it was no big deal,” Bob says, recalling the easy, partying chill of his early adulthood.

It wasn’t long before Bob was confronted with questions about his future.

“I was delivering ice to this fine dining restaurant and the owners came out on the deck and asked, ‘What are you doing delivering ice? You seem like a really smart guy.'”

The question gave him pause, making him consider what comes next. An option was offered almost immediately when the owners of that fine dining establishment offered Bob a job.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you come in and try it out? We can’t pay you quite as much as you make at the ice factory but, you’re never going to make any more money than you do now at the ice factory. But, if you’re good at this, you’ll get promoted and we’ll give you benefits.”

He took them up on their offer and, although he wasn’t necessarily thinking about a career at the time, it was clear that he had culinary talents.

“I was instantly better than people I worked with. No discredit to them,” he said, without a trace of arrogance. “They were just cooks, and lifers.”

“The kitchen then wasn’t what it is today,” Bob explained. “Nobody went to culinary school. There was no Food Network. It was really a place where people on their last legs – cooks and alcoholics and partiers in society, went.”

“So, with my art background, and my experience “flying by the seat of my pants”, I was pretty quick to the fine dining world,” he said. “I worked in a bunch of people’s restaurants, and got to be a sous chef at this place pretty quick.” Bob remembers when he began thinking about cooking as a career, which came with a nudge from his older brother Dennis.

“He called to make a reservation for his family at the restaurant where I worked and … he asked a bunch of questions about me – 'How I was doing? If there was anything I needed?'” he said.

Dennis showed up at the restaurant with a professional Chef’s knife and the new ProChef Culinary Institute of America textbook for Bob.

“I remember my older brother gave me my knife, saying ‘Hey, if you’re not going to go back to college, you might want to consider this as a real career.”

Bob took his brother’s advice to heart and started thinking more seriously about his future.

“I just read the whole book and I started watching Great Chefs on PBS every day before I went to work, coming in with new ideas. And the rest is history,” Bob said.

He continued building experience working in Delaware as a young chef, still enjoying life to the fullest.

One summer he met a woman through a high school friend and they ended up spending the season together, enjoying life and each other’s company. When the summer ended, instead of parting ways, Bob and his girlfriend, Kristie, ended up moving to Boston, where life got a lot more fast-paced.

“I wasn’t making shit as a cook in Boston,” he explains. “I was working all night, and I got this job as a bike courier … I was out of shape cuz I’d just been partying for a couple years, but I got in shape in … about 10 weeks or so. Then, all of a sudden I was the lead messenger for one of the top courier messenger companies in Boston, called Marathon Messenger.”

“It was my favorite job. I wanted to be a bike courier my whole life,” Bob said. “I got up every morning and I turned on my radio. I started riding into Boston from Cambridge and I’d start getting orders to pick up packages, and I would just sprint in and out of traffic as fast as I could, because the faster you go the more money you make.”

“We had all of these courier events – there would be courier parties and courier scavenger hunts, and courier sprints,” he said, excitedly, as he recalled the memories. “I actually ended up beating the national champion in the courier sprints in downtown Boston right before I moved to Boulder.”

Photo provided by Bob Sargent. Bob participating in a bike courier race in Boston.

Bob had raced bikes in high school from his freshman through junior year, switching to cross country running and track to be with his friends. His gig as a bike courier reminded Bob of his competitive cycling school days.

“I broke a lot of bikes. I got hit a couple of times. Never severely. And I just loved it! I was riding about 400 miles a week.”

“I was making eleven hundred bucks a week at 24-years-old, without college,” he said.

With tax write-offs for the inevitable bike repairs, and free food from some of the best eateries in and around Boston while he worked, the money he made was mostly Bob’s take-home pay. That was impressive for someone in the 1990s, living in a major American city, and didn’t have a college degree.

At 24 and with a child on the way, Bob found himself a job. He was making good money and able to support his growing family doing something he’d always loved. But, shortly after his daughter, Madeleine, was born, Bob gave up his lucrative but dangerous bike courier gig at the urging of BOTH her grandmothers.

“I saw her and I agreed,” he says. “She’s been my best friend ever since. I was pretty starstruck the day she was born.”

Bob and Kristie weren’t certain what their future held but they knew they didn’t want to raise their newborn in an urban center.

Just as they were trying to decide where to go, they got a phone call from Colorado University, where Kirstie had abandoned a full PhD scholarship. The university had reached out, inquiring whether or not she wanted to continue her studies. Since Bob could cook anywhere, and some of the greatest cyclists in the world lived in Boulder, Co., the young parents decided to make the move west.

“In my early 20s, I had been on the Grateful Dead tour with my friend Adam for a few summers, and so, between bicycles and hippies and craft beer and restaurants and mountains and camping, I was like … ‘Yeah, this is where I should be,’” Bob said of his attitude towards the move.

Once in Boulder, he bounced around, working at several places throughout the city, and building connections and partnerships that would serve his future endeavors, even though he didn’t know it at the time.

“I had run restaurants for people. I had opened restaurants for people. I had helped develop their catering departments, and I was working, like, 70 hours a week for, like, thirty-four thousand dollars a year,” he said.

It was grueling, with little time for family or personal pursuits.

“My cooks, who worked hourly, made more money than me most weeks! They worked a lot less, and didn’t have any of the stress.”

After about six years of the grind, Bob, who’d since separated from Madeleine’s mom, was starting to feel the stress and guilt that came with being unable to spend a lot of quality time with his daughter, who spent many of their visitations hanging with him at work just so they could be together.

