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Chef Don

It was like magic…culinary magic. Julie Roberts, dining services director at Monarch Landing senior living community in Naperville envisioned the perfect candidate to replace long-time executive Chef Henry Escobedo, who decided to move to warmer climates. “I knew what I wanted. Someone with great leadership, a wonderful personality and lots of experience,” she said. And like magic, Chef Don Zajac appeared, exactly as she’d envisioned.

Chef Don has big shoes to fill. Chef Henry had been with Monarch Landing even before it first opened its doors 12 years ago. Now, the retirement community is on the cusp of an evolution in its dining program, and Chef Don’s timing is perfect. “We completed a massive renovation of our Millstone Dining Room last year, and now our residents, as well as their guests, comment about how they feel like they’re walking into one of the nicest restaurants in downtown Naperville. Next, we’ll be remodeling our café. Additionally, we’re always working on our menu in order to compete with other fine dining venues in the area,” said Julie.

Chef Don developed his passion for cooking at a very young age. Growing up in a household in which the kitchen was the center of family life he recalled, “We all participated in making meals and saw it as an opportunity for family time. I grew up in a Polish household and it was always about fun and all about food.”

Chef Don attended Prairie State Junior College and Illinois State, studying marketing and management while waiting to be accepted to Joliet Junior College’s prestigious culinary program. “I was number 200 on a huge waiting list. I literally called the department head every day asking if there was an opening. Finally, he said ‘fine’ and I seized the moment.” The program he said is very well-respected, and his class was ranked number one in the country. Chef Don subsequently studied with renowned Chef Michael Foley and Jean-Pierre Henry. He is an award-winning culinary competitor and has been featured on various television shows and in foody news stories. He is also a member of the American Culinary Federation.

Chef Don has worked in a variety of settings including restaurants, hotels, corporate dining settings and country clubs. Monarch Landing is his first foray into senior living. “Chefs rave about this component of the industry. It’s evolved so much over recent years, and offers the opportunity to present the highest level of food and serving.”

Chef Don said that his experience with country clubs and other high-end settings will serve him well in his new role. “The demographics are similar. The residents at Monarch Landing are educated and well-traveled and are accustomed to fine dining and great service. It’s what they expect, and what we deliver at Monarch Landing.”

Chef Don said that in his new role, he is benefiting from what is a “great foundation on which to build. We’ll continue to move the menu forward. This will include using a lot of natural ingredients, creating stocks from scratch, using local produce, incorporating high-end items like dandelion greens and candy cane beets making the food more interesting.”

The residents of Monarch Landing are eagerly anticipating what is the magic of Chef Don.

Read story in the Chicago Tribune