When Worcester’s best chefs compete, everybody wins

Worcester’s “Foodie Renaissance” is well-documented. New restaurants of all shapes and sizes continue to elbow their way into the mainstream, all while collecting accolades and ratcheting up that friendly neighborhood competition along Shrewsbury Street, in the Canal District, across the city and beyond.

That one-upmanship will be at its zenith Sunday, Jan. 29, when Worcester’s Best Chef Competition, featuring top cooks from many of the city’s and region’s most popular eateries, celebrates its 10th anniversary by inviting all previous winners back to Mechanics Hall for an “Iron Chef”-style battle royale.

“I love participating in this event,” says Christopher O’Harra, executive chef of Flying Rhino Café & Watering Hole on Shrewsbury Street.

O’Harra, winner of the People’s Choice award in 2015, is among 14 returning competitors who have either won the event’s “Iron Chef” title or been named a people’s or judges’ choice winner. One notable name will be absent from the impressive roster.

Hidden Gem: Belmont Vegetarian a true calling for owner — and its many fans

Whoever said bacon makes everything better has obviously never eaten at Belmont Vegetarian, a diminutive and distinct eatery nestled in the first floor of a three-decker on a bustling, sloping corner of Bell Hill.

Between the plentiful vegan and vegetarian dishes and the island-inspired flavors, coming in for lunch will not leave you wondering, “Where’s the beef?”

At Belmont Vegetarian, 157 Belmont St., the term vegetarian is about more than taking advantage of a trendy buzzword-turned-lifestyle that continues to grow in popularity. Instead, for owner Stephen Jones, it’s an homage to his mother, how he grew up and a way of life to which many in his current neighborhood can relate.

“I was raised in poor circumstances and meat was expensive,” he says. “My mom did the best she could with what she had and meat wasn’t always an option, so she raised me to be a vegetarian through no fault of her own.”

Hidden Gem: Uncle Jay’s Twisted Fork

When he is in full-blown chef mode, Jay Powell can be heard from the kitchen — yelling out specials and giving shoutouts to his patrons, making sure everyone knows they are appreciated.

And when his business, Uncle Jay’s Twisted Fork bistro, closes for a week, everyone notices that, too.

Nestled in the Cherry Valley section of Leicester, the Twisted Fork stands as a local staple known for its authentic hollandaise sauce, eggs Benedict and outspoken chef. But when the doors stay shut for too long, regulars are left wondering why.

Chef Jay Powell, center, and his teammates at the recent 2016 World Food Championships in Alabama.

Courtesy Jay Powell / Facebook

Chef Jay Powell, center, and his teammates at the recent 2016 World Food Championships in Alabama.

“My hiatus a few weeks back was for good reason,” explains Powell, Twisted Fork’s owner and chef. “I was in Orange Beach, Alabama, participating in the World Food Championships event and it was great. The chef who initially beat me in [Food Network’s] ‘Cooks vs. Cons,’ Chef Vita Jarrin, called me to set up as teammates for the recipe challenge.”

“The best part was that the recipe category was focused on Benedicts!”

Hidden Gem: Eggroll Lady & Fish Shack

While the city of Worcester is experiencing a food renaissance with the addition of several high-end and trendy restaurants over the past year, there is something to be said for the places that have held their ground away from the spotlight of revitalization.

The places in the corners of the city that feel a little like home. Eggroll Lady & Fish Shack, at 609 West Boylston St., is one of them.


Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Phuong Lam, the Eggroll Lady

Visiting the Eggroll Lady for lunch or dinner is like dropping by your grandmother’s house — it’s filled with laughter, comfort food and tradition. The sweet (egg roll) lady in the kitchen doesn’t worry about how much money she makes, but instead focuses on the quality of her foods and the love with which she makes them.

“When I started this, it wasn’t about making money. I wanted to do this because it was my way of communicating my traditions and my gratitude to the people of America that welcomed me when I arrived here. This is my way of showing my appreciation,” said Phuong Lam, the Eggroll Lady herself and the shop’s owner.

Local Business Spotlight: More than a century of sweet sounds at Union Music

You cannot deny it. There is something special about walking into a store and being greeted by absolute professionals in their business. So it is with Union Music. And it starts at the top, with the president and owner of this 116-year-old family enterprise.

Caring is the operative word in this world – caring about the instrument and your connection to it, the audience (even if it is one), and of helping others find their rhythm, which may be accompanied by a rash of blues, for those who make a living in music.

Carl Kamp, owner and president of this three-generation family business, recounted the history of Union Music, beginning with his grandfather.

Carl Kamp, owner and legacy at Union Music, a business in the city for more than 100 years.

Art Simas / For Worcester Sun

Carl Kamp, owner and legacy at Union Music, a business in the city for more than 100 years.

“Originally my grandfather, Samuel Cashner, who emigrated from Russia, started a pawnshop and music business on lower Front Street in 1900 (where the Peoples Bank is today, before the construction of the taller buildings).

“My father, Leon Kamp, started working for him and married my grandfather’s daughter … and a few years later, I came along in 1946.

Ukulele players string together a community at Union Music

About 10 years ago, Rich Leufstedt discovered a passion: the ukulele.

Originally a bass guitarist who, in his younger days and before family commitments, played with bands in this area, Leufstedt decided to put down the bass and pick up the ukulele.

