From fast-food grunt to triumphant truffler

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Chef John Suley’s resume doesn’t mention where his life in food started.

He was 14 and acting up the way teenagers do. His father, a lay missionary who surely knew the proverb about idle hands being the devil’s workshop, dropped him off at a Burger King near their home in Silver Spring, Md. Over his son’s protests, Suley’s dad said, “You’re going to work there; I talked to the manager.”

Suley recalls: “I started as a dishwasher and did everything you had to do.” Looking back on his year in fast food, he remembers lessons in multi-unit management and delivering consistency. He also learned about hospitality, and the importance of organization and managing “the rush.”

John-Suley2012---Action-1-EDITEDIt was all good prep for the route that took Suley to his current position as Royal Caribbean International’s vice president of food and beverage operations. “It sort of is the same thing at a different level,” he says. “You learn it’s about being disciplined.”

Before he was ready to oversee more than 265 restaurants aboard Royal Caribbean International’s 23 ships, Suley graduated from “the other CIA” – the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York; worked for and beside such culinary luminaries as Alfred Portale, Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay; and in such lofty venues as the Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria and St. Regis hotels. Along the way, he was recognized as an up-and-comer with nominations and awards by the world-renowned James Beard Foundation.

In 2011, while schmoozing guests at Portale’s Gotham Steak in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, Chef Suley caught the attention of diner Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, then senior VP of hotel operations for Celebrity Cruises, and now the cruiseline’s president and CEO. Next thing, Suley was hired as Celebrity’s executive chef, and served there until early 2015, when he was elevated to his current post.

If anything affirms Suley’s climb from fast-food dishwasher to the orchestrator of a symphony of culinary styles represented in 265 seaborne restaurants, it’s the trifola d’Alba Madonna – the white truffle. The lumpy, intensely aromatic fungus, available for only a couple of fall months in Italy’s Piedmont region, is one of the rarest, most coveted ingredients in the world, usually meted out as feathery shavings atop otherwise simple, savory dishes.

In 2014, competing against Michelin-starred chefs, Suley won two large white truffles at an annual auction in the Piedmont, and repeated the feat this year, bidding via a live feed from Anthem of the Seas during her New York debut. Bits of those prized gems did and will appear in special themed dinners on Royal Caribbean International ships.

While Suley is at the top of his game, running Royal Caribbean International’s restaurant empire, he is quick to credit the thousands of food professionals who deliver the best guest experience, day in and day out onboard 23 ships.

“In the end, you can’t do it by yourself,” Suley says. “You need an amazing team of people around you that are experts in their own right.”

“I just want things perfect. It’s not easy to do it at this volume. But if you strive for perfection, one day you’ll get there.”