In 2003, with urging from friends and business associates, he finally decided to start his own catering company, Savory Cuisines Catering. He was amazed at how easy it was to get a business license, and of the groundswell of support he received from the community, his colleagues, friends and former employers.

For several years, Bob had been a chef at Naropa University, America’s only Buddhist university. The school was very supportive of his efforts to start his own company, providing use of its 110-year-old Kavyayantra Press to create pamphlets Bob could use for promotion.

Madeleine helped her dad with everything from the design of his pamphlets to their distribution and whatever else she could do to support him. Despite all of the work and effort he put into building Savory Cuisines, Bob ensured that his relationship with his daughter remained a top priority, and only continued to strengthen as his business grew.

Even Dennis helped out again, using his computer skills to build a two-page website for his little brother’s business venture.

Support continued to come, with former colleagues and connections he’d made throughout his time in Boulder, hiring him to cater their life events and celebrations.

“It was really slow in the beginning. I kept wanting to quit, and thinking I was never gonna make it,” he said. “I was falling behind on my bills and couldn’t pay my rent.”

Just when he was at his lowest, a wedding show happened to be coming to Boulder, and Bob said that the feeling he could succeed at the event was strong.

“I just need a thousand dollars,” he remembered thinking, “I know if I do this wedding show I can make it super cool. I can book some weddings and take some deposits, and then I can get going.”

Coincidentally, it just so happened that Bob found an offer for a credit card with a limit of exactly $1,000.00 waiting for him in his mailbox.

“So, I went to work … and I used the credit card machine I had, that had barely been used, and I swiped all thousand dollars of that card. And then I wrote a check to the wedding venue for the entry fee, and went out and bought the food and dishes, and did the show.”

“It was wildly successful. I booked three weddings and felt like I’d made it,” he laughed.

In reality, it took some time for Bob to experience real success and stability.

“I wasn’t making any money. I was working at night to pay my bills because I, literally, put every cent anyone gave me in catering back into the business or into the food, just to build up the reputation,” he explains. “Then I started getting clients, and I started reaching out to companies, and the admins really have helped my business. They move around and transfer and they’ve all recommended me to cater their meetings and events. They’ve all been so supportive.”

Bob and Savory Cuisines Catering started building a reputation, even garnering the attention of Eat This TV media company, which approached him about taping a series of cooking shows after seeing some self-produced videos, and catching him host The Savory Cup, a charity chefs’ competition he came up with in the fall of 2019.

“They just called me and asked if I wanted to come to New York and make a couple of episodes. And I did.”

Eat This TV producers liked Bob’s video vibe so much that they followed up with a short series of personable videos, filmed in his own home in Boulder, including one on making a delicious non-dairy brunch he used to make with Madeleine, growing up.

Chef Bob Sargent creates a tasty brunch for Eat This TV.

Of course, they’re still extremely close, even though she’s now thousands of miles away, serving as the managing director of an art school in Washington, D.C.

“She’ll be 26 in a couple of days and we still talk almost every day,” he says.

Like her dad, Madeleine has created her own success in an industry that’s difficult to survive, let alone thrive.

When he’s not catching up with Madeleine or whipping up delicious dishes for his growing business, Bob’s been busy training for a trip to France he’s taking in July.

“I’ve been riding my bike again. I commute to work and I ride on the weekends, and I take spin classes and I just ride as much as possible because I’m gonna ride part of the Tour de France this year,” his voice is tinged with excitement. “I’m going to ride the last six stages of the tour. I ride the second half of the stage and then I get to the finish before the pros get there, and then we get to meet them and watch the race.”

Photo provided by Bob Sargent. Right to left, Bob and his fellow culinary school chef mates strike a pose in 2000; Bob, his daughter Madeleine and her mom, Kristie, at Madeleine's college graduation; Madeleine and Bob at the Vatican in 2017; Bob showing off his flambé skills in the kitchen; Bob cutting cake at the 20th anniversary celebration of Savory Cuisine; and Bob celebrating Savory Cuisine with childhood friend and fellow E.F.A. classmate and Elmira transplant Joel Luther.

He has no plans to return to the Southern Tier any time soon. His octogenarian parents now live in Missouri with Dennis.

An avid adventurer, Bob says there are too many other places he’d like to visit.

“I’ve been to 18 countries and about 40 states,” he said. “I travel a lot to run and race. I’ve been to Thailand, Bhutan, Japan … most of Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.”

He also lists Germany and Italy as two of his favorite countries to visit, which he’s done frequently.

Although there’s no trip back to his hometown in his near future, Bob does still keep in touch with several old classmates, some of whom reach out to him regularly with their culinary questions, which he’s happy to answer.

“I never don’t like to cook. I never really get tired of it.”

While he doesn’t have a favorite recipe, one of his favorite dishes to make is shrimp etouffee.

“Yeah, that’s one of the meals that I’m pretty good at making,” he says.

Most recently, Savory Cuisines Catering celebrated 20 years in business with a wildly successful open house in April. Due to his success and growth over the past two decades, Bob’s looking to acquire a wedding venue in the Rocky Mountains, and his summer calendar is jam-packed with events that will be featuring his culinary creations. A Savory Cuisine cookbook is also in the works.

“We’re fully prepared for the next step. It seems like the wise thing to do, to expand into my own venue,” Bob says, his voice tinged with the confidence of someone who’s spent a lifetime making something from nothing while enjoying the ride.



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