“There are already all kinds of great guitarists out there,” he said. “So, instead of dedicating myself to be a better guitarist, I discovered no one played the ukulele. That was 10 years and 30 ukuleles ago.”

He may have been onto something in 2006.

Ukulele Club at Union Music

Courtesy Rich Leufstedt / Union Music

Ukulele Club at Union Music

“Ukuleles are much more popular today than 10 years ago. Back then one could go on eBay and find some bargains. And I found several vintage 1950s ukuleles … for one-third of the price of what they go for now,” he said.

Local Business Spotlight: Union Music, a century of sweet sounds

But the four-stringed instrument, known mostly for its Hawaiian-tinged sound, has entered yet another renaissance of interest and performance – and this time it may be here for a while.

Local Business Spotlight: Shrewsbury Street orders up The Usual

The newest addition to Shrewsbury Street’s Restaurant Row plans to arrive this fall with a distinct spin on the sandwich.


The Usual expects to become the new not-so-usual eatery along the famous foodie thoroughfare with a tentative November opening at 166 Shrewsbury St., where Niche Hospitality Group has incubated Mezcal Tequila Cantina, now downtown, and The Fix Burger Bar, now on Grove Street.

Local Business Spotlight: Crafty, creative and exciting things are coming out of the WorcShop

Learning, discovery and success shouldn’t be out of reach for anyone. When it comes to closing that distance, the WorcShop is here to help.

WorcShop, which opened its doors in April, can be thought of as, first and foremost, a greenhouse for creativity.

“Inspiration, innovation, empowerment are our chief tenets,” said Randal Gardner, co-owner of Eternity Ironworks and one of the WorcShop’s founding members.

The possibilities at WorcShop could be enlightening.

Jessica White / courtesy WorcShop

The possibilities at WorcShop could be enlightening.

For a monthly fee the shop, at 243 Stafford St., offers a variety of different offices, work bays, classrooms and (perhaps most impressive) a wide selection of heavy tools from lathes to tensile testing machines. This means if an experienced crafter needs a place to set up shop or a newcomer wants to try their hand, the hard part has been taken care of.

“When people want to start out (with a new hobby), they ask themselves, ‘How hard can it be?’ ” said Alex Phillips, WorcShop member and leatherworker. “And if you have all the pieces, the answer is, ‘Not very.’ ”

“You get to try things without the hassle of startup costs,” executive director Angela Pasceri said.

Local Business Spotlight: That Breeze you feel is the momentum behind Zephyr Workshop

Most graduates from Becker College’s game design program compete for work in the high-tech space. Breeze Grigas, however, created a niche for himself in the analog world with his tabletop game company, Zephyr Workshop.

The company’s flagship product, “AEGIS,” which is an acronym for Assault, Evasive, Guard, Intel, Support, describes the various classes of giant robots that players command and fight within the game. Each turn, players are allotted a certain amount of energy to shoot, move and even combine robots to harness their unique specialties.

AEGIS and Zephyr Workshop are building momentum.

Courtesy Zephyr Workshop / Breeze Grigas

“AEGIS” and Zephyr Workshop are building momentum.

Grigas drew ideas for these games from his own childhood, citing his love of giant robot anime and strategy games as his sources of inspiration.

“I grew up watching nothing but ‘Power Rangers’ and ‘Voltron.’ That’s pretty much been my life, just watching giant robot anime.”

So Grigas studied at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton for programming, and then later drafting/CAD (computer-aided design), an experience which helped define his future path as a game designer.

“I intended to make games or do something similarly creative going into high school, and going to a high school that let me explore different professions rather than normal classes really helped me out.”

Local Business Spotlight: Ryan Canuel and Petricore love it when a plan comes together

If you noticed a change in the air — call it a more of a playful wind — beginning in May 2015, you can thank Petricore, a versatile tech sector startup centered on game design and app development comprised of Becker College students, and bolstered by advisors from the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI).

Turns out the young firm’s young co-founder and CEO, Ryan Canuel, might just be a force of nature. And nobody is more surprised than him.

Since its launch, Petricore strove to embody its tagline, “the smell of great games,” through developing games, apps and software that have permeated the United States and overseas.

In the same month as Petricore’s first anniversary, Canuel, a 2015 Becker graduate, was named the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year, an award he said he accepted with humility and gratitude toward his team.

From left, Christina Andriano, James Spavold, Chris Bruno and Oliver Awat join Petricore CEO Ryan Canuel in accepting his award for being the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year.

Courtesy of MassDiGI

From left, Christina Andriano, James Spavold, Chris Bruno and Oliver Awat join Petricore CEO Ryan Canuel in accepting his award for being the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year.

“I was definitely shocked when I heard,” Canuel said during a recent interview at his 20 Franklin St. office. “There are definitely times where you stop and you ask, ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’ ”

Indeed, sometimes the world can seem to be made of only obstacles. But with the right combination of self-awareness, humor and perseverance, Petricore sustained itself during those critical and unpredictable months of small-business infancy.

More practically speaking, it was the contract from an app they developed for anonymous patient feedback on interactions with surgeons, Mentorathand, that buoyed the company financially early on as it branched out

“Ryan has spent the last few years making all the right moves,” MassDiGI executive director Tim Loew said. “We’re proud of him and how his team’s grown.”