From Burgers to Buffet to Fine Dining, Chef Josh Cooks up Food and Fun



Photography provided by Belterra Park Gaming

 

When guests at Belterra Park Gaming take a bite of Aunt Jean’s Ricotta Cheesecake, they can thank Josh Miragliotta’s aunt, who made it once a year, at Easter.

Shortly after Miragliotta joined Belterra Park as its executive chef in January 2016, one of its executives said they needed a good cheesecake. Miragliotta called his cousin for his aunt’s recipe, and she sent a picture of it. “Why? Because she has it framed, hanging on her wall.”

Family means a lot to Miragliotta. He grew up in a large Italian family that gathered every Sunday when he was a kid to share food and fun.

“Chef Josh,” as he’s known, credits his family – and especially his grandmothers – for his love of food that led to his career.

“They were two different styles of cooks,” he says. “My dad’s mom was Italian, so I had that good Italian food all the time. My mother’s mom was a little bit Italian, a little bit German-Irish, but an American mom. She specialized more in the American classics: meatloaf, fried chicken, good comfort food.”

Miragliotta oversees all culinary operations at Belterra Park. That includes five restaurants: Burger Brothers (fresh ground Angus beef), Favorites Steak & Pasta (full menu, white tablecloths), Market Buffet (variety of American and international cuisines), Nosh (sandwiches, pastries, various coffees) and Stadium Sports Bar & Grill (burgers, pizza and more; 50-plus HDTVs). In addition, he’s responsible for concession operations, banquets and a kitchen that feeds the horsemen “out back” at Belterra Park, which is home to a horse-racing track and more than 1,300 video-lottery terminals (slot machines).

He’s intimately involved in menu design, VIP functions, in-house functions and parties.

“Most executive chefs don’t get the opportunity to get back in the kitchen, where they started,” he says. “A lot of times, they lose touch with what’s going on, trends, and they can get swept away with the paperwork on the administrative side.”

He tries hard to stay close to his 200 culinary staffers: “Oftentimes, I’ll come in the kitchen and tell them to go on break and work their station for them. You can’t lose touch.”

Miragliotta, 39, grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, and attended the Academy of Culinary Arts, part of Atlantic Cape Community College in nearby Mays Landing. But he was already passionate about food and the kitchen.

“I’ve been in the kitchen (professionally) since I was 15,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever known. My parents instilled in me at an early age to get out there and work, and it’s helped me with my work ethic and character.”

Miragliotta started as a dishwasher at Pegasus Restaurant in Melaga, New Jersey, a family-owned Greek eatery established in 1984 that still exists.

“As I was washing dishes, I kept looking over at the line, and I would see these big guys – back then, you could smoke cigarettes in the kitchen – bandanas on, tattoos all over their bodies, burns going up and down their arms, and they’re cussing like sailors, and I’m looking over at them and thinking, ‘Wow – I wanna do that.’ So, I kept looking over and looking over, and finally, the chef said, ‘I need help cutting onions.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’ll cut onions.’

“I never really held a knife before. Next thing you know, I’m four or five cases deep in onions, I can’t even see, my eyes were soaking wet. So, I started cutting onions, then I’m doing celery, then I did carrots. Then they moved me to the salad station. At the time, at 15, I’m like, wow, my career is really flourishing” after three months on the job.

After success in salad-making, there was a call out on the line one day on broiler station, he says. “It’s a two-man station, and the chef at the time said, ‘I need you on the broiler.’ So, I said sure, I’ll do it. Never worked a broiler a day in my life. I jumped in the line, and I was training with another guy who was very, very good – spoke broken English – so I worked next to him, and the chef came over and saw how I was doing, and he said you’re going to be by yourself. If a steak comes back, you’re going back to the salad station.”

Talk about pressure. “I kept cooking, cooking, cooking, and I was there for another year and a half on the broiler.”

Industrial broilers have fire, heat from the bottom and from the top. “The broiler is a very special place for me. It’s the hottest place in the kitchen.”

Years before that first job, he was helping his dad’s mother in her kitchen at about 7 or 8 years old, standing on an upside-down stockpot.

“I would say, ‘Nonna – that’s Italian for grandma – you’re not measuring anything.’ She’d say, ‘No, no, handful of this, pinch of that, handful of that, half a handful of that.”

She died before he went to college, and his father – who told him “she would be so proud of the life that you chose” – gave him her recipes.

“I’m looking at the recipes, and, wouldn’t you know it, ‘handful of this, pinch of that,’ and I’m trying to remember, how big were her hands?”

The tomato sauce that Miragliotta uses at Favorites is his grandmother’s recipe, as well as the ricotta cheese dumpling pasta. “And we actually use the machine that was hers.”

Miragliotta learned corporate culture at the Marriott hospitality company, working at various properties. He then started in gaming-industry restaurants at Caesar’s Entertainment’s Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel & Casino near Louisville. He then worked in Atlantic City before taking his current position.

“I jumped at the chance,” he says. “I always have fallen in love with the people in the Midwest. The culture. I knew the food. I knew what the people wanted. I felt comfortable.”

Belterra is owned by Pinnacle Entertainment, and Miragliotta says the CEO, Anthony M. Sanfilippo, is “very adamant about food being a weapon in the market. If we can offer the best quality, the best product, the best service, the rest will take care of itself.”

Belterra’s restaurants sometimes serve 3,000 to 4,000 meals a day.

“The key to success as an executive chef in a corporate environment is to have good balance,” he says. “You really have to set your day up for success, be on the floor when you need to be, be in the kitchen when you need to be. Our guests are here to have fun. I preach it to my team: You have to have fun.”

Chef Josh loves talking to guests as he makes his way from restaurant to restaurant. Many of them return again and again for the racing and the gaming.

“A lot of the guests know me by name, and I know them by name,” he says. Just like family.

Belterra Park Gaming is located at 6301 Kellogg Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45230. For more information, call 513.232.8000 or visit belterrapark.com.