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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thomas

Meet Swift Tenants

Chef Walt's Kitchen is Up, Running and Thriving!

The culinary arts use varied ingredients, spices and techniques as the ultimate creative expression through cooking. But, Chef Walter (“Chef Walt”) Little says, though all of that goes down in his kitchen, it goes far beyond the kitchen for him; food is power.

“I want these young people to know that cooking is a great way out. If you love to cook, it is a great way to build a good life for yourself. It doesn’t take a lot to get started,” Little said. “But, it does take a lot to keep it going. You gotta have hustle,” he added.

Early on in life, Little learned the universal power of good food. He was a mere child when he began cooking for his little brother while his mother was away on deployment with the National Guard. “I remember I felt important being able to support my mother and brother that way,” he said. “I realized that cooking was a powerful tool and I could use it to make a way for myself.”

In 1988, the 16 year old Hartford High School student did what many teens did back then. He walked from his family’s Niles Street apartment to downtown Hartford’s fine dining establishments seeking a dishwashing job. “Everybody was desperate for work. And, dishwashing was the way we got in. It’s still the best way for new cooks to learn their way around a kitchen,” Little said.

Little got his first break at Gaetano’s Restaurant, a fine dining establishment owned by the Carbone Group and moved up the kitchen ladder rung by rung; starting in the dishwashing station, becoming a prep cook and then a line cook in quick succession. He then went on to be part of the crew that opened Hot Tomatoes at Union Station.

Little shared some advice for young people looking to get into the business. “Get in there and see what it is all about. It’s tough work. Work at a couple of places. Go to school if you can. I went to school years after I began cooking and I learned a lot,” he said.

In the late 1990’s, Little was learning a different set of lessons. His life was changed by a series of bad decisions. He was incarcerated. He went to prison as an experienced cook, but had no way of knowing he would earn the title “Chef” in prison. Because, he had no way of knowing that prison had a thriving underground culinary market.

Through purchasing items from the prison commissary, prison dormitory cooks engage in an endless cooperative effort to secure the basic building blocks of cooking; salt, fat, acid and heat. Transactions are based on the going rate for a pack of Ramen noodles (a quarter). So if a Mofongo costs $2.00, then that would be 8 packs of Ramen as payment.

“We would coordinate what we each would buy to complete our menu. To get salt and spice, we used the flavor packets from Ramen Noodles. To get fat, we used potato chips or we would drain the oil out of our packs of mackerel. We used saltine crackers as flour and to bind ingredients. And, the microwave was our source of heat.”

According to Little, being a dormitory chef taught him the extreme improvisation and creativity he continues to use. Little said he built quite a reputation that follows him up to Swift’s curbside pickup to this day. And, in prison, his understanding of the power of food deepened.

“Prison was scary when I first went. But, when they started calling me chef and put me in charge of the dorm microwave, I knew nobody was going to touch me. I was Chef,” Little said. The consummate hustler, Little soon took dormitory cooking to a whole new level. He got into prison catering.

“We catered a birthday party that was celebrated by our whole dorm. Imagine feeding 130 guys with a small microwave. We even made food bowls out of oatmeal boxes lined with cut up garbage bags. It was a big event.”

Little got out of prison in 2002 and took his experience back to fine dining. He got a job at Hopbrook Tavern in Simsbury where he refined his skills and found a mentor in Tavern Owner, Kurt Soukop. Under Soukop, Little moved to Simsbury where he lived and worked before doing another bid in 2006. It was then that he and a few close friends had an epiphany.

“I was running out in the yard and my hands went up above my head and a feeling came over me. I was surrendering. I was giving it all to God,” Little recounted. “I knew I was done living that life.” Little said fellow inmates went through similar experiences. “God had his season in there with us. My friend Mel was in there doing a 45 year bid. He served 10 more years in the same cubical we stayed in after I went home. Recently he got out after serving over 30 years. He’s living his best life, going to church and being a productive member of society. He even comes and checks on me here,” Little said.

Little came home in 2010 and never looked back. In 2013, he approached the owner of Rupert’s Gas Station on Albany Avenue with his menu. “He looked at me and laughed, saying the people around here won’t eat that,” Little said.

He went on to open Classic Catering and Deli, serving wraps, sandwiches and deli items. “That’s where I earned my reputation. People couldn’t believe I was serving food of that quality out of a gas station,” Little said. “Even my parole officer would come through to see what I was doing. He was amazed and supportive,” Little recounted.

He’s been hustling ever since. He expanded his menu to include pasta, rice and cooked items, so he had to move to the American Legion’s kitchen which has a ventilation hood. He wanted a place with more visibility, so he moved to the Jerk Pit. Today, he’s feeling like he’s found a home at Swift.

"Man, it's like I hit the Lotto here. They made it really easy. I'm in this kitchen killing it now and all I needed to secure this space was $200 and a handshake. And, look at this place, this is a state of the art facility. I'm in heaven," he said.

And, he’s not alone. He has brought his two employees to Swift with him—Chris and Mak. His Sous Chef, Mak, joined him while he was at Ruperts. “This kid came up to me asking for a job everyday until I gave him a job. He’s been in a few other kitchens and has returned with new ideas and skills. He’s the reason I am serving stir-fry combination dishes now,” Little said. “Man brought that back when he came back to me from P.F. Chang’s.”

With all of his varied life experiences and exposure to different ethnic cooking styles, Little embodies the culinary concept of fusion. And, its reflected in his menu. “I want to introduce new, healthy things for our people here to eat. I take ideas from everyone I’ve worked with and create new things. I’m here to show you that healthy food can be made in exciting ways,” Little said.

Chef Walt’s menu is expansive; offering everything from paninis to wraps, specialty sandwiches, fresh and fried seafood, full entrees, specialty burgers, wings, pastas, salads and even Jamaican cuisine. Come on out and support Black Business! You know you’re hungry!

Give Chef Walt a call at: 860.222.0951

Check out his menu below:

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