ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Isaac Plueger has gone from his Orange City roots to New York City without leaving the kitchen.
Plueger, 23, currently stars in a Mario Batali "How To" video about sharpening knives. Plueger, a sous chef at Batali's famous Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in New York City, is known as Babbo's "Knife Whisperer."
"Mario and his production crew starting doing 'How To' videos and they asked a fellow sous chef of mine to do one on sharpening knives," Plueger says. "He told them he wasn't as qualified as me."
Enter the Orange City native and one dull knife. The instrument springs to life in a couple of easy-to-follow steps.
Steps in getting to Babbo weren't so easy. Plueger began his kitchen career washing dishes for Blue Mountain Culinary Emporium in Orange City, about the time it opened. He soon moved up to prep cook and then line cook, learning under the leadership of Kirk Phillips, now of RED Steakhouse in downtown Vermillion.
That culinary flair followed Plueger to Storm Lake, Iowa, where he majored in pre-med at Buena Vista University. When he wasn't studying, he was working in the kitchen at Regatta Grille, part of King's Pointe Waterpark Resort on Storm Lake's east side.
"I worked 40 hours per week at Regatta Grille while I was a student at Buena Vista," Plueger says. "I enjoyed my time working there more than my time studying. I decided then that food was more of my career path."
Plueger gave up medicine and gained admission to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y. He ended his two-year course of study at C.I.A. with a five-month stint at Babbo in New York City. Upon graduating in October 2011, he was offered a job at Babbo, Batali's flagship restaurant.
A year later, he earned a promotion to sous chef.
Any brushes with greatness in the 85-seat fine dining establishment, one that requires reservations one month and one day in advance? Well, Plueger helped serve actress Jennifer Aniston on Tuesday night. Other recent guests include actors Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller. Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dined together at Babbo not long ago.
"I work 60 to 70 hours per week and it's very rewarding," said Plueger, a graduate of MOC-Floyd Valley High School in Orange City. "You know you are making people happy, giving them something they might not get in their kitchen. It's not just about the food, it's about the wine, the service and the whole dining experience."
As a sous chef, Plueger helps plate or present food. He also serves as a final inspector of sorts as food items leave the kitchen and make their way to diners.
As the youngest of Babbo's sous chefs, Plueger feels intimidated sometimes. And that's OK. That uneasy feeling serves to motivate; it gives him an edge.
"New York City is very competitive," he says. "There's always someone looking for your job. It makes you push harder, and makes you be the best cook you can be."
And, Mario, star of "The Chew," seen each afternoon on ABC? Is he a constant restaurant presence clad in his signature orange Crocs?
"I've spoken to Mario," Plueger says. "He's awesome. He's funny. he's nice. He's also very focused and certainly knows his priorities."
And, yes, Plueger says, the orange Crocs are very much the founder's favorite footwear.
"He wears the orange Crocs all the time," Plueger says with a laugh.