Aliya LeeKong, RealEats’ new Head of Culinary, and Marco Ballatori, Executive Chef, are down-to-earth people. Within minutes of talking to them, you quickly see that they are real people who love cooking collaboratively to create exciting dishes for RealEaters.
A Michelin-trained chef who has traveled to more than 40 countries to learn about regional cuisines, Aliya recently joined RealEats to bring a global vision of food and flavors to the menu. She is busy creating new menu items using ingredients that are Straight from Upstate™, a phrase the company uses to describe the farm-to-table bounty of the region.
Aliya believes food — producing, cooking, and eating – is an extension of the human experience. “The human element is missing from most food companies,” she explains. “Food for RealEats is a conversation between our farmers, employees, and customers. It’s what makes us different.”
A crucial part of that conversation occurs between Aliya and Marco as they create and produce together. “Our interaction is very fluid,” he says. “She gets a seedling of an idea that comes from having an excellent palette, extensive experience as a fine dining chef, and curiosity about cultures and foods from around the world. Then we collaborate on where we can get the ingredients and produce meals on a large scale. We guide each other to find the right dishes to pour our energy into.”
Getting the highest quality locally sourced products is a passion Marco and Aliya both share and is a crucial part of the RealEats food philosophy.
Aliya is excited about the abundance and variety of food produced in the Finger Lakes as well as its strong farmer and producer network. She is especially impressed with Headwater Food Hub, a one-stop shop for local sourcing from farms primarily in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. “The restaurant industry has purveyors who are hubs but nothing like Headwater exists elsewhere.”
Visiting local farmers is high on her priority list. “It’s important to be as close as possible to your source of food and understand the ‘whys’ of what motivates these farmers,” she explains. “We have a symbiotic relationship with farmers, and we all benefit from growth together.”
Marco agrees. “We are always maximizing the bounty of the Finger Lakes region and that means understanding what’s coming out of the ground and when. As RealEats grows and provides an important revenue source for farmers, more money is being reinvested into indoor greenhouses and hydroponics, which means more local and diverse yearlong produce.”
Another important aspect of collaboration between Ailya and Marco is making sure the RealEats chefs can produce the meals in a timely and cost-effective manner. “I have found that the staff has been very open to working together to bring it all to life,” she remarks. “Marco makes sure we’re getting the most out of people, and I think that trickles down to the food. It is great to work with a seasoned professional who has such a great way with all of the cooks.”
In turn, Marco says that because Ailya is outstanding in the kitchen, she knows how to create meals that are accessible not only to customers but also to the chefs. The result? Real food made simple.