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Check Out John Przybylek’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Przybylek. 

Hi John, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I first started in the hospitality industry when I was sixteen, working for a corporate company and at the time, I didn’t see it as a career path. I didn’t have much guidance in life, except for my older brother that has always been there for me. As an adolescent, I was led down a path of delinquency, I never graduated high school, and when my mom sold our childhood home (where I lived at the time) I was thrown into the real world. I worked various jobs, but mostly in kitchens as it was consistent pay. I never had formal training as a professional chef, and I remember a chef I was working under once asked me if it was something I wanted to do as a career. I laughed and replied, “absolutely not,” convinced it was all very temporary until I found a “real” job. (Now I ask my employees the same question when I see the same potential my former chef saw in me.) However, I continued working long hours and holidays for shit pay and zero benefits. When I turned 25, I took a year off and tried to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. During that year, I realized how much I missed being in the kitchen; the adrenaline rush of serving over 700 people per night, yelling down the line to the other chefs, the bond you form while working with a bunch of other misfits, and how it somehow all comes together to create awe-inspiring flawless dishes being rushed to the waiting parties in the dining room. This became my passion. This became my life; I was going to create my career from this. I had a friend who was in culinary school and he would let me borrow his textbooks. I spent all of my free hours teaching myself. I practiced my knife skills on hundreds of potatoes, I learned phrases that were only understood in the culinary world, I would get out of work after midnight and go home to practice molecular gastronomy and other intriguing techniques until 4-5 am, day after day. I was quickly promoted from sous chef to my first executive chef position. As I continued to gain experience and confidence in my craft, I sought opportunities to do private dinners for friends; they would buy the food and I would come over and cook for free. That taught me what items to bring, what to expect, and the all-around comfortability of cooking in another person’s home. With this experience, I began to build myself a portfolio and would share it on social media. Without realizing it, I built a brand for myself in the “fine dining” industry. When COVID-19 hit, I was laid off from my position as an executive chef but found this experience as an opportunity to cater private dinners and events. My success in this endeavor led me to the once-in-a-lifetime offer to create my own café near downtown Grand Rapids; thus 5 Knives café was borne and began to take shape. I really couldn’t be more grateful for the mass of people that I have worked with and that I currently work with, and how they have helped shape this part of my career. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I wouldn’t say it was a “smooth” road… more like a “Michigan backroad, pot-hole-hell” type of thing. A quote I love by Thomas Jefferson is “if you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” Every corner of this industry is a challenge. Every single day I learn more and more about food, people, business management, accounting, politics, you name it. But that’s also why I love it. Every day brings a new adventure that leads me to find creative ways to overcome obstacles. Contacting the city and health department for permits and waiting weeks upon weeks for them, while ordering samples of flooring and making sure lighting is correct, not to mention, is everything ADA accessible? Is the counter the correct height? Does that paint match our logos? Will the customer engage with this? Creating a menu to suit the needs and budget of your community, interactive websites, and tastings for photo shoots, are all very new to me. One of the biggest problems now is sourcing foods due to the chain reaction the pandemic has brought us. Pricing on items has doubled, even tripled. You are constantly waiting for one job to be done in order to start another job. All while doing private dinners on the side and trying to live a life. Time management and passion are everything. 

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am a professional catering and private executive chef and also now a small business owner of a café in grand rapids. I would say I specialize in upscale French American food for my private dinners, and my café will include fresh whole foods that can be made in a timely manner. I would say I am known for the artistic, unique, and flavorful food that I create. I am extremely specific about the way I cook and plate food and always want it to be perfect. Presentation is only second to taste. I love working in a professional, timely manner. I am most proud of the improvements I’ve made on my own. Nobody has guided me through this journey, every bit of me is self-taught and self-fueled. Five years ago, I was not in a good place. I would have never thought in a million years I would be where I am today and getting paid for doing something that I absolutely love to do. Something that sets me apart from others could only be my passion and ambition. Passion is a very large part of me. When you have someone passionately creating something for you, you know you’re not going to get average, or merely “good,” it’s going to be spectacular. My ambition fuels the over-the-top recipes I craft for those I cook for. I want everyone to know this food was created with passion and genuine love. 

Can you share something surprising about yourself?
Haha… good question, I’m an open-book. (I had to ask an “ex” to help me with this one.) I have a dog, Capone, who I talk to like a baby. I like to play pranks and I’m the king of dad jokes (even though I have no children). I’m a travel junkie and Anthony Bourdain is one of my idols. My grandma is one of my best friends, aaaaand I don’t actually like salmon, though I cook it constantly. 

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