Working with three-time James Beard Foundation Award Winner Chef Michel Nischan and cooking for musician Willie Nelson are just a few of the highlights of local Chef Leonardo Maurelli III's career so far.
The 38-year-old, who is currently the executive chef at Ariccia Trattoria and The Hotel at Auburn University, was born and raised in Colon City in the Republic of Panama and grew up spending time with his family in the kitchen.
“I was in the kitchen with my family since I could walk,” Maurelli said. “It's always been a part of my life.”
When Maurelli and his family moved to Daphne, Ala., is when he began his cooking career. At the age of 14, he began working in Daphne, Ala., restaurant Zeppi’s.
“I started like most cooks, in the dish room and worked my way up to line cook, line leader, kitchen manager and eventually ran the place,” he said.
Maurelli moved to Auburn in 1998 to pursue a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Local restaurants he has worked at include Willie’s Wings, Hamilton’s, Amsterdam Café and Zazu. After graduating in 2003, Maurelli worked as the banquet chef de partie at The Hotel at Auburn University, and also banquet chef. He left Auburn for a few years to helm the kitchen at Central in Montgomery and returned last summer to take the position of executive chef at the hotel.
Along with Chef De Cuisine Paul Diaz, Maurelli creates the Ariccia menu, which is updated seasonally, four times a year.
“We discuss the direction I want to take, the product in season, the offerings and the vision,” Maurelli said. “Chef Paul typically develops the recipes unless it’s something I want specifically. We work well together as it’s a true collaboration. It’s much easier to speak to chefs about food and vision when they have rock solid technique and skills. You don’t have to spend time teaching them how to cook, you can speak food and direction.”
Maurelli said his lineage and the seasons play a big role in his style of cooking.
“I lean towards my lineage quite a bit,” he said. “My father is Italian, I was born in Panama and raised in Daphne, Ala. Seasonality plays a huge role in my food, as well as the freshness and seasons of all ingredients. As I’ve matured in the kitchen, I have started to lean towards simplicity, solid technique and little manipulation of the product.”
Maurelli, who also teaches classes at Auburn University and the Opelika Learning Center, said he enjoys many aspects of being the executive chef at The Hotel at Auburn University.
“No day is the same,” he said. “I am the executive chef of the entire hotel, so I oversee Ariccia, banquets and catering, Piccolo, Café Sienna, room service, and the employee dining room and stewarding. I also teach the lab for Principles of Food Production for Auburn University’s Hotel and Restaurant Management, as well as Principles of Cookery for the Opelika Learning Center. Teaching has become a large part of what I do and I enjoy it very much.”
Maurelli’s career has taken him to the United Nations twice, he’s cooked for sports figures, notable chefs, politicians and celebrities. He has even teamed up with renowned chef and three-time James Beard Foundation Award Winner Chef Michel Nischan to cook with him twice in the last year.
Chef Nischan asked Chef Maurelli III to cook with him as his Road Warrior Chef during the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in February and most recently during the Chefs’ Pot Luck for Wholesome Wave at Willie Nelson’s private ranch in March.
“When you work with someone as talented as Chef Nischan, every single moment is a learning experience,” Maurelli said. “He is one of the most talented, yet truly humble and grounded people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There is absolutely no ego there and he is willing to share his knowledge freely. Working alongside him, having him trust me with his food and events and trust my work is incredible and I am super proud of that.”
Although working with Chef Nischan was a highlight of his career, Maurelli said that cooking a 12-course meal for his parents has been his favorite moment in his career.
“My career has taken me to lots of different places and allowed me to meet and see so many different things,” Maurelli said. “I’ve won awards, and have had many mentions, but in all honesty, my favorite moment was being able to cook a progressive 12-course meal for my Mom and Dad, and was able to show my Momma how far I’ve come. It was a defining moment for me…. a student comes full circle type thing.”
Chef Maurelli seems to have nothing but upward momentum in his career, and says his goal is always progression.
"Progression, it’s always about progression,” he said. “It’s about my growth as a chef, teacher and hopefully mentor, and being able to leave a small mark in my field and hopefully inspire others to start the journey as well. I don’t want to be that old chef in the kitchen who can barely walk or move, but I would like to see my influence carried on in the food and plates of those I’ve worked with and led.”