Jeff Sladicka grew up in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, near the Poconos, and was instantly drawn to the kitchen. "From when I was 6 or 7, I spent all my time in the kitchen with my mom and grandmothers," says Sladicka. He started working in restaurants when he was 12, but it wasn't until he turned 16 that he gained a mentor: CIA grad Carla Moffit. She ran the kitchen at a family-style restaurant called Sebastianelli's, in nearby Eynon. Sladicka says, "She taught me foundations of sauces and stocks, how to butcher meat and fish, the basics on pastries, everything that you would go to school for and pay for." After three years, Sladicka worked his way through all the kitchen stations, graduating from the restaurant at age 19, as a line cook.
Sladicka went corporate to end his teens, working as a sous chef with Anaheim-based Specialty Restaurants. His first duty was to help open a Castaway restaurant in Dixon City, Pennsylvania. He then spent four months in Atlanta, helping roll out menus for different Specialty Restaurants.
In 1987, Sladicka moved to California to work for Restaurant Enterprise Group, a move that changed the course of his career. He started at the L.A. Music Center as chef at Otto Rothchild's Bar & Grill. Within six months, he became the company's corporate executive chef. Sladicka oversaw 18 restaurants and 13 concepts, including fine dining, seafood restaurants, and a California bistro, but he got the biggest thrill from cooking for the Academy Awards.
"It used to go back and forth between me and Wolfgang [Puck]," said Sladicka. "One year they'd do it with us at the Music Center, the next year they'd go to the Shrine with Wolfgang." He began by cooking crew meals for breakfast and lunch, then got called back by the Director of Operations to take over the entire event. Sladicka said, "The Academy is used to dealing with a different level of dining, coordination, and effort. Two kitchens are mirrored so that if one goes down, you have a back-up. There are 400 people in the kitchen, with an executive chef and captain at every table."
In 1990, Sladicka struck out on his own, becoming chef-owner of two Pasta Experience restaurants in San Diego County, one in La Costa and the other in Del Mar.
In 1993, Sladicka returned to L.A. to work for Bill Chait at the Louise's Trattoria chain as the corporate chef. While there, Sladicka and Chait brought in Mauro Vincenti of downtown's Rex restaurant to consult from 1993-95. Vincenti introduced Sladicka and Chait to their future business partner, Danilo Terribili.
Sladicka, Chait and Terribili opened Spark Woodfire Grill in Studio City in 1999. Sladicka serves as chief operations officer, hiring the management, developing menus and setting standards and service. Chait oversees financing, real estate and accounting. Terribili is a silent partner who continues to develop other restaurant concepts, including Pasta Gina, a quick service pasta concept that occupies four Southland locations.
Sladicka came up with name for Spark Woodfire Grill because of the "embers coming off the live wood." The trio originally envisioned Spark as a rustic Italian concept, but within the first year, diners became fixated on the meats and seafood, prepared using the restaurant's Italian open-hearth oven and mesquite grill. Sladicka and his partners adjusted the concept to meet customers' needs, switching to "center of the plate steaks, lamb, and pork chops." The original Italian influence is still evident in thin-crust, Roman-style pizzas, and in the smoked mozzarella lasagna, named for close friend Mauro Vincenti, who passed away in 1996.
The Studio City original proved so successful that the trio expanded to Huntington Beach in 2002, partnering with Tom Shields and his wife, Kathleen. Sladicka was familiar with the Orange County city because that's where he lived when first moving to California. In 2004, Sladicka, Chait and Terribili opened a third branch of Spark, in Beverly Hills. Coincidentally, the location formerly housed the first restaurant that Terribili worked at after moving from Italy. At the time, the restaurant was known as Orlando Orsini.
Sladicka says Spark is different from other restaurants in the area due to impeccable sourcing. He says, "We're buying meats that are as good or better than high end steakhouses, certified Prime or premium Angus from Newport Meats." Sladicka and his kitchen staff buy fish and produce six days a week, organic whenever possible. He keeps Spark's offerings seasonal by offering up to eight blackboard specials a day. At the Studio City location, he entrusts the blackboard to Edil Ambrosio, who has cooked with Sladicka for 14 years. Still, Sladicka believes, "In this day and age, people want everything, every time, everywhere. We decided to come up with our core menu that changes every 8-10 months."
Studio City customers who live in Santa Clarita, Porter Ranch and West Hills kept requesting a closer Spark. The partners discovered a space in Town Center and took the opportunity to diversify. In December 2007, Sladicka, Chait, Terribili and Shields debuted a new seafood concept in Simi Valley, called Red Fish. Sladicka said, "There were great seafood restaurants up and down the East Coast. I was surprised there weren't a lot of great seafood spots out there. I wanted to create a middle tier, high quality seafood restaurant." The quartet plans to open another Red Fish in Huntington Beach in 2010, next to Spark. They're also flirting with downtown and Culver City for another Spark or Red Fish.
"I always wanted to be in restaurants," says Sladicka. "I love making things for people, and when they thank me afterwards for a great meal, it's a great feeling." Since he's part of a burgeoning culinary empire, Sladicka better get used to it.